Zardari’s U-Turn On Counter Terrorism

“The Taliban sees the suspension as yet another trick by Zardari and expects that he will call it off after getting elected in order to re-assure the US that there will be no changes in Pakistan's co-operation with the US in its operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

(September 01, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), who has now become increasingly controversial in Pakistan for his frequent U-Turns in local politics, has made yet another U-Turn---this time in counter-terrorism.

After having launched ground and air action against leaders and members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating against the NATO forces in Afghanistan from sanctuaries in the Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) a month ago and after having intensified the already on-going operations against the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi ( TNSM) in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), he has suddenly advised the Government of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani to suspend the operations during the holy Ramazan fasting period starting from August 31,2008.

The Government's decision to suspend the operations was announced on August 30 by Rehman Mallik, the Adviser on Internal Security, who is a close confidante of Zardari. He clarified that the suspension did not amount to a ceasefire and added that the security forces would reserve the right to retaliate if attacked by the jihadi terrorists. The suspension would not involve the withdrawal of the security forces from the positions held by them as on August 31.

Mallik said the decision was taken to enable a large number of internally displaced tribals, who had run away from their villages due to the operations, to go back to their villages and join their families for the Ramadan. However from statements welcoming the suspension by leaders such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the Amir of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) Pakistan, which is a member of the ruling coalition, it is clear that the suspension was ordered by Zardari in order to assure himself of the support of the Pahtun members of the National and provincial Assemblies for election as the President of Pakistan on September 6.

Fazlur Rahman has already claimed while talking to the local media that the suspension of the operations in the Bajaur Agency and in the Swat Valley and permission to re-open the madrasa for boys and to re-build the madrasa for girls attached to the Lal Masjid in Islamabad were among the conditions imposed by his party for supporting the election of Zardari as the President.

While Rehman Mallik did not say anything about the Lal Masjid , other sources have reported that the Government has already permitted the madrasa for boys to re-open and that for girls to be re-built. These sources have also reported that Zardari has also agreed to withdraw all cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act and other laws registered against Abdul Aziz, a cleric of the Masjid, and his associates after they were arrested by the Army following its commando action in the Masjid from July 10 to 13,2007. During the commando action, the boys' madrasa, which is located outside the madrasa campus, was closed down and the girls' madrasa, which was located inside the campus, was destroyed by the commandoes.

The decision to suspend the operations in the Bajaur Agency and the Swat Valley came hardly five days after a top secret meeting (August 26) between Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US, and Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), held on board an US Aircraft Carrier to discuss measures to strengthen mutual co-operation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to prevent the leakage to these terrorist organisations of information shared by the US with the Pakistan Army.

While the ground operations in the Swat Valley were continuing with varying intensity, those in the Bajaur Agency were already in a state of suspension following severe casualties sustained by the Frontier Corps and the capture of over 30 of their personnel by the Taliban. However, the air strikes were continuing. The suspension announced by Malik means relief to the Taliban and Al Qaeda from fear of air strikes, which were hampering their cross-border terrorism into Afghanistan. This could result in an escalation of their attacks on the US and other NATO forces in Afghan territory during the period of Ramadan, when jihadi terrorists tend to step up their attacks. Martyrdom attacks during this period are considered by them as doubly holy.

The TNSM, which is a constituent unit of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has already announced that it will not observe any cease-fire during the fasting period till its demands for the withdrawal of the Army from the Swat Valley, the release of all its members arrested or captured by the security forces and the introduction of the Sharia in the Valley are accepted and implemented by the Government. The only concession made by the Taliban is to release some members of the security forces captured by them as a mark of goodwill during the Ramadan period to their families.

The Taliban sees the suspension as yet another trick by Zardari and expects that he will call it off after getting elected in order to re-assure the US that there will be no changes in Pakistan's co-operation with the US in its operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The US forces in Afghanistan, which periodically make unmanned Predator strikes on suspected terrorist hide-outs in Pakistan, are not observing any suspension of their strikes during the holy period.

(The writer , B.Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. )
- Sri Lanka Guardian