Has the threat diminished?
POLITICAL hysterics resulting from the prime minister’s conviction and an equivocal Supreme Court sentence are currently overshadowing discussions about Pakistan’s security challenges.
No doubt, the unfolding political situation will circumscribe any public debate about Pakistan’s recent gains against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Over the past few months, the narrative about the TTP within Pakistan has evolved to suggest that the group is significantly weakened, and no longer poses a serious threat. This narrative deserves scrutiny as Pakistan and the US enter negotiations on the terms of the bilateral relationship, including its counterterrorism components.
Since late last year, news headlines have described the TTP as divided, weak and short on cash. The sense that the TTP was past its peak was amplified when year-end statistics confirmed that 2011 witnessed a significant 35 per cent decrease in suicide attacks. Even the spectacular raid at Bannu Central Prison earlier this month was unable to shake the prevailing impression: after the fact, many voices aired concerns that the jailbreak might ‘reinforce’ or ‘revitalise’ the TTP’s ranks — implying that those ranks need revitalising — but few suggested that the raid demonstrated the TTP’s strategic capacity and continuing ability to take on the Pakistani security establishment.
The perception of a weakened TTP deserves scrutiny, especially as it is likely to inform policymaking in coming months — particularly with regard to US-Pakistan negotiations, budget allocations for security, reconstruction and development, and discussions with international donor agencies. The evolving narrative also deserves to be questioned since media access to the tribal belt remains limited and any information that does leak out of the region is endlessly interpreted by different actors to serve their own agendas.
As the official statements about the TTP’s reduced capacity flow, Pakistanis should demand to know whether the TTP has been weakened in the long term, and whether the state has plans to complement security gains with sustainable rehabilitation and development programmes and improved local policing. Or is the TTP simply suffering a temporary setback brought about by drone attacks and months of militant infighting? Without the answer to this question, any policymaking with security implications can be described as reckless.
The question of whether drones have reduced the TTP’s operational capability could prove contentious as Islamabad pushes Washington to completely abandon the Predator programme. While public opinion is set firmly against drone strikes, their efficacy remains under debate: depending on which media you consume or which think tank’s website you consult for figures, drones are either failing to stem militancy and spurring recruitment, or they’ve disrupted TTP operations by forcing militants to go underground and minimise contact with each other.
As the Pakistan government calls for the strikes to stop, it should remember that the public is fickle and will have a different opinion of drones if the suicide bombings spike soon after the programme comes to a halt (remember how the Predators’ popularity soared after former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed?). Whatever is ultimately decided about drones, Pakistan’s security establishment should be transparent about their current impact, and plan accordingly for any change of strategy.
To avoid engaging the ‘to drone or not to drone’ question, the changing narrative about the TTP has focused instead on militant infighting as a sure sign that the TTP is past its prime. Much was made of Bajaur-based TTP commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammad’s announcement in December 2011 that the Taliban were open to peace talks with the government. A bigger hullabaloo followed news that TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud had ousted Maulvi Faqir from the TTP leadership council in March for his transgression. The internecine feuding is believed to have helped slow the pace of TTP attacks.
Meanwhile, turf wars between different militant factions continue to rage across the Khyber Agency. The TTP faction there has long sought control of the area from Lashkar-i-Islam (LI). Last year, the LI also clashed with Zakhakhel tribesmen in the Bara region of Khyber. This militant infighting has created a buffer zone of sorts between Peshawar and tribal regions controlled by the TTP, thereby contributing to a decrease in terror attacks.
While such militant infighting has distracted groups from plotting and executing terror attacks, it is not necessarily a sign of weakness. One militant group’s victory over others in a localised turf war could change the entire security scenario (for example, in Khyber, where the prevailing group will have access to Peshawar and the supply routes through the Khyber Pass).
Moreover, in the medium and long term, internecine clashes could cause the security situation to further deteriorate. Militant factionalisation is likely to spark an increase in criminal activities in Pakistan’s major cities as fragmented groups try to retain control over existing avenues of terror financing, including bank robberies, kidnapping, extortion and smuggling.
Terrorist attacks against various targets are also likely to multiply: the TTP currently operates through smaller, splinter groups that are constituted to carry out specific operations. This decentralised model has fostered increased collaboration and coalition building across militant groups, including Pakistan’s anti-India and sectarian outfits. This model has made it much more difficult for the security establishment to track militancy. Factionalisation would only make the task of monitoring militants harder, leading to a more diffuse and thus heightened terrorist threat.
Ultimately, drone attacks (or their suspension) and internecine feuding are not sustainable solutions to a real security problem. And policies aimed at addressing security challenges in a holistic manner cannot succeed if the threat is misunderstood. Before the Pakistani public, and the state, move on from the TTP, an accurate understanding of what has slowed the group’s activities is needed for future policymaking and strategic planning.
The writer is a freelance journalist.