Increased Taliban unity threatens Pakistan [Archives:2008/1170/Reportage]

July 7 2008

Shaheen Buneri
The Media Line

Social and political forces are bringing the various factions within the Taliban close together. This newfound unity makes the Taliban an even more potent force on either side of the Pakistani-Afghan border. The Media Line's Shaheen Buneri reports from the frontier.

The ever-increasing influence of pro-Al-Qa'ida Taliban groups is forcing Pakistan authorities to re-think its policy of reconciliation and devise a more comprehensive mechanism to deal with the militancy that is now threatening Pakistan's settled districts after sweeping the tribal belt along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Reports say that Taliban activity is not restricted to the lawless tribal belt, and the government's conciliatory approach has emboldened them to strengthen their support bases in the large cities of the violence-prone south Asian country.

The strong wave of Talibanization that has spread from the South Waziristan Tribal Agency has gradually engulfed the adjoining tribal agencies and has reached the Swat, Charsada, Mardan and Nowshera districts in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Starting with a social reform agenda by settling civil disputes and providing speedy justice through their Shari'a courts, Taliban groups have now begun targeting political leaders, civil society workers and rival religious groups, and have established parallel governments in the border areas.

Political analysts believe that government complacency and lack of political will at the center is responsible for the rising tide of militancy.

“We thought that [Taliban] operations were restricted to the tribal region; now they are knocking on our doors,” Brigadier Mehmod Shah, former Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) security chief observes.

Official sources say the newly elected government that formed in March, after a coalition of political parties defeated the pro-Musharraf party and a politico-religious alliance in NWFP, is now seriously thinking of reversing the much touted peace process and is planning a more comprehensive and realistic strategy to deal with militancy.

Pakistan Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani said on Monday that the government would ensure its control in tribal areas at all costs.

Gilani said the provincial government had struck a peace deal with tribal chieftains three months ago, but the latter violated the agreement by resorting to hanging people publicly, kidnapping minority citizens and setting ablaze girls' schools.

“No government can afford a parallel government and we will never compromise the country's sovereignty, dignity and self-respect,” he added.

Critics argue that the lack of a unified and consistent policy at the center, links of certain officials with armed groups, demoralized law enforcement agencies, the United States' presence in neighboring Afghanistan, unemployment and poor health and educational facilities in the tribal belt are the main reasons behind the escalating tide of extremism.

“It will take a lot of time, focus and energy to curb militancy in Pakistan,” says Syed Irfan Ashraf, a Peshawar-based analyst. “Earlier, the Taliban were divided into small groups; now they have a well-organized and coherent structure. Their ideological bond makes them stronger as compared to Pakistan's embattled security forces.”

U.S. authorities and NATO generals in Afghanistan have expressed their concern over growing violence in Afghanistan and say that Pakistan's tribal areas have become safe havens for pro-Al-Qa'ida Taliban groups.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity told a regular news conference in Kabul on Sunday that, “We know that as long as the insurgents operate safely on the Pakistan side of the border, there cannot be security in Afghanistan.”

Since 2001, when U.S.-led forces dismantled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Taliban groups developed strong relationships with insurgent groups across the border.

Ethnicity plays a pivotal role in strengthening Taliban support bases in Pakistan's tribal region.

Sami Yousafzai, a senior Afghan analyst, observes that it is routine for the Taliban to cross the border and launch operations against U.S. and Pakistan interests.

“It is wrong to think that [the Taliban] only operate in the far-flung rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan; they are everywhere in different shapes and groups to pursue their agenda,” he adds.

Pakistan has been applying a range of strategies to defeat militancy since President General Parvez Musharaff allied with the United States in its war against terror in 2001, but almost all of them failed to achieve the desired result.

More than 80,000 Pakistan security forces in Pakistan's FATA and 25,000 more in the Swat Valley of North West Pakistan have further complicated the issue.

The Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) government in NWFP signed a peace agreement with militants in Swat Valley on May 21 to bring peace to the idyllic region. The agreement restored normalcy somewhat, but also provided breathing space for the militants to re-group and strengthen their position.

Locals say the government failed to follow up on the agreement to deploy police and security forces in the restless valley and to regain areas lost to the militants.

“They think signing peace agreements will magically change the situation. They are blind to the realities,” Usman Shah, a resident of Mingora Swat says.

The recent U.S. aerial bombing in Mohmand, Bajaur and Waziristan tribal agencies of Pakistan have been viewed by the local tribes as attacks on the country's sovereignty. This fans anti-Americanism and the Taliban are there to exploit it to win more support from the local population.

The U.S. should also consider that bombing Pakistani areas is not the only option, say locals. First it should work on building its good image and launch developmental projects for the people who have suffered both Taliban violence and military operations by the Pakistan government.