Finally, it’s all-out war against the Taliban in Pakistan.
While the world’s attention was focused on the conflict in Georgia, Pakistan’s military launched a full-scale assault against the Pakistani Taliban. With former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf now out of the way, Pakistan’s new military chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, wasted little time in sending the army in force against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban’s proper name).
For the Bush administration, the offensive fulfills a long-desired American objective to eradicate the Taliban and al Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s tribal regions. These rear areas provide major support for the enemy in the Afghan war, and it is hoped their destruction will substantially reduce that conflict’s intensity, if not end it.
The severity of the fighting and the government’s success can be judged by the fact the Pakistani Taliban has been “routed” in the Bajaur tribal agency, a Taliban-al Qaeda stronghold. The Pakistan army reported killing more than five hundred Taliban combatants while another 3,000 have fled into Afghanistan and 300,000 civilians have become refugees. Government forces almost nearly captured Ayman al Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command. On the army side, 20 soldiers are dead with another 50 missing.
Suffering setbacks, the Taliban had asked for a ceasefire, which the government, to its credit, rejected. Reflecting the new attitude in a post-Musharraf Pakistan towards Islamist militancy, the Pakistani government says it will not negotiate with the Tehrik-i-Taliban until it lays down its weapons.
“Militants must surrender,” said a government spokesman. “The writ of the government will be enforced across the country.”
Like the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban is unable to stand up to the training and weaponry of a modern army, so it has resorted to guerrilla–style attacks and suicide bombings of military targets inside Pakistan. But such suicide attacks, as occurred last month at a military factory complex near Islamabad that killed dozens of people, only resulted in the Pakistani government banning the Tehrik-i-Taliban outright.
The Pakistani government’s tough line of action is, like the military offensive, long overdue.
Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda supporters were destabilizing the country, spreading their dangerous brand of Islam from the tribal areas, where they had taken over North and South Waziristan. Moreover, one Pakistani observer noted Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is now almost entirely “in the hands of militants.” But the Pakistani Taliban’s efforts to undermine the state were most effectively felt last fall when its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, claimed responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
The US military appears very satisfied with the recent offensive into the enemy’s sanctuaries. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said the military relationship with Pakistan is “growing every day.” Last week, a meeting was held on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean between General Kiyani and Admiral Mullen and other top American generals.
“I came away from the meeting very encouraged that the focus is where it needs to be…,” said Mullen.
The reason for the long delay in taking the fight into enemy territory was former Pakistani president Pervez Musharaf, who resigned under threat of impeachment last August 18. Until last November, Musharraf was also the Pakistani military’s commander-in-chief. In contrast to Kiyani, he adopted a frustrating, hot-and-cold attitude to battling the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Even Musharaff’s commitment to the War on Terror was questionable. Only six days after 9/11, Musharraf was noted saying in a television interview: “We are trying our very best to come out of this critical situation without any damage to Afghanistan and the Taliban.”
In reality, Musharaff was never America’s staunch ally in the terror war, as the media portrayed him after his resignation. Unlike the United States and its allies, Musharraf never regarded the Taliban and al Qaeda as enemies of civilization that had to be destroyed, but rather as tools to be used in Pakistan’s showdown with its arch-enemy, India.
And it is Pakistan’s ongoing conflict with India, with whom it has fought three wars, which dominated Musharraf’s thinking and actions as well as his relationship with America while in office. In her book Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan, Mary Anne Weaver wrote Musharraf, whom she interviewed, spent his “entire adult life battling India.”
Musharraf served in two losing wars against India, defeats he felt very deeply. He was also blamed for nearly starting another in 1999 with the Kargil conflict. A colleague also said Musharraf would become “a hardline table-thumper” whenever India and Kashmir were mentioned.
But this hardline table-thumping never appeared against the Taliban, whether Afghan or Pakistani, since rather than destroy the Taliban, Musharraf wanted to preserve it. He envisioned using its jihadists directly against the Hindu foe in the next war and also against any Indian attempts to surround Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan had used Islamic fighters from its tribal regions in its 1947 war against India when, led by Pakistani army officers, the tribesmen almost conquered Kashmir.
As a result of his anti-India war strategy, Musharraf refused all American requests to allow its military to launch operations in its tribal agencies. He himself undertook only lukewarm measures against the Taliban, sufficient enough to justify the ten billion dollars he received in American aid the last eight years, most of which went to Pakistan’s military (his anti-Taliban “offensive” last June, for example, for which he got four F-16 warplanes, saw only four arrests and no one killed).
Musharraf also did nothing to curb Islamic extremism or the madrassas that were teaching hate-filled doctrines and producing fighters for the Afghan conflict (and, hopefully, for a future war with India). Weaver wrote that Musharraf’s responses on extremist issues were “unforthcoming, even misleading at times”, while the Human rights Commission of Pakistan called him “a silent spectator in the rise of the orthodox clergy and militant Islam.”
Under General Kiyani, however, it now appears the war will be prosecuted the way it should have been for years. A graduate of America’s General Staff College in Kansas, Kiyani has ordered a cease fire during Ramadan. Continued forceful actions against the Taliban-al Qaeda axis and the extremist madrassas after the Muslim holy month will demonstrate he is the Pakistani ally America has long been seeking. His first impression, in this respect, has been a good one.