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Terrorists of SSP-TTP-LeJ are a threat to Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif – by Cyril Almeida

The terror of this war

By Cyril Almeida

SUB-OPTIMAL. That’s probably the most generous way to describe statecraft in Pakistan.

A week of debate on the debate in parliament and I’m ready to run to the hills. Or perhaps into the sea, given the threat lurking up in Pakistan’s hills.

Start with the army. Gen Kayani is fighting a bloody insurgency in three areas — Bajaur Agency, Swat and Darra Adamkhel — and has thousands of troops in other tribal agencies. It’s a tough fight, with civilian casualties and massive displacements. Kayani may be giving the militants a bloody nose, but few are optimistic of the long-term effects of a full-frontal assault.

Along the way, the general was coaxed and cajoled by Zardari into briefing parliament on what the army is up to. So Kayani roped in his DGMO and sent him forth into the cauldron of stupor to explain what his soldiers are doing. Lamentably, the DGMO shared nothing a Google search wouldn’t reveal.

This is bad news for everyone trying to understand Kayani’s strategic thinking. Since the army chief is intent on holding his cards very close to his chest, the country’s representatives will just have to piece together for themselves the Bajaur operation. Did I mention that statecraft isn’t an optimum art here? So on to Bajaur Agency.

(Aside: Bajaur was sacked by Babar — yes, the Mughal emperor — in 1519. From the Babarnama: “As the Bajauris were rebels and inimical to the people of Islam, the men were subjected to a general massacre and their wives and children were made captive. At a guess, more than 3,000 men met their death. We entered the fort and inspected it. On the walls, in houses, streets and alleys, the dead lay, in what numbers! Those walking around had to jump over the corpses.”

Lesson: history is written by the victors.)

Even though we haven’t been told why we are in Bajaur — as opposed to, say, pounding one of the other six tribal agencies — that doesn’t mean there are no good reasons for being up there.

Bajaur is geographically the smallest (500 sq miles) of the tribal agencies, but has one of the largest populations (595,227 at the last census; an estimated million until August). It abuts Kunar, a north-eastern Afghan province which is a stamping ground of Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. Bajaur, especially the south-west where the Mamond tribe lives, is known to be home to foreign militants, especially Al Qaeda. Both Pakistan and the US have launched strikes inside Bajaur in the last three years, indicating the level of interest in militant activity there.

There’s more. In March 2007, four ISI agents were killed in Bajaur. Before the present operation started in August, more intelligence agents are believed to have been killed. Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, the militant leader in Bajaur, has close links to Maulana Fazlullah and his band of savages in Swat.

All of these are very good reasons for us to be in Bajaur. There is a further possibility: the army thought it would be like taking candy from a militant. But when several hundred troops trundled into Lowi Sam, a town near a key border crossing to Kunar province, in early August, they were subjected to a withering assault. Physically and psychologically hammered, the army had no option but to respond with even greater force.

But these are outsiders’ guesses — and worth as much. Denied a clear strategic explanation for why Bajaur now and why Bajaur first, the opposition certainly has grounds to complain. Predictably, the N-League has grabbed the hind legs of reason though. Rather than release a list of penetrating, relevant questions that were left unanswered, the N-League has chosen to bray about democracy and sovereignty.

Somebody should ask Nawaz Sharif, what about survival?

Despite their right-wing reputation, the Sharif brothers have old enemies in the anti-Shia jihadi outfits of Punjab. The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, the most vitriolic and lethal of Sunni militant groups, tried to kill the Sharif brothers in January 1999 by blowing up a bridge leading to their Raiwind estate (the explosion killed three but missed both brothers’ convoys). The attack was presumably revenge for Shahbaz Sharif’s harsh repression of the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), which rocked Pakistan in the 1990s with their internecine sectarian war against Shias.

No one emerged from that period with their hands clean. The sectarian warriors killed with shocking viciousness, while on Shahbaz Sharif’s watch police encounters and extrajudicial killings of militants shot up — though without doing much harm to the chief minister’s standing amongst a terrorised populace.

However, the SSP and LJ were far from finished. Caught in a frightening covert war, the Sharifs were forced to the negotiating table to try and ease the crisis in Punjab. Then fate intervened: Musharraf’s coup ejected the Sharifs.

While the Sharifs may have been put into political cold storage, the LJ lived to fight another day. 9/11 breathed new life into the organisation, even as its first generation of leaders were hunted down and exterminated. Today, the relationship between the LJ and Al Qaeda and the Taliban is so strong that the LJ is effectively the domestic arm of Al Qaeda.

There is much scepticism — some legitimate — of the claim that virtually every militant group has fallen under the spell of the shadowy Al Qaeda. But in the LJ’s case, the ideological and operational links are irrefutable. The sectarian aspect of Al Qaeda’s ideology is undeniable for anyone who cares to explore the issue in its grim, hateful details. At the same time the operational links are self-evident and self-confessed. The Lashkar effectively introduced suicide bombings to Pakistan to avenge the US war in Afghanistan. Other sophisticated bombing techniques have been shared between the LJ and Al Qaeda.

The LJ’s links with Baitullah Mehsud are also well known, with senior members of the LJ hiding out in South Waziristan. It’s no coincidence that Mehsud’s alleged intent to eliminate the Sharifs has thrown up the name of the LJ. Meanwhile, the LJ has been busy on the sectarian front, with its war in D.I. Khan spilling over into Bhakkar.

With Shahbaz Sharif back in power and the LJ in the ascendant, he will have to deal with them somehow. Nawaz Sharif may publicly deny the threat, but he must surely be alert to the threat the toxic brew of militancy poses to his government in Punjab. So what exactly does he hope to achieve with banalities about peace and dialogue? Does he hope the carrot of opposition to military operations will keep the sectarian militants at bay in Punjab? Or is he simply playing politics while the polity’s very existence is under threat?

When Nawaz Sharif roars that CJ Iftikhar would have kept this country safe, you’re inclined to believe the latter.

Final thought: the ninth anniversary of Musharraf’s coup slipped by unnoticed. Before history can repeat itself, the people must prepare by forgetting. (Dawn)