October has been a bloody month, even for this troubled region. The reach and relentlessness of this month's violence has been shocking.
It started with a suicide bombing at the World Food Programme in Islamabad and ended -assuming all remains well till Saturday- with a car bomb explosion in a narrow bazaar teeming with women and children in Peshawar, killing more than 90 people. In between, the General Headquarters of Pakistan Army was raided, an Islamabad university attacked, another Peshawar marketplace bombed, and a brigadier and an education minister murdered, among other incidents. With the death toll already standing at over 200, according to AP, the death toll must now be approaching 300 deaths for the month.
Because of security threats, government and private schools across the country remained shut this past week, with many schools extending the closure even further. Panic-stricken text messages are doing the rounds, warning friends and family against possible future target areas that include, according to one such text, "all food places," a particular university, a prominent hotel, the biggest supermarket in the city. One (paranoid?) text even cautions against picking up a call from an unknown number, for fear of detonating a remote-controlled bomb.
Be it a rude awakening or the ghosts of collateral damage, the War on Terror has never felt closer to home. We feel it in our schools that remain closed. Our homes where news channels play constant scenes of destruction. We feel it in the middle of our busy marketplaces, when a stranger leaps out of a car too anxiously and rouses dread.
But October's bloodshed was no coincidence. It unfolded just when a major military offensive was being planned in South Waziristan, a tribal area in the country's North Western corner, and escalated as the battle began. The operation has been called the 'mother of all battles' because of the region's strategic importance; it is believed to be a Taliban stronghold where 80% of the suicide bombings in the country are planned, the army says. Some 30,000 troops have been deployed there against around 12,000 militants, according to AP.
The offensive, now in its twelfth day, is predicted to be long and arduous. The militants include battle-hardened Afghans, Uzbeks and Arabs, who are expected to offer tough resistance being accustomed to the harsh weather and terrain, and bent upon a do-or-die mindset. For now, however, the army seems to be making some progress. Around 264 militants (and 31 soldiers) have been killed as of Wednesday and an important town, Kotkai, believed to be home to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud has been captured, according to army press releases (the area is closed to journalists because of the danger involved).
But reports of progress trickling down from the treacherous tribal mountains are accompanying fears of a spike in retaliatory attacks in the cities, with innocent civilians and government officials being targeted. Peshawar's blast today was the deadliest of the month.
David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post:
An official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the country's spy agency, says the recent wave of terrorism is the Taliban's attempt "to reassert themselves" and "create ill will against the army" to check the Waziristan offensive. "That will not deter us from this operation -- and taking it to its logical end."
As the battle rages on, one realization has dawned on the military as well as the US: this must be viewed as Pakistan's war alone. And not without good reason. The Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of Pakistani public opinion this August revealed that 95 % are against US drone attacks in the tribal areas. Outside involvement, particularly one that fails to distinguish between militants and innocent civilians, flames nationalistic sentiments. [On Saturday, October 24, several local newspapers reported that US drones had killed more than 20 militants in Bajaur, towards the north of Waziristan, but according to a report by Al Jazeera, the Pakistani government denied that it was a US drone attack]
Military analysts believe that the US could instead help by carefully securing the Afghan side of the border to prevent militants from slipping into Afghanistan during this crucial army operation. The point has been raised because of disconcerting allegations in local newspapers that US-led Nato forces abandoned a dozen key checkpoints on Afghanistan's border with Waziristan ahead of the operation.
A retired Pakistani army officer, Brig Shaukat Qadir, wrote about this in a UAE-based newspaper, The National:
I am certain that US forces are well aware of this; if they have opened the door, reinforcements can enter South Waziristan at will, and in the face of impending defeat will be able to escape back to Afghanistan. Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff has already raised his concerns on this issue with Gen David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command.
Militarily, the only plausible explanation for this otherwise inexplicable act by US forces is that they want reinforcements to enter South Waziristan from Afghanistan, and will promptly slam the trapdoor shut behind them. However, unless this is prearranged with the Pakistani forces, which is obviously not the case, their task will be made many times more difficult.
Military analysts also say that the success of the operation in securing space doesn't necessarily equate to the complete destruction of the Taliban, who could have the capability to shift to other tribal agencies where they have sympathizers. In order to prevent new terrorist havens from springing up, early provision of funds is necessary for development works in adjoining agencies. "Road works, dams and other infrastructure projects in Federally Administered Tribal Areas could rapidly provide employment to idle youth and drain the Taliban's recruitment pool," according to a column in the Wall Street Journal by Shuja Nawaz.
Already, around 200,000 people from Waziristan have abandoned their homes, AFP reported an army spokesperson to have said on Monday. Al Jazeera also reported:
Footage obtained showed that civilians were paying a high price for the military gains. Residents of Kotkai could be seen picking through the rubble of their homes, while in the nearby town of Wana the main hospital had been overwhelmed by casualties.
In the larger battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the sustenance and rehabilitation of those displaced from the impact area must also follow on the heels of the offensive.
Rah-e-Nijaat, the military's name for the South Waziristan operation, translates roughly as the 'path to rid oneself from a given entity.' Unlike perceptions in the West, this cleansing is not seen solely through a religious lens. Many Pakistanis view the Taliban as nothing more than a band of criminals and thugs. No religious brand, caste or creed needed. And the realization that they pose an existential threat to society has deeply sunk in.
Enough Pakistanis have died for it to.
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