Even if a military offensive against jihadist leader Ilyas Kashmiri's bases in North Waziristan materialises, Pakistan's prospects of crushing the jihadist movement are bleak.
Eleven years ago, Muzaffarabad newspapers carried photographs of a grinning jihad commander carrying the severed head of Bhausaheb Maruti Talekar of the Maratha Light Infantry, a macabre trophy of a raid across the Line of Control.
Last week, the man in the photograph was reported killed in a United States drone attack. In the years since it was taken, Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri had emerged as the head of Brigade 313, a feared al-Qaeda linked group that draws its name from the number of followers of Prophet Muhammad who defeated the numerically stronger armies of pagan Mecca. Even though media reports that Kashmiri was connected to the 2008 Mumbai attacks are erroneous, he was responsible for a string of attacks within Pakistan, including the recent strike on a naval base in Karachi. Brigade 313 is also alleged to have jihadists plotting attacks in Europe last summer, and has been linked to the 2009 Pune bombing.
There is still contention over Kashmiri's fate — Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, said he was “98% certain” that Kashmiri was dead, while the United States military says it has no confirmation. But reports have come amongst renewed debate over a possible Pakistani offensive against his bases in North Waziristan, the epicentre of the country's jihadist movement.
Forces loyal to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-linked Afghan warlord, are reported to have relocated to adjoining Kurram in anticipation of an attack, and Mike Mullen, the United States' military chief, fuelled rumours that an attack was imminent, saying the operation was “very important.”
Not without reason, sceptics are unmoved: Admiral Mullen had said just the same thing in October last year: Pakistan's military chief General Pervez Kayani, he said, “committed to me to go into North Waziristan and to root out these terrorists.”
Either way, the bad news is this: going into North Waziristan is profoundly unlikely to have an abiding impact on the jihadist movement — as opposed to particular terrorist groups — in Pakistan.
Politics and peace: Long before 9/11, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan brought about seismic political changes in north-west Pakistan's political landscape. Inspired by the example of the Islamist insurgents they had fought with, young commanders who had participated in the Afghan jihad began to displace the traditional tribal leadership. In some cases, local Islamist militia were set up. North Waziristan's Dawar tribe, for example, formed its own Taliban as early as 1998-1999.
The case of Umar Khalid, a jihadist commander from Mohmand with whom Pakistan signed a short-lived peace deal in 2008, is instructive. Born into the Qandharo sub-tribe of the Safi, and a school drop-out, Khalid had no traditional claims to leadership. Instead, he fought with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir and in Afghanistan after 9/11. Following Pakistan's 2007 raid on the Islamist cleric Abdul Rashid's Lal Masjid in Islamabad, he used his jihadist militia to impose a brutal new order in Mohmand: women were forbidden from receiving an education, music was banned, and barbers were punished for shaving beards.
Leaders like Khalid show that the Pakistani Taliban aren't just ideological enemies of the Pakistani state: they are rebels against the traditional structures of power among the region's societies, and a political challenge to the complex order that sustains Pakistani sovereignty there.
Sana Haroon's path-breaking history of the region, Frontiers of Faith, suggests that north-west Pakistan's jihadists are heirs to a long tradition. Haroon has shown that the political life in the region involved a complex negotiation between tribal custom and clerical authority. Ayesha Jalal's Partisans of Allah, in turn, demonstrates that the ideological foundations of Islamism in the region date back to the collision between Empire and Islam in India. Indeed, as scholars like Thomas Ruttig have shown, much of what is passed off as tradition, like the code of Pashtunwali, is an expedient justification for political expedience.
Back in 2002, under intense pressure from the United States to mop up jihadists fleeing Afghanistan, General Pervez Musharraf ordered the Pakistan army into the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, the site of these contestations. Operation Meezan, or Balance, was the army's first intervention in the region since independence in 1947. In 2004, a further offensive targeted jihadist strongholds around Wana, in South Waziristan.
Less than prepared for the rigours of a counter-insurgency campaign, Pakistan's army was mauled. Lieutenant-General Safdar Husain, the commander of the Peshwar-based XI corps, persuaded General Musharraf to back down, and seek negotiated deals with the jihadists.
In April 2004, the pro-Taliban legislators Maulana Merajuddin Qureshi and Maulana Abdul Malik Wazir secured a peace deal with 10 commanders of the Islamist insurgency in North Waziristan — an arrangement called the Shakai Agreement. In essence, the commanders promised not to target Pakistan, if the army called off its offensive and let foreign jihadists live in peace.
Less than seven weeks later, though, the deal fell apart, after the two sides failed to agree on the registration of foreign jihadists — in the main, Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs. Even though Nek Muhammad, the key signatory to the Shakai deal, was killed in a missile attack, the Islamist insurgency went from strength to strength: North Waziristan is now the most important hub for jihadists fighting the Pakistani state, as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in Afghanistan.
The February, 2005, the Srarogha deal went much the same way. Facilitated by the Jamiat Ullema-e-Islam leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman — whose abiding relationship with the Pakistani state has led to his twice being targeted in suicide-bombings this year — the deal saw the jihad commander Baitullah Mehsud agree to expel foreigners from South Waziristan.
Mehsud, though, simply used the deal to regroup, and began fighting again in 2007. The army initiated a half-hearted offensive against Mehsud late that year, but called it off in the wake of the Mumbai attacks: in a briefing for media, an official spokesperson even described the jihadist commander as a “patriotic Pakistani.”
Large swatces of South Waziristan are now ruled by Nazir Ahmad — a Taliban leader who proclaimed last month that his Taliban forces and al-Qaeda were united. “At an operational level,” Nazir said, “we might have different strategies, but at the policy level we are one and the same.”
Finally, in 2006, the Pakistan army signed a third peace deal with the Uthmanzai Wazirs of North Waziristan, hoping to stave off the prospect that low-level attacks would escalate into an insurgency. The agreement, in effect, handed power to Islamists; their flag was flown at the function where the deal was signed. Less than a year on, the two sides were at war, once again.
General Musharraf's desperate peacemaking needs to be understood in the context of the crisis Pakistan was confronted with after 2001. He was faced with multiple lobbies calling for dismantling the army's historical clients, the jihadists: India threatened war, following the attack on Parliament House in New Delhi; the United States was irked by the support jihadists in Pakistan's cities offered al-Qaeda; military insiders like former ISI chief Javed Qazi argued that the military-mullah alliance made attracting desperately-needed investment impossible.
His eventual half-hearted crackdown on jihadist infrastructure, though, proved enough to send thousands of jihadists fleeing the plains into areas like Waziristan. There, they soon realised Pakistan's threats were pyrrhic — and prepared the terror offensive now tearing apart cities in Punjab and other provinces. The scholar Hassan Abbas has recorded, in a seminal paper, that from “March 2005 and March 2007 alone, for example, about 2,000 militants from southern and northern Punjab Province reportedly moved to South Waziristan and started different businesses in an effort to create logistical support networks.” Events have shown that jihadists can be crushed — but at a cost. In 2008, the secular-nationalist Awami National Party took power in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, sparking off a collision with jihadists in neighbouring Swat. Swat's jihadist movement dated back to 1989, when local cleric Sufi Muhammad's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) sought to replace tribal custom with Shari'a law. Backed, ironically enough, by smugglers and druglords who wanted to eject the Pakistani state from the region, the TNSM waged a low-grade war against Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's government in 1994-1995. The insurgency re-erupted again in 2006.
The ANP government's attempts to reach a deal with Muhammad came to nothing: by 2009, its cadre were being systematically eliminated. The last straw, by some accounts, was a 2009 speech where Sufi Muhammad declared that democracy and Islam were irreconcilable — and that women should only be allowed to leave their homes only for the Haj, not even medical treatment.
Finally, the military went in — crushing the TNSM insurgency, but in the process causing massive civilian displacement and hardship that some fear will lead to a pro-jihadist backlash. Notably, the victory did nothing to end terrorism in the region, which rages on.
Now, though, with a middle-level officer corps ever-more sympathetic to the Islamist cause, a substantial popular constituency hostile to backing the United States' war on terrorism, and a military that has demonstrated few counter-insurgency skills, there is little stomach for another campaign. Fighting in North Waziristan, without doubt, degrades the jihadist movement's capabilities, but large-scale terrorism will not quickly end. For that, Pakistan needs political resources — a commitment to democratisation and development, and parties that can deliver them — that it simply does not possess.
For the foreseeable future, Pakistan's descent into the abyss seems inevitable: war or no war in Waziristan.