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By The Pakistan army is responsible for the threat that the Taliban pose to that country, writes Abhijit Bhattacharyya
  • Published 17.11.09

The recent attacks on several Pakistani cities and towns — Lahore, Kohat, Peshawar and Rawalpindi — have shown the army of Pakistan in a poor light. The armed forces, it seems, have been reduced to the role of mere spectators. This certainly cannot be good news either for the State or the regions that are engaged in a discussion with the powers that be.

Lahore is not only important militarily, but is also, symbolically, the custodian of Punjabi culture, tradition and cuisine. Lahore is the base of the IV corps, which consists of the 10 and 11 infantry divisions, two independent infantry brigade groups (partly mechanized) and one independent armoured brigade whose objectives are to defend Punjab and counter any threat emanating from Amritsar, India. However, this vast garrison of (more than) 60,000 military men was found wanting when it came to negating the internal threat originating from insurgent elements who were once friends of the military establishment. These men had been raised and supported by the Pakistan army to fight the threat posed by foreign powers such as India. The recent increase in the spate of attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers on the army has the potential to bring about an unprecedented restructuring of the military in Pakistan.

The prevailing situation in Peshawar is not different either. Peshawar is home to the XI corps, which consists of two infantry divisions with Mardan and Kohat as the headquarter of the 7 and 9 infantry divisions respectively. The corps is responsible for security in areas such as the North West Frontier Province, the Afghan border, as well as for the reinforcement of the eastern formations facing India.

The recent killings in Kohat and Peshawar comprised all the ingredients of Sun Tzu’s Art of War — surprise, deception and mobility, and the precise choice of date, time, place and target. Indeed, the Pakistani army today faces a real dilemma for the first time since its inception: it not only has to confront an enemy, which is capable of fighting an ‘asymmetrical war’, but is also having to push hard against ‘blood-brothers’ who are operating in the catchment areas of military recruitment. This constitutes a grave threat and endangers the unity and cohesion within the army.

Having ruled Pakistan for over three decades, the high command of the army now finds itself in a tizzy. This is because any insurgency spreading further and wider across the Punjab and the Pashtun homeland can be potentially disastrous for the army’s recruitment operations. And there are no signs yet of a decline in the number of attacks by militants against the military.

It is an extraordinarily complex situation. Fifty five per cent of combat soldiers in the Pakistan army is Punjabi and 30 per cent are Pashtun. The bulk of the recruits hails from Attock, Rawalpindi and the Pashtun badlands of NWFP and Fata. This army of Punjabi and Pashtun soldiers are having to face an enemy, which has been resorting to guerrilla warfare and suicide missions against the nation. Although the army is expected to take the fight to the Taliban, the possibility of an escalation of conflict on fronts in the rear cannot be ruled out. This is likely to stretch the armed forces of Islamabad.

In reality, the outfits raised and reared by the army and by the Inter-Services Intelligence are bound to mount further desperate attacks against their mentors. Moreover, there are enough of them lurking in the shadows. There is the Al Badr, a “small organization”, which is capable of inflicting serious damage on Indian targets in co-operation with larger terror outfits operating in South Asia. With bases in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Lahore, Al Badr is reportedly trained in Kotli, PoK, by the ISI’s instructors who train the cadre in handling explosives as well as in guerrilla warfare. Although Al Badr has claimed that it is not a part of the al Qaida, it had opposed the restrictions that President Musharraf had imposed on jihadi groups.

The biggest foe of the army in Pakistan is the Tehrik-e-Taliban, which, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, was “formed as an umbrella group to enable the numerous pro-Taliban groups operating in the FATA and NWFP of Pakistan to co-ordinate their activities and consolidate their growing influence in the region”. In the light of the recent suicide attacks across urban Pakistan, including the one on the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi, it is pertinent to refer back to what Jane’s had to say in 2008 — “These groups (under TTP) are regularly confronting and defeating Pakistani security forces. Their ability to deploy suicide bombers has also meant they are capable of posing a threat throughout Pakistan, even in military strongholds such as the garrison city of Rawalpindi.” Prophetic? Yes, as well as a practical assessment of the threat perception.

The Pakistani army is already facing a daunting task fighting its own countrymen. The Tehrik-e-Taliban has openly professed its three-pronged strategy: First, to unite the various pro-Taliban groups in Fata and NWFP, thereby preventing the government from pursuing its divide-and-rule strategy to counter tribal insurgency by creating a single channel for all negotiations; second, to assist the Afghan Taliban in its campaign against Hamid Karzai and Nato; finally, to reproduce a Taliban-style Islamic emirate in Pakistan and beyond.

The most significant aspect is that the Tehrik-e-Taliban represents a section of the ‘population on the fringes’. These people were the ones who formed a critical front in the State’s proxy wars, from Kabul to Kashmir. The Pakistani soldiers and spies, till recently, had selected these jihadi groups, among others, as asymmetric weapons “to tie down half the Indian army in Kashmir” and to develop “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

The monster that has been set free is the Tehrik-e-Taliban. Consequently, its creator is fast losing its head and heart. So much so that the harassed army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is having to rush to douse the domestic fire and save the State from oblivion. The Taliban pose an existential threat to Pakistan, and the Pakistani army is solely responsible for the unenviable situation in which it finds itself today.