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Editorial: Taliban hit back in NWFP

Editorial: Taliban hit back in NWFP

Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the two car-bombings in the territory of the NWFP — as distinct from the tribal areas — on Saturday. Twenty people were killed and over a hundred wounded in Peshawar and Bannu in what the TTP called “operations after lying low since the amir’s [its chief Baitullah Mehsud] death last month” and to avenge the terrorists’ rout in Malakand. In Bannu a truck carrying 180 kg of explosives was used outside a police station, leaving behind a 12-foot wide crater. In Peshawar the suicide bomber took his 100 kg explosives in a car and blew it up in a crowded area housing banks, shops and a wedding hall on a road leading to the cantonment. While security in the province is generally tight, it cannot be made foolproof because that would require restricting movement to a point which would make impossible the lives of law-abiding citizens. There is thus always the danger of some terrorists slipping through the security cordons and mounting an attack.

The Taliban leader who spoke to the media after the attacks was Qari Hussain, famous for recruiting and preparing suicide-bombers. He belongs to the group headed by Hakimullah Mehsud, a commander who is supposed to have taken over the TTP after the death of the original chief, Baitullah Mehsud even though the government continues to claim that Hakimullah was killed in a shootout between two contesting factions following Baitullah’s death. TTP is clearly reacting against the success the Pakistan army has achieved in Malakand and BoldBajaur and the inroads it is making in South Waziristan, pretty close to where Qari Hussain’s faction is located. He is no doubt heading the biggest faction in the post-Baitullah period. He is headquartered in Orakzai but can operate strongly in Kurram and Khyber as well and represents the sectarian anti-Shia aspect of the TTP.

The latest incursion into the NWFP territory is supposed to be a message to the ANP government in Peshawar that the TTP is still strong and controls the cities of the province. Earlier, Khyber tribal agency was targeted with men grouped under the Al Qaeda label, Abdullah Azzam Brigade. Already under siege from local warlords, the lightly armed local khassadars literally ran away from the jobs after a warning from the TTP.

What however cannot be missed is the TTP’s realisation that they could be confronted with an army advancing into their strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The ANP leaders have spread the word that this attack is imminent. Clearly, the terrorists are on the run in the most populated two areas, Malakand and Bajaur. Local lashkars are becoming strong, while in Bajaur the Karlani-Salarzai tribe has openly come out against elements that facilitate attack sallies to and from Afghanistan.

The Pakistan army is exploiting its successes psychologically while not hurrying into an all-out ground attack in South Waziristan. It is acting more like a fox than a lion. Its success in Malakand has completely turned the public opinion around in Pakistan, allowed the PPP government to be seen as reliable at home and abroad, and has attracted foreign aid to Pakistan. As the TTP is on the run, the army is carefully analysing the project of ground-attacking South Waziristan which has been sealed off.

So far 4,000 terrorists have been killed, around 2,500 have surrendered and another 2,500 are expected to surrender in Malakand, according to an NWFP government spokesman. One can gather the scale of the defeat the Taliban have suffered if one recalls that the Swat warlord Fazlullah was supposed to have only 5,000 men under his command. One realises that after the Pakistan army went into Swat, the TTP had sent in more fighters to save Fazlullah from defeat.

The cards have to be played very carefully from now on. The army cannot afford to weaken its presence in Malakand if that is what will happen when it moves troops into South Waziristan.
The holding of Malakand is crucial to anything the army might do next against the TTP. Not only has it to find Fazlullah and bring him to justice, it has to maintain conditions under which reconstruction of the devastated division can begin and be concluded. Malakand must never go under again. If you put Malakand and neighbouring Bajaur together you have more population than in the rest of the agencies of FATA put together. The difference between victory and defeat are the people. The latest TTP attacks are an indication of the level of pressure the TTP is coping with. (Daily Times)