FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Pakistan’s Ongoing Retreat from the War on Terror
Islamabad's Latest Bid to Reduce Attrition Makes the Region, and the World, More Vulnerable to Islamist Terror
Faced with a losing battle against strengthening Taliban elements in its Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), the Pakistani government officially threw in the towel last week on its already halfhearted efforts to combat terrorism in the key Malakand Division of the country’s northwest, agreeing to a peace treaty with local Taliban leaders that paves the way for terrorist-administered Shari’a law in the region.
Under the agreement, called the “Malakand Accord,” official responsibility for political administration and the implementation of Shari’a law in the region will fall to Sufi Mohammed, a senior Taliban leader who was released from prison in April 2008 as part of an earlier unsuccessful peace agreement between NWFP Taliban leaders and Islamabad. Mohammed, who leads an organization called the “Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Shari’a Law” (TNSM), which provided the ideological basis for the pre-2001 Afghan Taliban, had been in Pakistani custody since 2002.
Formalizing Extremist Rule
The Malakand Accord, which requires the Pakistani military to cease offensive operations against Taliban fighters in the region, does not cede new ground to the terrorists so much as it legitimizes the current Taliban occupation of the Malakand Division, putting Mohammed Sufi in the position of formally and legitimately taking over for, and expanding the holdings of, his son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah, head of the Taliban in Swat and, until now, an informal regional leader in the Pakistani Taliban hierarchy headed by Baitullah Mehsud.
According to the Long War Journal‘s Bill Roggio, Fazlullah, who “advocates Shari’a and violence against the government on broadcasts on his illegal FM radio” has “successfully organized a campaign opposing polio vaccinations and has forced the closure [of] girls’ schools throughout the region,” destroying more than 200 schools in Swat since 2007.
Fazlullah was one of a number of local tribal leaders who ascended to prominence within the Pakistani Taliban in the last few years as a result of foreign fighters’ efforts to gain legitimacy in Pakistan through the recruitment of indigenous leadership. “This new generation of Taliban is under the influence of al Qaeda,” wrote Roggio, “and is supplemented by militants of different localities like Chechens, Bosnians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Arabs, and Egyptians.”
In 2008, Fazlullah imposed Shari’a law on Swat, and Taliban there have meted out punishments on “lawbreakers” ranging from public whippings to beheadings. Further, in January of this year, Fazlullah commanded several government officials to appear before his Shari’a courts in Swat to answer for their efforts to combat the Taliban’s ongoing terror campaign.
The Accord ostensibly protects Islamabad and its regional representatives from harassment and terror at the hands of the Taliban in Malakand. More importantly, though – and more disturbingly – the truce formalizes Malakand as a safe haven for extremists who, now that they no longer have to waste time and effort battling the Pakistani military, can better concentrate their forces in the FATA and their energy on combating U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as on planning and executing attacks on foreign soil.
The Latest in a Series of Ineffective Treaties
This is not the first time Pakistan has attempted to relieve the pressure being put on it by the growing terrorist takeover of its supposedly sovereign territory – nor is it likely to be the last. Islamabad’s disappearing will to take on those terrorists who threaten both its leaders and its institutions has allowed the al Qaeda-influenced Taliban to establish a haven that rivals pre-2001 Afghanistan in its security, and provides still more evidence of the fact that the central front in the Central Asian theater of the War on Terror is no longer Afghanistan, but Pakistan.
Not only is the elimination of insurgent and terrorist havens in Pakistan far more critical to the region and to the success of the fight against international terror than the pacification and security of Afghanistan alone, but the former is a prerequisite for accomplishing the latter. As the RAND Corp. pointed out in 2008 (“Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan“), every successful insurgency conducted in Afghanistan “in the last 30 years” has been made possible by the presence of a sanctuary for those insurgents within Pakistan.
New Country, Same Old Taliban
At a February 18 rally held in Mingora, Swat to celebrate the Malakand Accord, Sufi Mohammed made his incoming administration’s position on the West and on worldwide Islam clear. “We hate democracy!” he said to raucous audience approval. “We want the occupation of Islam in the entire world. Islam does not permit democracy or election.”
This is not a new sentiment for Sufi, who in 2001 led 10,000 Pakistani militants into Afghanistan to battle invading coalition forces. Further, days before the Malakand Accord was finalized, Sufi told a German newspaper, “From the very beginning, I have viewed democracy as a system imposed on us by the infidels. Islam does not allow democracy or elections. I believe the Taliban government [in pre-2001 Afghanistan] formed a complete Islamic state, which was an ideal example for other Muslim countries.”
Islamabad’s sanctioning of Taliban-imposed Islamist extremism in northwestern Pakistan shows claims like that of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who said the treaty would help “defeat the rise of Islamist extremism in the insurgency-infested northwest,” to be farcical at best.
‘Defeat is Victory’
Its current pursuit of peace via treaty rather than via victory only reinforces Islamabad’s position of weakness and vulnerability to terror. Giving in to those who threaten or perpetrate violence does not buy long-term peace, stability, or security; rather, it teaches those doing the threatening that their tactics are effective, and that their actions will be rewarded with concessions and pleas for “peace,” no matter how adamantly officials like Sherry Rehman, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, insist that the formal ceding of control over a large swath of its northwest “is in no way a sign of the state’s weakness.” Further, Taliban forces in Pakistan have sued for, and agreed to, several peace deals over the past five years, every time using the respite from fighting the Pakistani military to regroup, rearm, and recruit more fighters and followers before resuming their expansionist efforts and attacks on government and civilian institutions.
Minister Rehman downplayed the idea that this agreement would end the same way its predecessors had, and declared that the implementation of Shari’a law in Malakand by Sufi’s Taliban “will bring speedy justice at the doorstep of the common man.” The latter is quite an ironic claim coming from a woman holding high government office (something itself anathema to a society governed by Shari’a).
A Failure with Far-Reaching Implications
Taliban forces in Pakistan’s border area have not limited the scope of their operations to the Pakistani/Afghan region. In recent years, terrorists from northwest Pakistan have been involved in the 7/7 attacks in London (2005), the foiled liquid-explosive transatlantic airliner bombings (2006), and foiled plots in Germany and Denmark (2007) and Spain 2008).
Islamabad has been thrust into a very difficult position by the combination of a growing, dedicated insurgency in its northwest, the widespread terrorist sympathy and anti-Western sentiment among its population, and pressure from the U.S. to act decisively (and to aid the U.S. in acting) against those terrorists which are as much a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty as they are to Afghanistan, Europe, and America.
While they have provided a measure of assistance to the U.S. fight against terror in the region, including by allowing ongoing strikes against foreign-network leadership and limited basing of unmanned aerial vehicles within their borders, Presidents Musharraf and President Zardari have been unfortunately unwilling to consistently deal aggressively with the Taliban’s growing control of their northwestern frontier. This unwillingness has directly allowed a new, more dangerous form of the extremist group that controlled Afghanistan in from 1997 to 2001 to obtain an ever-growing safe haven from which it can organize, grow, and plan and execute offensives and attacks against the coalition in Afghanistan and against governments and countries farther away – something the misguided, weakness-exposing Malakand Accord further legitimizes and makes possible.