In a remote rugged mountainous region in Pakistan’s northwest, a bomb killed a senior army general on September 15 while he was returning from a visit to military posts on the frontier with Afghanistan. Two other soldiers were also killed in the bombing. Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack. Days before the attack, Pakistan’s central government had announced a plan proposing talks with the Taliban as part of a new strategy to end violence.
The current chief of Pakistan’s powerful army, General Pervez Kayani, is generally known as a professional soldier. He took command over in 2007 from his predecessor, a coup maker, who ultimately stepped down in face of fierce opposition protests after ruling the country for nearly a decade, first as a military uniform-wearing general and then as civilian president. General Kayani strengthened his professional credentials because he is credited with standing by to let an elected Parliament and a political government complete its mandated five-year term, without staking out another military claim to power. And that is no small feat in a country that has been ruled by army generals for more than half of its life since gaining independence from British rule in 1947.
But if General Kayani’s credentials for democracy and political non-interference remain unblemished, the army’s handling of the fight against Taliban- and al-Qaida-linked militants, mainly in the country’s wild northwestern tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, leaves room for debate.
Pakistani military has been a frontline ally of the United State since a U.S-led coalition dislodged the Taliban from power in neighboring Afghanistan, in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Pakistani military controls the overland supply routes through Pakistani territory for U.S. and NATO forces based in landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistani military had allowed the U.S. to use some of its air force bases in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. In return, Pakistan, mainly the military, has received millions of U.S. dollars in ‘coalition support funds’ from Washington.
Despite questions at times about its sincerity and intentions, the Pakistan army had been battling militants, with varying degrees of success.
The fight is increasingly getting costly for the army, in loss of life in particular. The latest blow was the September 15 killing in Dir district of the major general, who was commander of an army garrison in the region.
In paying tributes to the slain general a day later, General Kayani said Pakistan army has “the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists,” according to a statement issued by the military’s media office, Inter-Services Public Relations.
The attack on the army general in Dir, where until recently the Pakistani Taliban held sway, came on the heels of the announcement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of holding peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, believed to be an odd mix of militant factions tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida and that has been blamed for attacks on the military as well as civilians.
General Kayani, in the ISPR-issued statement, referenced, albeit indirectly, the government’s proposed peace overture to the Taliban. Kayani said that while it was “understandable” to seek peace through political means “no one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms,” according to the ISPR statement.
The central government’s proposal for talks with the Taliban is backed by the regional government, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Dir is also located. The party ruling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Pakistan Justice Party, and its coalition allies, are also opposed to attacks against militants by U.S. pilotless planes or drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas and has called for an end to such strikes.
Despite a steady drumbeat of opposition to the army’s fight against militants by PTI and other right-wing Islamic political groups, believed to be close to the military and sympathetic to the Taliban, General Kayani has been trying to sell the war against militants as being waged in Pakistan’s own interests, contrary to the right-wing argument that it has been imposed on an unwilling Pakistan by Washington. In a keynote address on August 14, at a ceremony marking Pakistan’s Independence Day, Kayani said that the army was united with the nation in the fight against militants. The war, he said, “can only be won when we agree on a joint strategy so that there is no ambiguity in our minds or in the minds of terrorists.”
But the recent proposed peace overtures by authorities in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and a decision by the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to withdraw army troops from Swat, a hill resort district, worries many, and perhaps, for good reason.
Barely two days after the roadside bombing that killed the major-general in Dir, a member of an anti-Taliban village peace committee was shot dead in Swat by gunmen who attacked his home. The slain major-general was commander of army troops in Swat and Dir. The army wrestled Swat out of militants control in 2009. Many Swatis fear army withdrawal from Swat and peace overtures by the government may embolden the Taliban to return and reassert themselves.
In interviews with Pakistani media, a Taliban spokesman has said Taliban will hold talks only when thousands of their jailed comrades are released and the army is withdrawn from the FATA, where militants have strongholds.
Perhaps for General Kayani, or even Pakistan, the biggest embarrassment came on May 2, 2011, when Washington’s most wanted terrorist mastermind, Obama bin Laden, was killed in an operation by U.S. special forces in the city of Abbottabad, not far from the army’s prestigious training school, Pakistan Military Academy. The Pakistani government and military had argued that the U.S. raid had been carried out without Pakistan’s knowledge.
Two days after bin Laden’s killing, General Kayani held a meeting with top military commanders at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. An ISPR media release about the meeting said the commanders acknowledged there had been “shortcomings in developing intelligence” on the whereabouts of bin Laden.
Now that Pakistan’s central government is pondering over peace talks with the Taliban, many, in particular Pashtun secular leaning nationalists in the northwest, believe the army’s job in defeating or weakening militants is not even half done and when, or if, the Taliban come to the negotiating table, they would be speaking from a position of strength, not any weakness. This apparently puts the army or General Kayani in a predicament, to back the proposed negotiations or break with the civilian government’s policy, as generals have often done in Pakistan, and fight on the Taliban militarily.
The army’s or General Kayani’s, situation is perhaps best summed up by Pakistan’s respected English language daily, Dawn. In an editorial titled “words alone won’t do,” on Kayan’s latest reiteration of fighting militants, Dawn asks, has the army done its job in explaining to the people that the battle against militants is Pakistan’s own war and why it must be fought? “The answer is a clear, and unhappy, no,” the editorial said. The Dawn editorial also questions the army’s commitment to the fight against Taliban. “Most importantly, has the army leadership come anywhere near a zero-tolerance policy against militancy?”
Dawn’s “zero-tolerance” comment aside, for now, or under General Kayani’s command, at least, the army seems to have shown some deference to civilian authority. Never before, or rarely perhaps in Pakistan’s political history, have senior Pakistani military commanders appeared in Parliament to speak on key national security issues. In the immediate aftermath of the US raid killing bin Laden, the chief of Pakistan’s power-full, and presumably ubiquitous spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, appeared in an in-camera session to field questions from lawmakers. Media reports about the ISI chief’s appearance say the army general was so overwhelmed by questions from lawmakers that at one point he offered to resign, to shouts by some opposition politicians that the offer be accepted. Of late, General Kayani sat with several senior politicians in Islamabad in a meeting called by Prime Minister Sharif where the government’s proposal of holding negotiations with the Taliban received political support.
Now the history of peace agreements between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants is a checkered one. The Pakistani government has entered into peace pacts with militants of various shades and in various regions of the country but peace never lasted much longer or considered tenuous in the best of circumstances. Among the most celebrated government-Taliban peace treaties, has been the one that happened in the spring of 2004 in South Waziristan.
That spring of 2004, in South Waziristan’s Shakai valley, at a gathering of hundreds of people, government administrators and military officials among them, the government entered into a peace accord with Nek Mohammad, a member of the region’s main Wazir tribe, a former Afghan Taliban fighter, who had risen to prominence as leader of thousands of armed fighters battling the Pakistani state. At the peace making ceremony, the region’s top army general, garlanded Nek Mohmmad, a gesture that in local celebrations, is reserved for the main guest of a ceremony. Observers believed the militant commander emerged as a victor from his deal with the government. But not long afterward, his fighters were battling the government again. The much celebrated peace treaty, a futile one at that, was history. And in June of 2004 Nek Mohammad was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan. He has come to be the first known casualty of an attack by armed, remote-controlled pilotless planes in Pakistan.
But times and circumstances appear to have changed. Bin Laden as well as several key Pakistani militants leaders have been killed. Foreign and U.S. forces are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Militants both in Afghanistan and Pakistan have used foreign military presence in Afghanistan as an argument and justification for their violence. So it remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s new peace-with-Taliban venture succeeds or traps into history to complete another futile turn.