“Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country (Waziristan) from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start the machine.”
- Lord Curzon
What Lord Curzon, Britain’s viceroy in India from 1899-1905, discerned more than one hundred years ago, the Pakistani government is discovering today, as the fallout from its assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad last week spreads to Pakistan’s lawless, tribal North-West Frontier Province, where a military showdown with the country’s Islamic extremist movement is taking shape. The mountainous Pakistani province includes the Taliban strongholds of North and South Waziristan, which al-Qaeda calls home and Western intelligence agencies call Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
The Red Mosque, described as the Taliban’s “ideological heartland”, was closely connected with that radical religious group and other Islamist militias in the NWFP. The Islamabad mosque supplied the Taliban with money and recruits from its madrassa (religious school) system to fight the NATO troops in Afghanistan, while the two brothers who ran the extremist religious institution called for jihad and Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
In retaliation for the Red Mosque’s violent closure last week, twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack on Saturday in the NWFP, while about 50 other people, including three Chinese nationals, also perished violently there since the beginning of the siege. Further strikes brought the death count of soldiers over the weekend alone to 60. The Taliban and supportive tribes have also renounced their peace deal with the Pakistani government, which exercises little authority in this province, where 20,000 tribesmen with rifles were reported to have staged an anti-government demonstration.
In addition, a local, radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah who is described as the head of the outlawed, Taliban-allied Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law) in the NWFP’s Swat district has called for his men to prepare for jihad. Fazlullah has been called “Maulana Radio” since he gets his radical messages out via 107 small, illegal F M radio stations, according to Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. TNSM fighters have already closed roads into the Swat region and seized the important Karakoram highway, part of the ancient Silk Road, which is Pakistan’s main transportation connection with China.
In response to the deteriorating situation in the NWFP, the Pakistani government has sent thousands of troops with heavy artillery to the area where an offensive into the Swat Valley is expected any day. The Red Mosque’s closure was regarded as an important first step for any military action to be taken there. It not only eliminated the heart of the Islamic extremism movement in Pakistan, but also destroyed a powerful center of resistance to the army’s coming campaign. In 2004, the Red Mosque helped undermine the army’s offensive against al-Qaeda in Waziristan when the two sibling leaders issued a ‘fatwa’ (religious decree), calling on people not to say prayers for dead army soldiers or bury them in Muslim graveyards.
American military forces in Afghanistan are expected to take part in the effort to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in the NWFP. Shahzad says a secret agreement has already been reached to allow American troops to launch ‘hot pursuits’ into Pakistan against Taliban fighters, and American warplanes and intelligence assets will undoubtedly be utilized. NATO intelligence, Shahzad says, has pinpointed four Taliban bases in Waziristan, from which attacks against its troops are organized and launched, that it wants taken out.
Shahzad also reports that American forces are currently building a base on a mountaintop at Ghaki Pass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which the jihadists have already unsuccessfully attacked to prevent construction. The purpose of the base is to supplement aerial surveillance and prepare for incursions into Taliban territory.
America has given Pakistan about one billion dollars annually since 2001 to fight the War on Terror and was dissatisfied with the results as regards the Taliban. Analysts maintain Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, was playing a double game regarding militant Islamic extremists in his country. While Pakistan had handed over about 600 Arab Islamists, among them many al-Qaeda members, to the United States since 9/11, it left the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban virtually untouched, and even covertly supported it against NATO in Afghanistan. The reason for this, these analysts say, is that Pakistan wanted to reestablish a presence in Afghanistan via the Taliban to counter the India-friendly Kabul government.
While America’s reported threatening to withdraw its support for Musharraf for his non-action against the Taliban may finally have gotten him to react, others believe the increasing size and strength of the radical Islamic movement in Pakistan, which worried the country’s establishment, were also instrumental in the crackdown. But just as instrumental in the Pakistani government’s launching its long-delayed offensive against the Taliban in the NWFP was its concern about its relationship with its all-important ally, China, which the jihadists may have been deliberately undermining.
The occupation of the Karakoram highway indicates this. A huge free trade agreement between China and Pakistan came into effect earlier this month, of which this transportation route is an important piece. According to a Pakistani development analyst, the Pakistani government plans to spend $300 million to expand the highway and develop other transportation routes with western China and the Central Asian countries, so that they can “not only access the Pakistani market, but also reach out to the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Europe, etc through Gwadar Port in southwestern Pakistan.” Such vastly important projects affecting Pakistan’s economic future would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with thousands of armed, anti-government jihadists in the area.
Just as important, Pakistan regards China as its most important ally in its rivalry with India that has seen the two countries fight three wars in almost sixty years. One journalist noted that the government’s tolerance and attitude towards the Red Mosque’s numerous acts of civil disobedience and defiance changed when its activists kidnapped six Chinese women in late May and accused them of being prostitutes. The Chinese government, apparently, was not amused. It was probably even less amused when three Chinese nationals were murdered in the NWFP in response to the Red Mosque siege.
Nevertheless, a military offensive into the NWFP will be very difficult and very costly. The mountainous terrain in Waziristan is among the most demanding in the world for military campaigns and excellent for guerilla warfare, while its martial tribesmen, the Mahsuds and the Wazirs, are very formidable fighters. The British discovered this during the Raj when the Waziristan tribes wiped out a British brigade as late as the 1930s; and the British Army of India had to station more soldiers there just to keep the peace than in the rest of country altogether.
The tribesmen are very militarily skilled from constantly practicing warfare among themselves and in blood-feuds. Their code of honor, called ‘pukhtunwali’, noted one former Pakistani official, causes them to deliberately make non-economic and non-rational choices “in an attempt to uphold group honor, unity and loyalty”, so they will fight even against what appear to be the overwhelming power of a modern army.
The Wazirs and Mahsuds will regard the coming war against the Pakistani army and NATO as a jihad, in which they will fight as well as they did against the Soviets in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir in 1947. The Taliban and al-Qaeda jihadis are already inspired with their own Islamic fanaticism. Al-Qaeda also desires a big war with the Pakistani army, since it hopes to mobilize all of Pakistan to topple Musharraf, one its long-cherished goals. One report states al-Qaeda even regards the coming conflict as the beginning of the last battle before the end of time that the Prophet Mohammad predicted.
But, as the British showed, the tribes cannot resist, even on their own territory, a modern army that is willing to undertake a long, determined campaign. However, such a campaign will be very costly, as Lord Curzon rightly surmised, while at the same time correctly understanding there would never be any peace without one. But with Pakistan’s NWFP now serving as headquarters for worldwide jihad, it is no longer only a local peace that an American/Pakistani military steam-roller will ensure, but that of the rest of the world as well.