Whether it is Pakistan, Afghanistan or the United States, things have to be prioritised when choosing which group of militants and insurgents ought to be fought first.
This became obvious when the US or, for that matter, the beleaguered Afghan government, had to decide recently whether to take on Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban from Swat, now based in eastern Afghanistan or continue focusing on other targets. Such a decision had to be taken after the October 9 assassination attempt on teenager Malala Yousafzai in Swat by militants loyal to Fazlullah. The incident had sparked outrage all over the world and President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials too had condemned the attack and announced solidarity with blogger Malala and support for her cause of girls’ education.
However, those strong sentiments of solidarity with Malala didn’t translate into action when the US had to decide if it was in its interest to go after Fazlullah, the mastermind of the attack on the 15-year-old school student.
As Dana Priest reported in The Washington Post on November 6, US military and intelligence officials admitted that finding Fazlullah was not a priority for them because he wasn’t affiliated with Al-Qaeda or with insurgents targeting US and Afghan interests. Fazlullah’s group, whose strength is reportedly 1,000 to 1,500 according to Pakistani intelligence sources, is clearly within sights of the US-led Nato and Afghan forces because it operates out of a region adjoining Pakistan where several hundred American troops and many more Afghan soldiers are stationed.
The US argument for not going after Fazlullah is that American forces are spread thin in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces, where his group found sanctuaries following Pakistan’s military operation in Swat in 2009 and began launching cross-border attacks in Chitral, Upper Dir and Lower Dir districts and the Bajaur tribal region in 2010. This is true due to the fact that US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan as part of Nato’s plans to complete the pullout by 2014 and are therefore unable to spare troops for new military operations. But it is also true that the US special operations forces and its formidable air power ruling Afghanistan’s skies for the last 11 years could be used to target the Pakistani militants holding out in Kunar and Nuristan.
In fact, the US used drones to kill Dadullah, a Pakistani Taliban commander from Bajaur operating out of Kunar, because he had allegedly helped fighters attacking US-led coalition forces and maintained close ties to Al-Qaeda. Fazlullah and his lieutenants too could be taken out if the US wanted to do so by using its airpower. However, as US military and intelligence officials argued, he wasn’t being tracked or a priority because he was an “other-side-of-the-border” problem. In plain words, he was Pakistan’s problem and not of the United States’ or the Afghan government’s, which according to Isaf advisers is allowing the Pakistani Taliban to operate in retribution for Pakistan’s not doing enough to dismantle havens for Afghan Taliban on its soil.
For Pakistan, the priority has always been to first tackle the militants fighting the state and carrying out a campaign of bombings in its cities. They include locals and foreigners linked to organisations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its likeminded groups to the Baloch separatists. Fighting the Afghan Taliban or its affiliate, Haqqani network, and the Pakistani militants, such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the Maulvi Nazir groups based in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, respectively, hasn’t been a priority for Islamabad, as none of these outfits has declared war against Pakistan; even though all armed groups in the long run could constitute a challenge to the Pakistani state or others in the region.
This explains why Pakistan has resisted pressure from the US and its allies to launch military operations against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan or go after the Pakistani militants headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir. Besides, Pakistan has sometimes made the same argument as the US that its forces are stretched fighting on so many fronts and starting a new battle in North Waziristan until now wasn’t possible. The US, however, considers all the above mentioned groups a threat and uses the CIA-operated drones to attack them even within Pakistan’s borders, despite Islamabad’s protests against violation of its sovereignty.
It is primarily a question of self-interest for Pakistan and the US, which claim to be allies but have different sets of priorities. As their priorities are unlikely to change in the near future, one should not expect Islamabad and Washington to have a trouble-free relationship anytime soon.
Article by: Rahimullah Yusufzai
Published in The News International on December 01, 2012