On Tuesday, news agencies cited a militant spokesman from Hafiz Gul Bahadur‘s group in North Waziristan, who said they were “scrapping” their peace deal with the government because of U.S. drone strikes in the region. The Taliban faction had initially agreed to stay on the sidelines during the offensive against Baitullah Mehsud in neighboring South Warizistan.
However, Bahadur’s spokesman Ahmedullah Ahmedi [who spoke over the phone from an undisclosed location] told reporters, “Our leadership has decided that as long as U.S. drone attacks continue and security forces stay here, there will be no peace agreement.” The BBC also cited him adding that the group “would now carry out attacks on military targets in the region until the army left and U.S. drones strikes were halted.”
In the past, reported the Wall Street Journal, the rivalry between the two militant commanders and the peace deal had helped Pakistan’s military focus on Mehsud. Now, noted the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan the end of the agreement “leaves the army facing a near impossible task – no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.” The Pakistani government on Tuesday sought to quell such speculation, claiming the peace deal had been signed with the tribal elders and not with Taliban militants. In an interview with BBC World Radio yesterday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik further insisted that countering Bahadur’s group would not be “that difficult,” affirming, “we will take over” [the Waziristan area].
Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive has garnered a continuous stream of news headlines. However, given that journalists have largely been denied access to the frontline, media reports are often a regurgitation of contradictory information provided by both military and militant spokesmen. The difficulty is always extracting the “truth” from what both sides want us to believe. For example, noted the NY Times, “For the past month and a half, the Pakistani military has claimed success in retaking the Swat Valley from the Taliban, clawing back its own territory from insurgents who only a short time ago were extending their reach toward the heartland of the country.”
However, the news agency on June 28 offered a rare glimpse into Swat’s aftermath, noting, “…from a helicopter flying low over the valley last week, the low-rise buildings of Mingora…now deserted and under a 24-hour curfew, appeared unscathed. In the surrounding countryside, farmers had harvested wheat and red onions on their unscarred land.” The NYT added, “All that is testament to the fact that the Taliban mostly melted away without a major fight, possibly to return when the military withdraws or to fight elsewhere, military analysts say.”
This snapshot of Swat, coupled with the fact that the military has failed to kill or capture a top Taliban commander, makes the idea of “success” all the more abstract, and the new push into “the far more treacherous terrain” of South Waziristan worrisome. Are we essentially going down the same inconclusive path of military offensives past? Rehman Malik, in his talk with BBC World Radio, reassured the skeptics by simply noting, “measures have been taken to prevent these militants from regrouping,” (he would not specify the measures so as not to compromise the secrecy of the mission).
This is not to say the military has not made gains in this new offensive. In fact, in the perception management side of the war, the Pakistani Army has indicated a new resolve in countering militancy, most interestingly demonstrated by the names of these military offensives. In a recent study by Shuja Nawaz entitled, FATA – A Most Dangerous Place, he wrote, “In the Swat district, the first operation by the regular army was named Operation Mountain Viper, not exactly a name that inspired participants or local residents or drew them into the task for fighting Islamist militants…” However, the new commander of the troops in Swat, Maj. Gen. Janjua in 2007 “launched a fresh operation named Rah-e-Haq or the Path to Truth (i.e., the true Islamic faith), aimed at wresting the Islamic ground from the insurgents by claiming to act in the name of the true Islam.”
The army’s recent offensive titles indicate a further evolution of this trend. On May 16, 2009, the military announced that Operation Rah-e-Haq (4) in Malakand would be renamed Operation Rah-e-Rast, or the Path to Righteousness. Most recently, Rah-e-Nijaat, or the Path to Salvation, was attached to the military’s operation in South Waziristan. Last week, COAS Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told reporters, “We are conducting this operation to bring misguided people back on the right path…They are not fighting for Islam. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and we know how to protect it.”
What seems to be occurring therefore, is an effort on the military’s part to reframe the war in a language digestible by the public. They are challenging the convoluted interpretations of Islam and Sharia espoused by these Taliban-linked militants, and are no longer allowing them to hijack and leverage this space. However, while certainly a part of unconventional warfare, winning will still take more than just good PR. As Shuja Nawaz noted, “Troops, training, and equipment are one part of a two-part approach to counterinsurgency. The other, and some might say more important part is the underlying political dynamic and governance, without which military actions will fail to gain traction or produce a lasting solution.” In our case, it means we once again concede to the militants.