In the following article in Daily Times, renowned journalist and TV anchor Syed Talat Hussain discusses a new strategy of the Taliban militants, i.e. a deliberate and strong effort to escalate the cost for the public.
People are the battlespace —Syed Talat Hussain
Militants are now making a deliberate and strong effort to break the momentum of public opinion. They are escalating the cost for the public. They are showing them that the political and military support available to them is no longer ineffective
Slowly but steadily, militancy is creeping back into vengeful life. Militants are replacing their loss of sanctuary, the equivalent of a proper state, in Malakand Division and the entire stretch of the tribal belt, with hit-and-run terrorism. These new tactics are deadly. Worse, these can also resurrect the legend that the Taliban are a force that always bounces back, sometimes as an ideology, sometimes as a social reaction to injustice, and sometime a pure militant movement.
Clearly, the Taliban have abandoned the path of organised resistance. News flow is reduced to a trickle about long drawn-out combat and military operations that require long supply-lines. Instead, they have mutated into small cells. Each is self-contained. Some are deployed to protect vital territory. Some spread out in the towns to exploit the vulnerabilities of the local population. Yet others, mostly death squads, are tasked to wreak havoc and break the resistance and the will of the people to hold firm against militant ingress.
This strategy kicked off resoundingly with the suicide attack in Swat on Shamsher Khan in his home, killing him, his brother and nine others. Since then the attacks have been incessant and determined. The last strike on Shah Hasan Khel village in Lakki Marwat approximates the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in a desperate war. Of the small population, 91 are now dead and buried. Almost as many are likely to be crippled for life. The site of the suicide attack, a playground wedged between a row of houses, looks like a mini-Nagasaki. No wonder the villagers recount the horror of the attack in the language of the Armageddon. The Taliban have visited a most horrible vengeance upon them for forming peace committees and daring to side with the government.
Elsewhere, in Salarzai of Bajaur, the killing of local notables has picked up speed. Pro-government important men, who sit and dine with local military commanders, have been kidnapped and killed. Others have been IEDed — a new verb needed to describe death stalking the roads. In Hangu, the same trap has been used. This has resulted in the death of Ghani-ur-Rehman, a veteran politician, someone whose name was known to everyone around the area. As previously, when the Taliban widened their actual and psychological influence using scare tactics, the local and civilian cadre of the anti-Taliban leadership is again being targeted.
The message that the Taliban are trying to convey through this blood-soaked madness is clear: the Taliban are NOT dead and gone; they are NOT broken and neutralised; the local resistance to them is NOT strong enough. Aside from this there is another message: the drone attacks (there have been eight in the last four weeks) in North Waziristan may get some High Value Targets, but these are NOT the knock-out punch that many in Pakistan and the US think them to be.
The second message has been most famously packed in the suicide attack inside Chapman, a forward operating CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, gathering intelligence about drone targets inside Pakistan. The death of the CIA base chief, a female, six of her colleagues and a Jordanian on intelligence deputation, is the biggest blow the agency has suffered in the last quarter of a century. The other one was in 1983, in Beirut, where an attack on the US embassy took out a similar number of CIA operatives.
The importance of the Taliban in Pakistan accepting responsibility for this strike across the border cannot be emphasised enough. By showcasing their success they are underlining both their capabilities and a complete mood of defiance. Seen together, the attacks on Chapman and Shah Hasan Khel make menacing reading. They show the potential of a militancy that is bent upon taking a variety of targets, and has done so with impunity. And seen against the backdrop of other strikes inside Pakistan, particularly on GHQ and Parade Lane, and now in Karachi, these attacks can become a propaganda tool for different militant cells to recreate their lost awe and fear among the local population, especially in the border areas. What the Taliban seem to be saying is this: whether it’s the CIA or the ISI, the Pakistan military or the US army, the local notables or members of peace committees, we can hit them all.
It is of fundamental importance to blunt this message before it gains currency. People are the battlespace. Their opinion is the weapon of advantage. Which is why public opinion swings make a difference between success and failure in any military action. Swat is a good example of this fact. It was not the capability of Mullah Fazlullah’s coterie that made them look invincible in the eyes of the local population. It was the myth of their power, cemented by ruthless executions and a killing spree that made horrible examples out of those who dared to resist. Once this myth was established, state power and writ, already tenuous and timid, crumbled like a badly built house in an earthquake.
Later on, this myth had to be shattered for the Swat Taliban to be rolled back. The public mood then changed and swung in favour of the new, and free order. In Kabal district, Union Council-level lashkars came up once the Taliban had been scotched and scooped out. The same thing happened in other areas. In the Salarzai area, resentment took the shape of proper lashkars only once the Taliban were hit hard and official backing for the locals poured in.
Conversely, one reason the locals are reluctant to make a lashkar in the Maidan area of Dir is the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. There have been attacks such as the one on Police Lines in Timergara a week-and-a-half ago. Also Maulvi Faqir Muhammad’s FM radio continues to spew out threats to the locals in Munda, bordering Bajaur. This situation is forcing the people to hunker down and live in dread of the Taliban.
These instances offer important lessons. One is that people in uncertain situations become fence-sitters. Two, they follow the flow of coercive power. Three, once they have tilted in one direction, they become the most important factor in shaping outcomes. And four, re-setting these opinions and changing their direction is a time-consuming and costly affair.
Militants are now making a deliberate and strong effort to break the momentum of public opinion. They are escalating the cost for the public. They are showing them that the political and military support available to them is no longer ineffective. Steeped in death and inked in blood, these messages are becoming frequent and widespread. The public must be protected to defeat the purpose of these messages. People are the actual forward base of operations against organised militancy. This base cannot be lost. If this is lost, the whole effort is lost.
People are the battlespace
The writer is a leading Pakistani journalist.