[Chipotle Mystery] Since late July a number of suicide attacks have struck Pakistan, reminiscent of the spate of violence that ringed in the New Year and witnessed the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The rise in violence comes as the Pakistani military appears to be engaging in a large-scale offensive in Bajaur, one of the seven agencies that make up the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and also follow the visit of Yusuf Raza Gillani to Washington in July (It appears that the U.S. Government gave its approval for the removal of Musharraf during this meeting – but this is just speculation).
Quick background: The FATA serves as a sanctuary for various Taliban-affiliated groups, notably the “Pakistani Taliban” led by Baitullah Mehsud who has been blamed for Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. The FATA may also house Al-Qaeda leaders, and Bajaur in particular has often been speculated as serving as a hiding place for Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been the target of a number of air strikes in the area in recent years.
With this “raising of the temperature” by the Pakistani military, lead by Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani since late 2007, the Pakistani Taliban and its cohorts appear to be returning to their time-tested tactic of spreading terror in order to persuade the government to return to the status quo: reduced Pakistani military interference in the FATA in exchange for a termination of terrorist attacks. This dance has played out regularly in the past, seeing the army launching offensives, only to sign peace deals and retreat, allowing militants a relatively free-hand along the Afghan border. Understandably, such maneuvers by Pakistan have been criticized by Afghanistan and NATO for allowing militants to increasingly target forces in Afghanistan.
Amidst this apparent repetition of history is an interesting report from a Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, claiming that the Pakistan has decided to pursue an all-out offensive against militants. Before delving into the report, I should point out that Shahzad’s own background is murky: He often reports exclusives on the Taliban and appears to have an unprecedented amount of access and information about militant activities in the frontier regions. He has been alleged to be everything from an Indian intelligence agent (by some Pakistani extremist groups) to an affiliate of Pakistani intelligence. I would bet the later is true to some degree as some of his previous reports have come true, while others haven’t panned out (maybe he serves to spread disinformation for intelligence?). The fact that he has had so much apparent access to militants along the Pak-Afghan border indicates that he has some sort of protection, as journalists sniffing around in the area have regularly died on the job.
Shahzad’s claims are notable as he claims that Pakistan will not just confront Mehsud, who poses a real threat to Pakistan, but members of other Taliban and pro-Taliban groups. This includes the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, led by the faceless Mullah Omar, and militants under the command of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a famed Afghan warrior who made his name fighting the Soviets. Both of these factions have not pursuing attacks against Pakistan or its military, and in fact have historic links with Pakistani intelligence. A number of reports in the Pakistani media earlier in the year, claimed that Omar had removed Mehsud from his position of power due to the latter’s willingness to pursue confrontation with Pakistan. It is very difficult to know if such reports are true, but it makes sense if Omar is really hiding in Quetta as has been alleged. At the same time, as if often the case when discussing the Taliban, it could be a ruse to separate Omar from being blamed for Mehsud’s actions (the degree of coordination between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban remains unknown, but they surely maintain some level of links). Omar and other Afghan Taliban leaders may also be loathe to provoke Pakistan due to the possible continued existence of links between Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan Taliban, maintained due in part to Pakistani strategic concerns, an allegation that has been forth in the media after last month’s attack in Kabul on the Indian Embassy.
With that said if Shahzad is correct, this indicates a major paradigm shift by the Pakistani government. It means that the government has either decided to attempt to eradicate militancy, which is unlikely if only due to the nature of militancy; or the government has been received some major incentives or pressure to take such action by an outside power. It could also be that the military (Pakistani intelligence is part of the military structure) has decided to clamp down on militants in the interests of its own preservation, or no longer finds them useful for its strategic objectives.
Ultimately, whether or not Shahzad’s report is prophetic; the changing situation in Pakistan bears watching as it will have an effect on both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and South Asia at large, especially in light of worsening tensions between Pakistan and India. The removal of Musharraf, infighting in the government, increased international scrutiny and a renewed terrorist campaign could make things very hot in the coming weeks. This may also be portended by Zawahiri’s recent video focused exclusively on addressing Pakistanis, where he spoke English for the first time, perhaps serving as a warning before the launch of an Al-Qaeda campaign to coincide with the upcoming holy Islamic month of Ramadan.