Pakistan’s Army Heads into the Belly of the Beast

Here’s a link to my latest blog post at ForeignPolicy.com’s Af-Pak Channel. It’s on the Pakistan Army’s upcoming ground operations in South Waziristan.

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Pakistan’s Counterinsurgency After Baitullah: Move Forward, But Not Too Fast

Almost two weeks after the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan continues to have an upper hand over the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  But Rawalpindi-Islamabad’s gains over the TTP are unconsolidated.  The Pakistani Taliban network can rejuvenate itself.  Pakistan needs to sustain its vigilance against the militants, while at the same time not drag itself into a full-fledged conflict in South Waziristan it is not ready for.

Pakistan has managed to:

  • secure its major urban areas outside the Pashtun belt, and, to a large extent, Peshawar, from militant attacks.  There has been no equivalent of the Manawan police academy or ISI office attacks in Lahore or the Pearl Continental attack in Peshawar.
  • cleanse the Malakand division of militants (though not completely — see below) to the extent that much of the internally displaced population is returning home and willing to facilitate policing efforts to prevent a Taliban return.
  • increase approval of the Pakistan Army in the Malakand division, despite the fact that it hasn’t followed a COINdinista Network Approved Strategy (CNAS).
  • continue to penetrate terrorist cells and apprehend key facilitators, funders, and trained suicide bombers.
  • push the militant leadership into the North-South Waziristan corridor.
  • fracture the TTP leadership, or at least create the perception that it is in “disarray.”
  • put the Mehsud network — and anti-state takfiri terrorists, in general — on the defensive, both physically and ideologically.
  • maintain pressure on TTP remnants in Bajaur, Khyber, Mohmand, and Orakzai.  Note that there hasn’t been an attack on a NATO convoy in Pakistan recently.
  • transfer the Pashtun “hot potato” on to the United States.

This success is due to:

  • the use of air power against militants in the Malakand division and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that, while causing significant civilian casualties, neither turned the local population against the central government nor strained the manpower of the Pakistani security services.
  • a commitment to keep a large military presence in Swat for the next few years.
  • a sustained counterpropaganda campaign utilizing the private media and religious scholars, particularly Barelvis.
  • a clever psy-ops campaign against the TTP.
  • a whole-hearted embrace of its fallen soldiers, with public funerals made accessible to the media.
  • excellent investigative and police work done by the federal interior ministry down to the provincial police forces.
  • the decision by the Obama administration to focus drone attacks against the Baitullah Mehsud network.

The TTP has failed to:

  • prove that Baitullah Mehsud is alive.  Hakimullah Mehsud, who appears to be living, promised a Baitullah video by last Monday, but it never appeared.
  • demonstrate leadership continuity by appointing a successor to Baitullah.
  • counter Pakistan Army claims that there was a clash between Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud by having the two agree on a Baitullah successor or, somehow, publicly prove they are on the same page.
  • show that it remains a force to be reckoned with by pulling off a major attack in Islamabad, Peshawar, or urban Punjab.
  • legitimize (or re-legitimize) its insurgency and campaign of terror in the eyes of the Pakistani public by linking it to Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Despite the Pakistan military’s gains against the TTP, the terrorist outfit’s senior leadership — aside from Baitullah — remains alive.  Commanders such as Faqir Muhammad and Hakimullah Mehsud are around.  But their continued existence does not preclude a disassembly of the TTP.  Afterall, it is an umbrella organization.  Disassembly would require the commanders to no longer share the same threat: the Pakistan military-intelligence establishment.  And that would require an undesirable return to a messy policy of Rawalpindi sorting out the bad guys from the less bad guys (i.e. “good” vs. “bad” Taliban).

For the Pakistan Army, South Waziristan remains the belly of the beast.  Its unforgiving land is the home of the Mehsud network as well as a host of Pakistani and foreign jihadi groups.

But, for many reasons, the Pakistan Army cannot afford a ground incursion into South Waziristan:

  • Its gains in the Malakand Division have yet to be consolidated and the troops there must remain.  Militant attacks in the North-West Frontier Province have risen in the past week.  Today, a suicide bomber struck a gas station in Charsadda, killing at least seven.  And in the past week, there have been two suicide bombings in Swat.  The most recent one occurred in Mingora, where Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is scheduled to visit on today.  These events suggest the possibility that the Taliban could pop up again amidst a returning displaced population.  A recent Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) briefing with the New York Times indicated that the Pakistan Army won’t move any additional troops from the border with India.  So Swat will utilize the Pakistan Army’s only ‘extra’ manpower.
  • It lacks the public support necessary for a sustained and costly battle there. While more Pakistanis support the fight against militants now than ever, the supporters do not constitute a commanding majority; and even among the supporters for the war, there is a high preference for peace talks.  The fight in the Malakand division was a cakewalk compared to what the Pakistan Army would face in South Waziristan.  Public support for a prolonged South Waziristan ground campaign would collapse quickly.
  • It does not have the support of the Mehsud tribe.  A Mehsud tribal leader, while visiting Islamabad, referred to Baitullah as a “shaheed” or martyr.  His tribe has yet to revolt against the Mehsud terror network, despite the Pakistani security services’ prodding.  I sensed that the tribal leader lacked trust with the military-intelligence establishment.  If his tribe stood up against the Mehsud network, only to have the Pakistan Army make a peace deal with the group, the tribal leaders who had supported the army could be targeted by the terror group.  Presently, the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment has been playing a bit of hardball with the Mehsuds by using the rival South Waziristan Bhittani tribe against them.  But, according to some reports, the Bhittanis have killed regular Mehsud tribesmen.  And some fear a new problem, a Bhittani-Mehsud tribal war, could emerge.  While there is merit to the idea of converting the Mehsuds with a bit of hard power, overdoing it could harden their resolve.  The Mehsud tribe needs to know that the Pakistan Army will have its back if it turns against Baitullah’s network and that there are costs to supporting the TTP and rewards from opposing it.
  • It has hostile forces to the Mehsud country’s north, where the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group continues to engage in suicide attacks against Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan.  A jihadi video from this summer indicates that at least one suicide bomber was an Uzbek.  Was the Uzbek with Bahadur or borrowed from Baitullah?
  • It potentially also has hostile forces to the Mehsud country’s west.  A peace deal with Maulvi Nazir, an Ahmedzai Wazir in South Waziristan, was thought to have helped contain Baitullah Mehsud and challenge irredentist Uzbek militants.  But U.S. drone attacks and possibly the encouragement of al-Qaeda pushed the militant against the Pakistani establishment.  Nazir appeared on an al-Sahab (al-Qaeda’s media arm) video damning the Pakistani state (for, among other things, its Macaulay-originated education system).   A pro-government tribal leader was recently killed in his network’s vicinity.  However, Nazir’s conflagrations with the Pakistani security forces have been limited, as compared to Gul Bahadur’s.  And, in a curious press report, he is said to have been killed on Monday in a supposed clash with Baitullah’s network.  The Mehsud network denied taking part in the battle; it is certainly possible that the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment eliminated Nazir and, neither wanting conflict with the Ahmedzai Wazirs nor wishing Wazir-Mehsud unity, sought to blame the Mehsud network instead.   It also remains possible that Nazir’s group could have really been attacked by the Mehsuds, but I am skeptical.  And Nazir still could be alive.

So, rather than being triangulated by the Ahmedzai Wazirs, Utmanzai Wazirs, and the Mehsuds, the Pakistan Army seems to be making economical use of its resources by not heightening hostilities with each tribe’s militant network at once.  The Mehsud network is the declared public enemy, while Gul Bahadur can be countered under the pretenses of ‘reluctance’ and Nazir can, possibly, be targeted through covert methods that offer deniability.  Pakistani air power and local paramilitary and army forces can continue pressure on the Mehsud network and Gul Bahadur’s group (under the cover of “retaliation”), and American drone attacks can target all three groups.  This would soften up the rough terrain of South Waziristan, weaken its jihadi infrastructure, and increase coherence in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

But, in the end, all this talk of the various Pakistani Taliban groups begets the question: whither the Haqqani network?  Does going against any or all of the jihadi three in Waziristan mean a conflict between the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and the Haqqani network is guaranteed, if it hasn’t begun already?

This is where things get the shadiest.  How can the Haqqani network have ties to the ISI, the Baitullah Mehsud network, and al-Qaeda at the same time?  The enemy of my enemy is, perhaps, my friend; the friend of my friend can be my friend; but can the friend of my enemy be my friend?  Perhaps if the friend of my enemy is also the enemy of another enemy of mine.  But is that enough glue to hold ‘friends’ together?   The puzzle would be easier to solve if it became clear that Maulvi Sangeen — presently, the major linkage between the Haqqani and Mehsud networks — is a bit of a renegade.  It also helps to remember that jihadi groups are prone to insubordination and splintering; in fact, there have been instances in which the elimination or arrest of Taliban commanders was ‘facilitated’ by the parent group.  So, there is always more than meets the eye.

If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Rawalpindi not parting ways with the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar.  Any future political resolution in Afghanistan will involve re-balancing the ethnic power distribution there, with a re-tilt toward the Pashtuns.  The Haqqanis, Mullah Omar, and to some extent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are Pakistan’s only Pashtun cards to play.  And everyone — the Germans, the Turks, the Indians, the Brits, the Iranians, the Americans, and hell, probably even the Polish — all have, want, and need cards to play in Afghanistan.  Let’s not be naive about Afghan independence.  It is a penetrated state; its penetration is guaranteed by the fact that it is landlocked, surrounded by middle and emerging global powers, host to a north Atlantic alliance that has found itself in the middle of Central Asia (dangerously in Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, and Russian strategic space), home to Pashtuns and Tajiks who will ally with a foreigner to mercilessly combat one another, and a possible transit route for a number of energy pipelines in a post-peak oil, post-Chinese riding bicycles to work world.

I think a quid pro quo in the form of Baitullah for the Haqqanis and/or Mullah Omar is not probable.  Washington took out Baitullah, but he was a bigger threat to Pakistan than he was to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Now that Rawalpindi got what it wanted, what will guarantee it reciprocating through giving up the Haqqanis and/or Mullah Omar?

Baitullah, in a loose sense, served as leverage over Pakistan.  But now he and that leverage are gone.  At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition is increasingly vulnerable as it faces an uphill battle in Afghanistan.  Days before national elections, the Afghan capital of Kabul was struck by a SVBIED with approximately 1,000 pounds of explosives.  The suicide bomber managed to penetrate the most secure area of Kabul.  The attack was a public relations coup for the Taliban, which managed to strike near the local seat of the world’s most powerful collective security alliance, led by world’s sole superpower, with a security blimp watching from the sky.

Assuming the elections turn out fine (reasonable turnout, especially among Pashtuns, no major claims of rigging, and a Karzai victory), Afghanistan remains a challenged country.  American operations in Helmand are moving slow.  Meanwhile, the Taliban are making major gains in Kandahar and areas outside the Pashtun provinces.  General Stanley McCrystal’s surrogates, i.e. those who served on his review committee, are hitting the airwaves and op-ed pages calling for a significant troop increase.  But the Obama administration remains conflicted.  National Security Advisor Jim Jones is dead against any new commitment of additional troops.  Vice President Joe Biden also seems to be extremely cold to the idea. A majority of Americans do not approve of the war in Afghanistan (though this can certainly change).  The “good war” isn’t as good as it once was.  Add to that the fact that COINdinista-style wars are expensive, while American tolerance for deficit spending has evaporated.

Washington has increasingly made clear that it is willing to negotiate with elements of the Afghan Taliban (save for the senior leadership), as long as they commit to some behavioral change (e.g. disarming and accepting the Afghan constitution).  Theoretically, it’s a perfect formula.  But in reality, it’s somewhat dangerous.  Negotiations, in the Washington consensus, are contingent upon the United States breaking the present stalemate and gaining an upper hand.  But what if the U.S.-led coalition never gains an upper hand?  Will it continue to walk into the quicksand?  This is a critical question that need to be addressed before it’s too late.

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Who is the English-Speaking Guy in the U.S. Soldier Hostage Video?

Watching the video of Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, held hostage by the Haqqani network, I was shocked to hear a man in the background speaking what appears to be British-accented English. The man asks Bergdahl (at 1:25), “Any message to your people?”

So who is this mystery man? Among the possibilities: a Pakistani or Afghan-born militant educated in Britain or an English-medium school in his home country; a Brit of Pakistani or Afghan descent; or a British convert to Islam.

My initial speculation was that the voice could be of Rashid Rauf, the British-Pakistani militant who was said to have been killed in a drone strike last year in North Waziristan. But Salman Masood of the New York Times, who met Rauf when the latter was on trial in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, tells me that it’s unlikely that the voice is Rauf’s.

Update: I’m viewing the full, 28-minute video and it’s clear that the person is an Afghan or a Pakistani Pashtun. His Pashto/Afghan accent slipped once or twice in the first few minutes of the full video, which was not apparent in the ABC News excerpt. The person, however, is fluent in English, and not an illiterate guy from the village. Could be an Afghan or Pakistani Pashtun who has lived in the UK.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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