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Feb 6, 2014 | 11:30 GMT

8 mins read

Pakistan: The Coming Conflict in North Waziristan

Pakistan: The Coming Conflict in North Waziristan

The Obama administration will greatly reduce the number of drone strikes the United States carries out in Pakistan since Islamabad has begun peace talks with Taliban rebels, The Washington Post reported Feb. 5. The move came at Pakistan's request as a way to help facilitate the talks between Islamabad and the Taliban rebel alliance. Despite these negotiations, both Islamabad and the Taliban know that military confrontation is unavoidable because they have very little room for compromise. The jihadists and the government are using the time bought by talks to prepare for renewed fighting, a conflict in which the jihadists have the advantage of NATO's looming departure from neighboring Afghanistan.

Islamabad has negotiated with the rebels at least five times since war in Pakistan's tribal areas began a decade ago. Peace agreements designed to end militancy were signed every year from 2004 to 2009, but all failed, with violations occurring within days of their signing. The last deal, with Taliban forces in the Greater Swat region, actually emboldened the jihadists to try to expand the boundaries of their so-called emirate, forcing the government to launch its biggest military offensive to date against the jihadists.

Avoiding North Waziristan

After retaking Swat from the Taliban in early 2009, the government expanded the scope of the counterjihadist campaign to South Waziristan that fall. Over the next few years Islamabad further expanded its offensive to the remaining parts of the tribal belt, with the exception of North Waziristan, which has become headquarters for numerous Pakistani and international jihadist forces.

Several factors explain Islamabad's previous hesitance to enter North Waziristan. For one, its forces have been stretched thin between the Greater Swat region and the remaining six districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Moreover, North Waziristan is the home of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a key tribal warlord who has remained neutral in the fight between Islamabad and the Taliban rebels, and it is a key base of operations for the Islamabad-aligned Haqqani subgroup of the Afghan Taliban movement. Finally, Pakistan was able to rely on the United States to take the fight to the jihadists. Washington engaged in a heavy campaign of drone strikes that eventually eliminated many key foreign and local jihadists.

Pakistan's Tribal Belt

Pakistan's Tribal Belt

But despite these losses, the Taliban rebels regained their ability to stage attacks across the country, hitting high-profile military and other security targets. The military in turn began demanding the use of unprecedented force against the jihadists in recent weeks to finally move toward launching an offensive in North Waziristan. The Pakistani air force recently began pounding militant positions in North Waziristan, and thousands have fled the area in anticipation of a large-scale military operation.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad the civil and military leadership held a key meeting Jan. 23 chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In addition to the army chief and the head of the country's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, three other key generals were present, signaling an impending all-out military assault in North Waziristan. A majority of lawmakers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League had given their support for the use of force, only for Sharif to make a surprise announcement that a peaceful solution would be given one last chance and to appoint a four-member committee authorized to negotiate with the Taliban rebels. Though unexpected, Sharif's decision meshes with the majority view among the public that the insurgency ought to be dealt with through talks.

Pre-Offensive Talks

This view is especially pronounced among the prime minister's own conservative center-right constituency and from his main rival, Imran Khan, whose right-wing nationalist Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf party governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Sharif's move to appoint a four-person team of negotiators to meet with the jihadists is his way of demonstrating that he is seriously trying to resolve matters peacefully.

The committee is chaired by Sharif's adviser on national affairs, Irfan Siddiqui; a key former official from Inter-Services Intelligence, Maj. Amir Shah; former Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand; and prominent journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai. The chair of the committee obviously represents the interests of the Sharif government, and Yousafzai has been selected for being one of the most senior experts on the cross-border Taliban and wider jihadist phenomenon. Mohmand is a key member of Khan's party and has sympathies for the Taliban. Amir Shah is perhaps the most interesting member of the team, since during the late 1980s and early 1990s he served as station chief, when he had a reputation for being an extremely professional operative. Even so, he ultimately was dismissed from the military after differences with several army commanders and intelligence bosses.

Amir Shah likely was not chosen for his past experience as a one-time prominent ISI player, but rather for his family connections, which include close links with the Taliban. He is the son of a prominent religious figure, Maulana Muhammad Tahir, who established the Salafi Panjpir madrassa and whose students include prominent Afghan and Pakistani jihadist leaders. These leaders include the current chief of the Taliban rebel alliance, Mullah Fazlullah, who used to head the Swat Taliban movement before the 2009 army action. Amir Shah's brother succeeded their father, currently leads the madrassa and maintains close ties to the Taliban and other ultraconservative religious forces.

Even so, the committee is unlikely to make much headway with the Taliban. The members of the Taliban committee strongly suggest that the Taliban are not seriously seeking compromise but rather are manipulating the talks to advance their position — as is the government. States negotiate with armed non-state actors to moderate the latter and bring them into the mainstream. In the case of Pakistan and its Taliban rebels, the non-state actors are not interested in moderation; they are interested in radically altering the nature of the republic.

Instead of appointing a committee of their own that will negotiate with the government's team, the Tehrik-i-Taliban announced a team composed of Khan; Maulana Sami ul-Haq, the head of a prominent Deobandi madrassa and leader of a small Islamist party; Mohammed Ibrahim Khan, a prominent Islamist academic from the country's most organized Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami; Mufti Kifayatullah, a key figure in Pakistan's largest Islamist party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam; Fazlur Rehman; and Maulana Abdul Aziz, the former imam of the Red Mosque who was arrested during the army action to storm it in 2007.

Khan and Kifayatullah declined the offer, but the remaining three accepted. That both committees contain many members sympathetic to the Taliban gives the jihadists ample room to manipulate the talks by exploiting the existing differences within the political mainstream. Already, the Taliban have an advantage in that they have been able to skillfully exploit public sentiment on issues like Islam, Pakistani nationalism and Muslim geopolitics. Separately, the Taliban have appointed a 10-member committee of their top commanders that will oversee the talks on behalf of the movement's leadership. Thus, a complex web of committees has emerged that will prevent any serious talks from taking place.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's Islamists believe they could gain from the talks, as do their right-wing allies. With the exception of the 2002 elections, which were engineered by the then-Musharraf regime to keep the mainstream parties out, the Islamists have never done well at the ballot box. Their involvement along with other religious groups in the current talks could elevate their standing while increasing state dependence on them. The Taliban see this as a positive development, as it would enhance their pool of potential supporters and create a social environment conducive to their political demands. 

For their part, Islamist parties and religious groups see threats and opportunities in the Taliban's rise. The threat arises from the fact that in matter of just a few years, the jihadists have overtaken them in terms of influence despite their much longer history. The government's decision to negotiate with the Taliban could further marginalize them. By inserting themselves in the middle of these talks, these Islamist and religious forces seek to not just prevent their marginalization but also hope to make up for their electoral shortcomings.

The opportunity lies in the chance that the Taliban could enter the political mainstream (despite maintaining a militant presence) and subsequently join forces with the Islamists and other religious elements to undermine Pakistan's non-Islamist political forces, which still dominate Pakistani politics.

Hopes aside, the Islamist middlemen are unlikely to benefit regardless of the outcome of the Taliban insurgency. Should the state prevail over the Taliban, there would be no change in the status of these groups. And should the Taliban insurgency succeed, they will always be subordinate to the jihadists.

Afghanistan and North Waziristan

Islamabad fears the drawdown of Western forces from neighboring Afghanistan as much as the Pakistani Taliban look forward to it for the same reason, namely because this will give the Pakistani jihadists the strategic depth with which to advance their insurgency in Pakistan.

The jihadists therefore want to drag talks out until Afghanistan becomes chaotic enough again for them to exploit the vacuum. The vacuum in Afghanistan will be hastened by the political transition in Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai will leave office after elections in April.

The government is well aware of the Pakistani Taliban's intentions. It, too, is pessimistic about the prospects of a negotiated settlement. But it hopes to use the talks to exploit divisions within the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, perhaps rendering it a more manageable entity. The chances of this happening, however, are far less than the reverse, in which the Taliban can seek to exploit the fault lines within the state and society. Islamabad also wants to establish that the government did its best to avoid war, but was left with no choice because the jihadists were not willing to compromise and join the national mainstream.

The Pakistani leadership knows that between the domestic insurgency and the one that will intensify next door once NATO forces draw down, they are looking at a long and brutal war. Part of the preparation for the coming battle is to make sure that the sizable chunk of the public that has been ambivalent and even opposed to the use of force realize that the government had no other option, particularly since the Taliban are gearing up their war machine to inflict as much damage in the core areas of the country as possible.

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