The South Asia Channel

Pakistani Taliban on Target

The long awaited military offensive in North Waziristan area of Pakistan started over a month ago. Pakistan's security forces today are certainly more aware of the challenges they face on the ground than when they started their poorly planned campaign in the area almost a decade ago. Over the years, the Pakistani Taliban have wreaked havoc on the country's security and military; only recently has the political leadership moved to decisively crush the militancy. The current operation has the notorious Haqqani group based in North Waziristan, which was responsible for conducting many attacks inside Afghanistan, is reportedly on the run. This will potentially take care of serious U.S. complaints about Pakistan's reluctance to take on this group. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship went through a downward trend since the successful operation eliminating Osama bin Laden in May of 2011. Success of the present operation can help the trust deficit between the two states, in addition to making it easier for the Afghan security forces to effectively tackle the Afghan Taliban. 

The following excerpt from my recently published book, The Taliban Revival, provides insight into the dynamics of an earlier military campaign in the adjacent South Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The excerpt has been edited for style.

Another army officer I interviewed during my research trip to Pakistan stunned me when he explained that he had not received any detailed intelligence briefings with profiles of the tribes that his military unit was to confront in FATA in and around 2010. Interestingly, there are no Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers attached to the military units operating in FATA. They operate in parallel in certain areas, but normally there is no regular interaction between army units and intelligence operatives.

I was also told that the U.S. drone strikes were regularly coordinated with the Pakistani military authorities until 2010, and during the early phase (2004 - 2007) even five to seven days' notice was given by either side for the other to monitor the target and mutually decide whether to go for it or not. Within military units operating in the tribal area, drone attacks were generally seen in a positive light. The Pakistan Air Force was also routinely used for air cover and to target militant hubs. Almost every senior army officer I interviewed carped that the Pakistan military's requests to the United States for specific military equipment needed for opera- tions were not met. This served to strengthen the grave misgivings among army officers about US intentions and seriousness. When I took this complaint up with a U.S. Department of Defense official, he quipped that the Pakistanis were only keen to get military hardware that is used in ‘COIN' (the usual jargon for ‘counterinsurgency'). While I was wondering what could be wrong with that, he went on to add that in this case ‘COIN' meant ‘Counter-India'. Apparently, in Washington defense circles, this is an oft-repeated joke.

Pakistani security forces often complain that their plight goes unappreciated in Western capitals. They expect some recognition of the fact that the Pakistani military's casualties from the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda have outstripped the combined losses of the United States and other NATO countries  in  Afghanistan.  The statistics support this contention, but Pakistan underestimates how much damage was done to the country's image and credibility by the presence there of Osama bin Laden.

The second of May 2011 was a particularly bad day for Pakistan. On that day, the U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound in the town of Abbottabad (a city that hosts Pakistan's premier military academy) made headlines across the world. At the end of the stealth operation, bin Laden was dead; but Pakistan has had to do a lot of explaining since then. Whatever trust existed between the US and Pakistan was destroyed. Though U.S. President Obama said that, ‘it's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,' the question asked in capitals across the world was whether Pakistani intelligence had been complicit in or ignorant about bin Laden's whereabouts. F.B. Ali, a respected former Pakistani brigadier who now lives in Canada, intriguingly maintained that a retired senior ISI officer spilled the beans about bin Laden's location when he walked into a U.S. embassy in a Gulf country; that is how the US came to know of the Abbottabad location.

It is nearly impossible to verify this version of events.

At the time, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates forcefully asserted that he had seen no evidence at all that the senior Pakistani leadership had any information about bin Laden, but obviously a support network for him was at work. Disclosures by bin Laden's young wife, who was living with him at the Abbottabad compound, about how she travelled freely across the country later raised further suspicions. Most surprising, though, was the revelation in an official Pakistani commission report that just a couple of years after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden's car had been pulled over by a traffic police sergeant in Pakistan for speeding, but he had managed to get away scot free. The poor cop never knew that a big reward had slipped through his fingers. (For those who know traffic police in Pakistan, no other interpretation is possible.)

Getting intelligence on bin Laden was a remarkable feat for the United States, and thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of CDs acquired from the bin Laden compound at the time of the raid are considered invaluable in understanding how Al-Qaeda functioned all those years. A select few documents from this treasure trove have been declassified by the U.S. government. They show that bin Laden believed in distinguishing between ‘good Taliban' and ‘bad Taliban'. He was fully supportive of Afghan Jihad, but his top lieutenants, at his direction, wrote to Hakimullah Mehsud of the TTP, expressing displeasure at the group's ‘ideology, methods and behavior.' Apparently, he was no longer in control of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

During my interviews with security officials in Pakistan, they dispelled the notion that there is any distinction on the ground between ‘good Taliban' (who do not attack Pakistan's security forces, e.g. the Haqqani group) and ‘bad Taliban' (meaning the TTP and its ilk); but on the U.S. side this dichotomy is believed to be a hard fact. The United States naturally wants Pakistan to go all out and reclaim ownership of the tribal area, which is used as a sanctuary for cross-border attacks. The Taliban and other militants who moved into the tribal belt have gradually become more confident in organizing attacks inside Afghanistan. The border is porous and Pakistani border checkpoints -- though vastly increased in number -- are still inadequate to monitor the movement of militants. Thousands of ordinary Pashtuns cross the border daily from dozens of crossing points, and to figure out who is a militant and who is not is a gigantic task. When pressed on this point, Pakistani security officials typically retort: ‘Well if we can't manage it on our side, what stops the newly minted Afghan army and American forces on the other side of the border from obstructing the path of militants on their side?' I have not heard a good answer to this. The American counterargument is more along the lines of: ‘So what happens to all the billions of dollars that the Pakistani military has received from us for counterterrorism in the tribal areas and for securing the border with Afghanistan?' Pakistanis get worked up over this and start bandying about the statistics for soldiers lost in the area. They blame Afghan and Indian intelligence, too, for supporting TTP elements. The debate continues in this circular fashion.

Hassan Abbas is an academic based in Washington, D.C. 

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