Pakistan’s free fall, which had gained momentum in 2008, continued with an added velocity through 2009. By March 23, 2009, David Kilcullen, who advises United States Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, General David H. Petraeus, on the war on terror, was warning that Pakistan “could collapse within six months if immediate steps are not taken to remedy the situation”. This somewhat extravagant ‘prophecy’ has, of course, been belied for the time being. Nevertheless, the progression towards failure appears irreversible.
Terror now engulfs the entire nation. Militants have thrown up a serious challenge to the authority of the Federal Government in every Province in the country – Balochistan, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Punjab and Sindh – as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Gilgit-Baltistan and ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’. Devoid of a strong political leadership and the necessary will to square up to terrorism, Islamabad, as always, has failed to respond adequately and recover some measure of control.
2009 has been the bloodiest year yet. As SAIR noted earlier, Pakistan was already being viewed as a place of instability and widespread strife by 2003. But 2009, with at least 11,585 fatalities (the actual numbers could be significantly higher, since Pakistan denies access to the media and independent monitors in most areas of conflict) came very close to the cumulative fatalities between 2003 and 2008 – at 13,485. Fatalities have augmented significantly each year since 2003. At least 723 major incidents (involving three or more fatalities) were reported through 2009, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database.
Unsurprisingly, suicide attacks were at the forefront. As compared to 917 killings in 59 suicide attacks in 2008, the year 2009 recorded a total of 80 suicide attacks, in which 1,018 persons were killed.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmed that those involved in the suicide bombings were Pakistanis and that “the price of a suicide bomber is from Rs. 0.5 million to Rs. 1.5 million, while the family of the bomber gets Rs 0.5 million”. In addition, the NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour said that 200 children between the ages 6 to 13 years had been recovered from Malakand in the NWFP. The children had been completely brainwashed to conduct suicide attacks. Meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on April 5, 2009, vowed to carry out two suicide attacks per week across the country. The latest in this series of suicide attacks occurred in Karachi on February 5, 2010 in which 33 persons were reportedly killed.
Total fatalities did, however, decline in Balochistan, from 348 in 2008, to 277 in 2009. On first sight, this would suggest some respite from terror. A closer scrutiny of the numbers, however, is troubling. Civilian fatalities rose to 152, from 130 in 2008, while there was a sharp decline in the number of militants killed by the SFs, which came down to 37 from 107. According to the September 20, 2009, Balochistan Economic Report, Kohlu District, along with Quetta, the provincial capital, and Sibi, represented over a quarter of the terrorist attacks. Balochistan accounted for three-fifths of all terrorist attacks in Pakistan during 2006. According to the study, the security situation in Balochistan was “highly unsatisfactory”.
Developments also suggest that peace will remain elusive in Balochistan. On January 4, 2009, three ‘pro-independence’ Baloch groups announced the formal end of a four-month-old unilateral cease-fire announced in September 2008. Earlier, on January 1, 2009, the Baloch Republican Party Chief and militant leader Nawabzada Bramdagh Bugti urged all Baloch nationalist groups to abandon parliamentary politics and form a united front in their struggle for freedom. Further, on August 11, 2009, the Khan of Kalat (the title of former rulers of the State of Kalat, which is now part of Balochistan), Mir Suleman Dawood, announced the formation of a Council for Independent Balochistan and rejected any reconciliation with the Government of Pakistan without the mediation of the European Union and United Nations.
Apart from the Baloch Groups, the Taliban also continued its surge in the region. A former Senator alleged that supporters of the Taliban had captured land worth PKR two billion in the eastern and western parts of Quetta with the covert support of the ‘establishment’, in order to undermine the Baloch nationalist movement and promote Talibanisation in Balochistan. Several parts of the provincial capital have become ‘no-go areas’, where the Taliban and their supporters have consolidated their position, the Senator added. The ‘Quetta shura’ (executive council), which substantially controls the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, is based in the Baloch capital, with clear evidence of Islamabad’s complicity.
There have, of course, been several overtures by Islamabad to buy peace in Balochistan. On March 26, 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari directed the Balochistan Government to constitute a Parliamentary Committee to hold talks with ‘disgruntled elements’ in the Province. A day later, he announced a PKR 46.6 billion ‘development package’ for Balochistan. On November 24, 2009, the Federal Government announced a ‘five-tier multi-dimensional special package’, named Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan (Commencement of the Rights of Balochistan) – combining political, administrative and economic initiatives. However, exiled Baloch leaders rejected the package on the grounds that it failed to address their principal problems.
Meanwhile, FATA emerged as the epicentre of lawlessness, with the Federal Government losing control. At least 5,238 persons were killed in 3,836 incidence of violence in FATA in 2009, as compared to 3,067 in 1,154 violent incidents in 2008. Taliban’s writ runs across the region. On April 10, 2009, the Taliban announced the enforcement of Sharia (Islamic law) in the Bajaur Agency and stopped women from going outside without male relatives, banned the shaving of beards, and warned people against availing assistance from the Benazir Income Support Programme. The announcement was made by Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, the Taliban chief in the Agency, in a 40-minute speech delivered through his group’s illegal FM radio channel. Earlier, on January 4, 2009, the Orakzai chapter of the TTP established Sharia courts in most part of the Orakzai Agency. On April 15, 2009 the Sikh community living in the Orakzai Agency conceded to the Taliban demand to pay jizia – a tax levied on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule – and paid PKR 20 million to the Taliban in return for their ‘protection’.
Amidst these developments, on June 19, 2009, the Government decided to launch Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) against the chief of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud and his network in the South Waziristan Agency (SWA). In a major breakthrough, Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone attack in SWA on August 5, 2009. He was succeeded by Hakeemullah Mehsud, who, according to emerging reports has also been killed in a drone attack in the North Waziristan Agency on January 14, 2010, along with Quari Hussain, the TTP’s top trainer of suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, a July 1, 2009, Government report said that militancy in the FATA had cost Pakistan around $2,146 million, while the fighting had killed over 3,000 civilians. The report – Cost of Conflict in FATA – prepared by the Planning and Development Wing of the FATA Secretariat, said the social cost of the militancy was far greater than the cost of infrastructure, economic and subsequent environmental loss. However, it said the cost of the military operation “is beyond the scope of this report and would be worked out separately by the concerned agencies”. The report put the social cost of the conflict at $1,109 million, the cost to security and internal displacement at $572 million, the environmental cost at $188 million, the economic cost at $119 million, and infrastructure losses at $103 million. “Pakistan is suffering a series of overlapping crises due to the conflict in FATA…,” the report stated.
On the NWFP front, there was a sharp increase in fatalities, with 5,497 killed in 2009, as against 2,944 in 2008. There were significant increases in fatalities in all categories, with the number of civilians killed rising from 1,021 to 1,229; SFs from 281 to 471; and militants from 1,642 to 3,797. The sharp increases in SF and militant fatalities suggest increasing frontal engagement with the militants in the region. Ominously, TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud had, on May 30, 2009, ordered his followers to carry out bombings in small villages of Swat and FATA, and to establish hideouts in other areas of the country.
Despite the surge in violence the Government continued to flip-flop in its policy. Indeed, NWFP tells the story of Islamabad’s complete debacle in formulating any strategy to counter terrorism in the country. The Taliban’s 10-day cease-fire on February 15, 2009, was accepted by the Government and the Taliban in the Swat Valley received PKR 480 million (USD 6 million) in ‘compensation’ from the Government. Also, the Government and the extremist Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) reached an understanding about promulgating Sharia, termed ‘Nizam-i-Adl Regulation’, in the Malakand Division. Military operations in Swat were suspended. However, the deal, as has been the practice in the past, quickly collapsed and on May 7, 2009, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani ordered the Armed Forces to launch operation Rah-e-Rast (Path to truth) against the militants in Swat and Malakand. On June 22, 2009, the Inter Services Public Relations Director-General Major General Athar Abbas boasted that the SFs were in the ‘final phase’ of eliminating terrorist hideouts and camps in Swat. However, Owais Ahmad Ghani, the Governor of NWFP, had, on January 16, 2009, noted that that there were approximately 15,000 militants in the tribal belt, who had no dearth of ration, ammunition or equipment – and even according to the Army’s data, this number is far from being accounted for.
There was, moreover, no dearth of finances for the TTP. Governor Ghani disclosed that a TTP cadre normally received PKR 6,000 to PKR 8,000 per month, while their leaders received PKR 20,000 to 30,000 per month. Further, on July 26, the chief of the Government’s Special Support Group, General Nadeem Ahmad, disclosed that disguised TTP militants may be getting money meant for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), that precautions to prevent this were not working and that “it is certain that some of those receiving the money are Taliban, ready to return home and wreak havoc”. Reports also indicated that about PKR 40 billion had been spent by terrorists in the NWFP and FATA in the last 10 years, yet Islamabad continues to announce relief packages in the region without holding anyone accountable. On, February 1, the Centre released another PKR 623 million to the NWFP and FATA Administrations to provide compensation to the victims of militancy. PKR 283 million have been released for the FATA and another PKR 340 million for the NWFP Administrations.
The surge in violence in Punjab, the Province in which the capital of the dwindling nation is located, is more alarming. As many as 441 persons were killed in 2009, as compared to 304 in 2008. Significantly, the number of suicide attacks increased from 12 to 19. In the deadliest attack, in Lahore on December 7, two bomb blasts killed at least 45 people, and injured more than 100 at the crowded Moon Market in the Allama Iqbal area. The garrison town of Rawalpindi witnessed at least four suicide attacks, of which the most devastating was on November 2, when at least 35 persons, including two women and children, were killed and 63 others sustained injuries, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a branch of the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) in Rawalpindi. In a daring attack on May 27, suicide bombers detonated a vehicle loaded with 100 kilograms of explosives near offices of the Capital City Police Officer and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Lahore – killing at least 27 persons and injuring 326 others. An ISI colonel and 15 Police officials were among those killed. In addition, at least five suicide attacks were carried out by the militants in the national capital, Islamabad. In one such incident, eight Frontier Constabulary (FC) personnel were killed, and seven others injured, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at an FC check post on the Margala Road in Islamabad. Another daring attack, which had significant international repercussions, was carried out on March 3, when the bus carrying Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Lahore. While none of the cricketers lost their lives, at least seven of them, including the team’s British coach were injured, and eight others, mostly Police guards accompanying the team, were killed in the attack.
There seems to be no hope for respite from this terror, as Hakeemullah Mehsud, the then spokesman for the TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud, declared, on May 28, 2009, “I appeal to [people] of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Multan to vacate their cities, as there will be more such massive attacks, more dangerous than this and we will target Government buildings and places”. On April 8, 2009 the Pakistani Taliban commander Mullah Nazeer Ahmed stated in an interview with al Qaeda’s media arm, Al-Sahab, that the Taliban would soon capture Islamabad and that Pakistani Taliban factions had united and would take their war to the capital. Worryingly, its not only the Taliban and al Qaeda but also the Sunni outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) which is creating a terror hub in the Province.
Sindh and, more alarmingly, the economic capital Karachi, are also being steadily consumed by terrorism. Fatalities in the province rose to 68 in 2009, from 52 in 2008. In one of the deadliest attacks, on December 30, 2009, a suicide bombing killed 45 people in Karachi. In an alarming disclosure, a March 1, 2009, report prepared by the Karachi Criminal Investigation Department Special Branch indicated that the Taliban network could strike the financial and shipping hub of Karachi and “could take the city hostage at any point”. A December 23, 2009, report, quoting a Senior Police Official said that several militants of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), who were earlier hiding and fighting in the tribal areas of the NWFP, had reached Karachi to carry out terrorist activities.
Sectarian violence, however, continued to decline, offering Islamabad some relief. Though there was a slight increase in the number of incidents recorded, the number of those killed and injured reduced remarkably.
Islamabad’s responses to terrorism, however, remain ambivalent. There have been efforts to fight the TTP fitfully, and some legal amendments suggest that there is a greater measure of seriousness in the Government. Thus, on October 2, 2009, President Zardari amended the Anti-terrorism Act, 1997, and on November 3, 2009, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance approved the Anti-Money Laundering Bill, 2009. Nevertheless, the Government remains keen to allow favoured segments of the terror infrastructure to grow. The open support to terrorists on ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ came as the latest reminder of the State’s duplicity on terrorism. On February 4, 2010, the Jama’at-ud-Da’awa (JuD), a front organization of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), held a Yakjaiti-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Solidarity) conference in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) capital Muzaffarabad. Syed Salahuddin, the chief of HM and chairman of the 16-party United Jihad Council, declared, “The Kashmir issue cannot be resolved through dialogue. Jihad (holy war) is the only solution to free Kashmir from the Indian yoke… I want to tell my brothers across the border that we will remain with you until India quits Kashmir.” A day later, the JuD held a public meeting in Islamabad, vowing to seize Kashmir by force and threatening “rivers of blood” in India. “Whenever our jihad in Kashmir nears success, India becomes ready for talks,” Abdur Rehman Makki, deputy to JuD leader Hafiz Saeed proclaimed, referring to India’s proposal for initiation of talks with Pakistan. [India had proposed resumption of talks on February 5]. Another JuD rally, led by Hafiz Saeed, was organised in Lahore. Each of these was a well attended mass rally, widely covered by the national and international media. State agencies made no effort to curtail the activities of these groups, several of which are designated international terrorist organisations.
Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorism in India and Afghanistan is now one of the world’s worst kept secrets, and this was further confirmed, on December 16, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogation of David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani [one of the prime suspect in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks]. The FBI found that “a section of serving Pakistan Army officers” were working in close collaboration with India-specific jihadi groups like the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).
Islamabad also continued to harbour Taliban militants fighting against the Allied forces, led by US, in Afghanistan. On February 10, 2009, US President Barack Obama asserted that his Administration would not allow ‘safe havens’ for al Qaeda and the Taliban operating with ‘impunity’ in the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. “You’ve got the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in the FATA and these border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan… What we haven’t seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful,” he asserted. On October 14, the United States Consul General in Karachi, Stephen Fakan, stated that it would be ‘unreasonable’ to deny the presence of the Taliban in Baluchistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff had said in April that the Taliban in Pakistan had established strategic links with al Qaeda and was facilitating al Qaeda’s attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Despite this, the Obama Administration launched a ‘new’ policy for Afghanistan-Pakistan on March 27, 2009 with a much fanfare AfPak policy , without even mentioning the Taliban. This was a continuation of the intentional blindness of the predecessor George Bush Administration. Obama’s AfPak policy only talked about the threat from al Qaeda. There was, nevertheless, an effort on the part of the US to engage the militants directly, and at least 43 drone attacks were carried out by the US on Pakistani soil in 2009. In the most successful attack on August 5, the then TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in SWA.
David Kilcullen articulated a rising desperation in a growing constituency, that “if Pakistan went out of control, it would dwarf all the crises in the world today”. Islamabad, however, continues to play with fire, even as the international community offers no solution other than rising quantities of aid to a progressively rogue Pakistan that remains a safe haven for the al Qaeda, the Taliban and a number of State supported international terrorist organisations. Unless the Pakistani establishment overcomes its ambivalence towards all manifestations of terrorism, it is clear, the country’s slide into chaos will not be halted.