Between ‘Tight Screw’ and a hard place

No one knows when, or if, Pakistan will initiate an assault on the jihadist redoubt of North Waziristan. The Taliban, however, has fired the first retaliatory shot.

Updated - August 04, 2016 01:23 am IST

Published - August 17, 2012 01:19 am IST

Lead  120817 - Pakistan - Between tight screw and a hard place

Lead 120817 - Pakistan - Between tight screw and a hard place

The soldiers’ severed heads, sawn off at the neck, were placed in two neat rows on an almost spotless white sheet, in a clearing in the lush green forest. The videotape recorded the hunt: the ruthless assault; the torture of the captured troops; bodies being dragged naked, lassoed over the neck, through the woods. “We are not enemies of the people or nation of Pakistan,” an unseen narrator intoned over the graphic video footage, “we are enemies of this infidel state.” “To bring god’s law to Pakistan,” he said, “that is our objective.”

Four months after that May massacre of 17 Pakistani troops by Taliban jihadists in Lower Dir, reports have emerged suggesting the country’s army is finally preparing for vengeance. In an August 13 interview, the United States Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, disclosed that Pakistan had committed to launching a long-awaited assault against the key jihadist redoubt of North Waziristan. “Frankly”, he said, “I’d lost hope that they were going to do anything about it. But it does appear that they in fact are going to take that step.”

No hard facts have emerged on how — and when, and if — what the Pakistani media is referring to by the code name “Tight Screw” might unfold. The first shots in retaliation, however, have already been fired: Thursday’s Taliban assault on the Minhas airbase — home to key elements of the country’s nuclear arsenal — appears intended to signal to the country’s military commanders the costs of the war they are on the edge of launching.

The jihadist challenge

“Lal Masjid attackers, here we come”, shouted members of the jihadist assault team who stormed the police training centre in Manawan in March 2009. In late 2007, the nebulous networks of Islamist commanders operating out of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas came together in a loose coalition that called itself the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The new leadership had close links to jihadists elsewhere in Pakistan and their clerical patrons. Pakistan’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, feared that Lal Masjid might prove the vanguard of a revolution. It was to prove a murderous choice, plunging Pakistan into its worst existential crisis since 1971.

Ever since at least 2004, as the Taliban-led war in Afghanistan gathered momentum, the jihad commanders now grouped in the TTP had begun to establish what scholar C. Christine Fair has called “an archipelago of shari’a within large swathes of the Pashtun belt.” In general from non-elite backgrounds, the new commanders used Islamism as a tool to displace the traditional tribal leadership which had bound the region’s peoples to the Pakistani state. The jihadists used the payoffs of the Afghan war — ranging from protection rackets, extortion, gun-running, heroin trafficking — to build legitimacy among their communities.

In a thoughtful recent analysis of the Haqqani network, the pre-eminent Islamist warlord empire in Afghanistan and its Pakistani borderlands, analyst Gretchen Peters has noted that the group was “similar to the Sicilian mafia, which emerged in the 19th Century in a period when the Italian state was weak”.

From 2004, under pressure from the U.S., Pakistan engaged the TTP’s future commanders in battle — with humiliating results. Nek Muhammad ground the Pakistan army to a stalemate in South Waziristan, compelling it to sign a surrender of authority thinly disguised as an agreement. Baitullah Mehsud forced a similar agreement on the Pakistani state in 2005. In 2007, Sufi Muhammad’s Taliban-affiliated Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e- Mohammadi seized control of Swat.

Gen. Musharraf’s 2007 attack on Lal Masjid was an effort to fight back — but it ended up bringing the war in the borderlands to Pakistan’s heart. In 2007, for example, a bus carrying Air Force officers’ children was targeted near the Minhas airbase; in 2009, the army’s General Headquarters at Rawalpindi and the Inter-Services Intelligence Headquarters were attacked.

Ever since he succeeded Gen. Musharraf as army chief in 2007, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani slowly de-escalated the war in the borderlands. Like so many similar plans, though, Gen. Kayani’s plans to purchase peace came at an unaffordable price. The jihadist networks in Pakistan’s north-west gave sustenance, shelter and logistical assistance to insurgents operating against international and Afghan forces across the border, infuriating the U.S.

Faced, finally, with threats of U.S. sanctions and unilateral military action across the border, Gen. Kayani seems to have been forced to give at least the impression of being willing to cave in.

A new offensive

Will he? No one outside of Pakistan’s circles of power knows precisely what its highest decision-making caucus, the commanders of its army corps, decided to do in North Waziristan at the last meeting on August 11. But it is clear that the tools for war are in place. Pakistan’s army, it isn’t widely understood, has been a bystander by choice in Waziristan: one infantry division, five brigades, 12 battalions and 11 Frontier Corps units are deployed in the region’s northern division, and another division, four brigades, 11 battalions, seven Frontier Corps wings in the south.

Past history, however, suggests Mr. Panetta’s optimism that Gen. Kayani means business might be misplaced. In the spring of 2010, Pakistan held out similar promises to the U.S.; that October, it claimed to be conducting stealth attacks on jihadists. Then, in May 2011, it again claimed to be planning an offensive which never materialised. Even if it does act, the record suggests there is no guarantee of even limited success.

From the point of view of Pakistan’s military strategists, the case for an all-out war against its jihadist adversaries isn’t as simple as it appears for one big reason: India. Prolonged internal conflict in Pakistan has meant that resources have been drained from the military capacities until recently directed at the historic eastern adversary. India’s economic growth has allowed it to enter a phase of relatively rapid military modernisation, offering it not only overwhelming superiority but also the capacity to target Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional assets with ever-great precision.

Ever since its 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan has responded to India’s rise with nuclear expansion. Islamabad is estimated to have been producing over 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, every year. Each of Pakistan’s implosion design warheads is estimated to use 15-20kg of HEU, meaning the country’s arsenal of 90-110 weapons is expanding steadily. In addition, Pakistan is known to be pursuing plutonium-based warheads. The Khushab plutonium production facility has been operational since at least 1998, and at least three new reactors are being built at the site — one of which may already be up and running.

Khalid Banuri, director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs in Pakistan’s nuclear apex body, the Strategic Plans Division, said last year that the precise number of nuclear weapons Pakistan needs to feel assured “cannot be quantified.”

Even though the Kamra attack is likely to set off speculation on the threat that jihadists might steal elements of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal, that isn’t the threat. In an authoritative report released in June by the Congressional Research Service, nuclear weapons experts Paul Kerr and Mary Beth Nikitin noted there is a wide expert consensus that the arsenal itself is secure: real-world nuclear weapons, unlike in films, do not have red buttons with helpful “press here” signs. The real challenge would be jihadists taking control of the state itself.

India has clear equities in making sure this doesn’t happen. The TTP and its al-Qaeda linked allies have made clear their transnational agenda. In a recent interview to journalist Ihsanullah Tipu, TTP second-in-command Maulana Wali-ur-Rahman described the fighting as “a final conflict taking place between Islam and Infidel forces, and our struggle will continue till the conclusion, whether it is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India or western countries”.

Exactly what India can do to assuage Pakistani insecurities — and thus facilitate its anti-jihadist campaign — is, however, less clear. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal already exceeds the size of what is needed to annihilate any large-scale Indian military offensive, as well as most of its cities. Large, dramatic gestures, like a concession on Siachen, might conceivably help assuage Pakistani fears. Indian military and intelligence analysts aren’t, however, persuaded they will.

India or no India, though, Pakistan will be compelled to make a decision that will shape its future — by war or inaction. Major parties like former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf oppose a new anti-jihadist offensive, as do a broad swathe of Islamist groupings and many within the army. Forty eight hours before the Kamra attack, in a speech delivered to mark Pakistan’s Independence Day, General Kayani disagreed. “We are fully aware that it is the most difficult task for any Army to fight its own people”, he said. “[But] no state can afford a parallel system of governance and militias.” He must now decide how much blood he is willing to spill to defend that proposition.

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