Troop Defections Threaten Pakistan’s Operations in Tribal Regions

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 4

At the end of February, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan to pressure Pervez Musharraf’s government to crack down on insurgent activity on the border with Afghanistan. Cheney’s visit has highlighted how Pakistan’s will and power to fight Taliban militants in the country’s northwestern highlands has come under fire. Yet some observers still take a charitable view of Islamabad’s determination to stay in the fight, while at the same time doubting its ability to do so (Daily Times, February 20). What further reinforced such doubts was the peace deal that Musharraf concluded with the Taliban on September 5, 2006, which was viewed as a “total capitulation” to the Taliban (Terrorism Monitor, October 5, 2006). The deal was, however, hurriedly thrown together to keep unity in the rank and file of Pakistani security forces, whose morale had begun to sink from the very beginning. This factor is an important component of Musharraf’s policy toward the tribal areas.

In March 2004, for example, a mass defection of government troops occurred after the army launched a major offensive in Wana, South Waziristan. The operation involved combat units from the Baloch Regiment, the Sindh Regiment and the Punjab Regiment of the Pakistani Army, the Commandos of the Special Services Group (SSG), the Frontier Corps (a paramilitary force), the Waziristan Scouts and Khasadars, a tribal police force (Asia Times Online, July 22, 2004). It is pertinent to note that the Baloch and Sindh regiments, contrary to their purported designations, are all made up of Punjabis, who are the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan. The Frontier Corps is also Punjabi.

In the Wana operation, which lasted 10 days, 500 officers and soldiers refused to fight and instead laid down their arms (Asia Times Online, July 22, 2004). A large number of “officers and soldiers belonging to 37 Division, 313 Brigades, 24 Sindh Regiment, 31 Baloch Regiment, 12 Punjab Regiment and Frontier Corps Peshawar” were arrested and court-martialed at Gujranwala, Mangla and Jhelum garrisons. To restore discipline and to ensure compliance of the command, several commissioned and non-commissioned officers were handed severe sentences, including the death penalty (Asia Times Online, December 22, 2004).

Since the Wana Operation, 500 leading religious scholars signed a fatwa, a religious judgment, ruling that militants killed in the action are “martyrs.” The same fatwa forbade the public to pray for the dead government soldiers. Long after the military operation wound up in the twin agencies of Waziristan, demoralization continues to dog government troops. As recently as this year, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistani Army solicited a fatwa of its own from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) on the status of soldiers killed in fighting terrorist or sectarian violence (Daily Times, February 19).

The GHQ, with an unsubtle expectation, wanted the CII to rule that such soldiers rise to the level of martyrdom. The CII, however, packed with government-appointed religious scholars, cleverly dodged the GHQ’s question and instead referred it to independent muftis, religious scholars who are experts in Sharia law, to judge what is permissible or impermissible in Islam. The CII then dutifully communicated the muftis’ opinion to the GHQ, but omitted publishing its contents in its report (Daily Times, February 19). This apparently, calculated omission raised further questions as to whether or not the muftis agreed to the “martyrdom” of soldiers killed in terrorist or sectarian violence. It is ironic, however, for an army that is founded on the trinity of “Ieman (faith), Tukva (piety) and Jihad” to see its soldiers question the Islamic validity of their cause.

The troops’ demoralization had also sunk the morale of the members of the political administration and tribal maliks (elders) in the combat zones. The members of the political administration, who are civil servants, have relocated to neighboring settled (i.e., non-tribal) areas, such as Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and Peshawar to escape the Taliban’s attacks. Tribal maliks, who are not as protected as members of the political administration, have fared worse. More than 250 of them have so far been slaughtered for supporting government troops (Terrorism Monitor, October 5, 2006). Hundreds of others, who were suspected of supporting government troops, have fled to safer places, fearing for their lives. Those who continue to live in the area have allied themselves with the Taliban for protection. Since the September 5 peace deal, the Taliban have publicly declared their territory the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan,” with all the trappings of a sovereign state, complete with a geographical map and a national flag.

As a result of the peace deal, Pakistani troops have ceded the ground completely to the control of the Taliban. They, however, retain command of the airspace over the tribal belt. Yet, Pakistani air supremacy stands compromised for fear of the Taliban’s retaliation against military targets elsewhere. In short, it is not Pakistan’s will, but ability to fight Taliban militants that is in doubt. Islamabad, however, continues to defend its peace deal with the Taliban, and assertively predicts that “America [too] will have to make peace with the Taliban” (Nawa-i-Waqt, February 23).