This past weekend, news of the new Pakistani offensive against militants in the northwest dominated media coverage of the country. On Sunday, media outlets reported that Pakistani paramilitary forces “pushed fighters belonging to an Islamic militant group farther from Peshawar…and destroyed unoccupied bases and houses belonging to members of the group.” Headlines following these developments yesterday deemed the offensive “a success,” and reports noted government statements that said Pakistani security forces effectively took control of the militant area in the Khyber region. Interior Ministry spokesman Rehman Malik told Reuters, “It has been a successful operation. No collateral damage has been reported. The writ of the government has been established…Peshawar is totally safe. We won’t allow anyone to disrupt the peace of the city.” The AFP also cited statements by Malik, who told reporters that troops had found several “torture cells” and private jails. “An illegal FM station used for spreading ‘hate speech’ was also destroyed,” he added.
Despite the government claims of “success,” some media outlets were skeptical in their coverage. An article in the NY Times, entitled, “Pakistani Forces Appear to Push Back Militants,” reported the leader of the militant group pushed from Peshawar, Mangal Bagh, “appeared to remain unscathed.” The Times added,
Mr. Mangal Bagh’s fighters, operating out of Khyber agency, which is adjacent to Peshawar, have been kidnapping residents and threatening the city over the last two months. In a sign of conciliation, Mr. Mangal Bagh, a former bus cleaner and bodyguard who rose in the last three years to become the head of Lashkar-i-Islam, or the Army of Islam, said in a telephone interview with a Pakistani national newspaper, The News, that he had told his volunteers not to resist the Pakistani forces. He said he considered them brothers.
Although the operations conducted by the Frontier Corps were deemed a success, none of Bagh’s “heavily armed men” were killed. In fact, television crews accompanying the paramilitary forces on Sunday as they destroyed the Bara houses of more than 20 commanders of the Army of Islam “said the buildings had all been vacated.” BBC News reported that many of them “are reported to have moved to the remote western mountains near the border with Afghanistan.” If that is indeed the case, then perhaps this “success” is not as rosy as the government first depicted.
Moreover, Bagh’s militant group is not part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organization of Taliban-linked groups that suspended all peace agreements and negotiations with the government this weekend. The Guardian reported that they have “not adopted their [TTP] tactics of suicide bombings and attacks on the army.” Nevertheless, the Army of Islam appears to be the main target of the army so far, which, implied the Guardian, may be because of their control over much of the Khyber area, “which includes the Khyber Pass, a crucial supply line for Nato troops in land-locked Afghanistan.”
According to the UK news source, locals in the Khyber region denounced the operation, insisting that Bagh “had brought law and order to an area which, when under government control, was notorious for smuggled goods, drugs and kidnappings.” One local trader in Bara told the Guardian, “There is peace here – what is the point of the operation?…Mangal Bagh is not a bad man. The problems are elsewhere.” Reuters cited another Bara resident, “standing by the debris of Bagh’s house,” who said, “He [Bagh] brought peace and got rid of the criminals in our area. He’s good for us.” The AFP likewise quoted Bagh’s older brother, who told the news agency, “Lashkar-e-Islam was not involved in terrorism but it was working to oust criminal elements.”
So what do all these conflicting reports ultimately mean? Was this operation truly a “success” if it targeted a militant group already cooperating (reportedly) with Pakistani forces? Bagh himself appeared puzzled by the operation. Reuters reported, “He said he did not know why security forces were attacking because his group did not harbor foreign militants or have links with the Taliban or al Qaeda.” More importantly, the main members of his group were reportedly not even in Bara, but instead had “gone home,” as Bagh had directed. Despite their exodus from the area, their homes were still destroyed, and spokesman Malik made the grand sweeping gesture that “Peshawar is totally safe.” However, locals in the area appeared more disgruntled with the operation than welcoming of the paramilitary troops. The TTP, the group actually associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, apparently used it as an opportunity to suspend peace negotiations with the government and will no doubt relaunch a more overt offensive against Pakistani forces. So let me ask the question again – given the circumstances of this operation, its intention, and its subsequent ramifications, was it right to call it a “success”? Perhaps before using this term lightly, we should clearly delineate who our enemy is and what exactly we are fighting for. [Images from the Wash Post and Reuters]