The Nawaz Sharif government – perhaps because of its history of emerging from the womb of the army – is eliminating ‘bad Taliban’ much more covertly than its predecessors.
Behind the angry posturing of Pakistan Muslim League (N) interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and a coterie of politicians publicly denouncing the US for `sending a drone through peace talks,’ the US and Pakistan are coordinating against Taliban militants who threaten Western interests and attack inside Pakistan.
The discrepancy between what Pakistan says and does, came to light on Oct 23, when prime minister Nawaz Sharif met US President Barak Obama and denounced drone attacks. Around the same time, victims of drone strikes in Pakistan testified in the Capitol against the killing of innocent people in the tribal areas.
But US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee member, Alan Grayson gave food for thought when he told the media: “With all due respects to an ally, it is well within Pakistan’s capability to end those drone strikes tomorrow.” He called Pakistan’s air force “very powerful,” – with the capability of controlling its own air space.
So long as the US calls the shots and gives aid to Pakistan, the government uses its officials to counter public anger. While the interior minister Chaudhry Nisar is the “bad cop,” who spews anger at the US for “violating Pakistan’s sovereignty,” the prime minister’s advisor, Sartaj Aziz is the “good cop,” promising the US will halt strikes during talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
It is an old military strategy with a new set of characters. Mark Mazetti, author of the `Way of the Knife,’ writes that Pakistan asked the US to launch its first predator drone strike in 2004 to eliminate tribal leader, Nek Mohammed, after he led a rebellion against the state. Afterwards, Pakistan claimed it had fired the missile that killed the tribal leader who it had once patronized.
Apparently, like his predecessors, Nek Mohammed and Baitullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander – Hakeemullah Mehsud – killed in a drone strike on Nov 1 – had become dispensable. The US offered $5 million for his capture after Hakeemullah coordinated with a Jordanian agent in December 2009 – and wiped out a sizeable staff of CIA employees stationed in Khost, Afghanistan. Pakistan too put PKR 50 million head money on him for his lethal attacks against the state.
Before the drone was lobbed against Hakeemullah, the government let the garrulous media chatter about its plan to engage with its Taliban militants. It simultaneously took JUI (F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman into confidence about arranging a “peace meeting” with the Taliban in North Waziristan.
But as events unfolded, Sharif’s visit to Washington.. followed by his announcement from London, Oct 31 that “peace talks with the Taliban have begun,” .. were met by puzzled silence in Pakistan. The TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid told journalists the same day that they were unaware of any talks. And, parliamentary leaders publicly complained that they had been kept in the dark.
Still in North Waziristan, months of friendly communiqués between the government apparently put militants at ease. The administration’s imposition of curfew added to the impression that it was for upcoming TTP-government talks. On Nov. 1, the Taliban gathered in a mosque near Hakeemullah’s sprawling farm house – bought by his cousin, Latifullah Mehsud – for a meeting on whether to talk to the government.
The US had set the ball rolling to nab Hakeemullah shortly after NATO troops snatched Latifullah in early October from the custody of Afghan intelligence officials – and interrogated him at Bagram base. Latifullah was a key link between the Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Karzai government had planned to use him as an interlocutor in “peace talks” with the Taliban, despite the TTP’s known role of attacking state institutions inside Pakistan.
These increased cross border attacks have in recent months caused Pakistan’s Foreign Office to complain that Afghanistan is being used as a safe haven for TTP militants.
For two days, US drones fired missiles into North Waziristan.. searching for their target. The second attack on Nov 1 was successful. Hakeemullah and his two companions were killed outside his $120,000 farm house, after the TTP returned from the mosque meeting. Neighbors reported surprise at seeing the Taliban commander before his vehicle was struck. Hakeemullah was understandably a rarity here, being on the run from drone attacks that occur mostly in this Pak-Afghan border area.
With the assassination of the TTP chief, and his replacement by Mulla Fazlullah – who escaped the 2009 military operation against him in Swat – an enraged Taliban pledged attacks on the military and senior government officials in the Punjab for being a “slave” of the US.
But, Islamabad says it will continue to pursue peace talks with its Taliban. In so doing it has found Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan’s reactions especially useful to soak up the anger. Khan’s visible shock at Hakeemullah’s assassination – and angry moves by the PTI and religious parties toward stopping NATO convoys to Afghanistan has served to deflect attention and let off steam.
It is the same strategy that Gen. Musharraf used after 9/11 -when public anger at the US invasion of Afghanistan helped propel the coalition of Islamic parties, Mutehidda Majlis-i-Amal in the border areas. Then too, the US was allowed to become the favorite whipping boy of the masses.
But as the US prepares for withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, it is less interested in Pakistan’s domestic politics and more in achieving its aims. Only a day after Sartaj Aziz said that drone attacks would be temporarily halted while it talks to the TTP, the US lobbed a drone missile over a madressah in the settled Hangu area and killed members of the Haqqani network. These Afghan Taliban were instrumental on attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The killing of Afghan Taliban financier, Naseerullah Haqqani in Islamabad also indicates cross intelligence agencies at work… and a falling out between multiple Taliban groups, once loosely commandeered by Hakeemullah Mehsud.
Meanwhile, the federal government – which earlier found Imran Khan’s anger “useful,” is less amused that he is carrying out his threat to block NATO supplies as a lever to stop drone attacks. That is being treated as an attempt to disrupt law and order.
As a dozen years of war has revealed, the younger generation of Taliban is angrier and less controllable than the militants trained by Pakistan in the 1990s to take over Afghanistan. Indeed, there is a shortage of “good Taliban,” like Mullah Omar, Mullah Baradar and the Haqqani network.. taking refuge in Pakistan.. who merely attack NATO troops in Afghanistan and don’t attack state interests within Pakistan.
Instead, the Taliban today fight the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan.. even as they forge bonds across the Durand Line. This so called border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is ignored from Pashtuns from both sides, at the cost of growing militancy in the region.
Inside Pakistan, the failure to tell the truth to nearly180 million people fuels the conspiracy theories being regurgitated in the media. While the Western world acts out of their own interest, officially naming it as the scapegoat has only served to spew venom and hatred toward outsiders.
In this complex scenario, how Pakistan gets rid of its ‘bad Taliban,’ while deflecting anger away from it.. and simultaneously gains a foothold in Afghanistan.. will be a high wire act worth watching.