Fazlullah’s war

Shortly after 9/11, when the US bombing campaign had begun in Afghanistan, a force comprising 8,000 fighters from NWFP crossed the Durand line, hoping to find and kill American soldiers. Many were barefoot, some were as young as 16. Several were carrying little more than knives and spears and axes with which they intended to wage their jihad. It wasn’t long before they were in the captivity of the Northern Alliance.

This primitive force was drawn from the cadres of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), an obscure militant organisation with limited nuisance value, whose head Sufi Muhammad had long been campaigning for Islamic law in Swat and Malakand. Successive Pakistani governments were guilty of sweeping the issue under the carpet and leaving it to simmer. Nine years and a radical transformation later, this force would engage the Pakistan Army in the longest battle of its history – Operation Rah-e-Raast.

The leadership for this transformation came from Mullah Fazlullah, Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law. His transformative strategy centred around three broad initiatives: 1) deploy FM transmitters across the region to wage a propaganda war and win the narrative; 2) recruit and indoctrinate fresh talent; and 3) train this talent in guerrilla warfare for which Fazlullah reached out to Baitullah Mehsud who promptly sent across a contingent of foreign fighters from Waziristan – Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens – to do the necessary.

This track record notwithstanding, Fazlullah remains a ‘non-Mehsud outsider’. As such he would be looking to prove his mettle and demonstrate some early successes. A spike in violence with some high-profile attacks is predicted in the coming weeks. In these we can expect the security forces and other symbols of state authority to be targeted. Fazlullah is aware that hitting targets in Punjab would raise his stature among the Mehsud militants. His strong link with Al-Qaeda, which already has local affiliates and operatives in Punjab, makes such an undertaking quite feasible.

Judging from his Swat experience, Fazlullah recognises the value of propaganda as a weapon. As a terrorist group wins people over to its cause, its strength increases exponentially. Many may actually agree with the terrorists’ objective even if they have reservations about their tactics. Others may feel that, in the circumstances, even the grisly tactics are justified. Fazlullah probably recognises that the TTP has not fully milked this potential and many more can be brought round to the TTP’s point of view.

In this, Fazlullah’s job is made easier by large overlap between his rhetoric and that of the PTI and radical members of the Difah-e-Pakistan Council (DPC). Simply put, the rhetoric goes: “The government of Pakistan is a slave to the United States …” The difference of nuance being that Fazlullah’s second part of that proposition states “…and is therefore a legitimate target for attack” while the PTI and DPC’s second part of the proposition states “Nato supply lines must be shut”.

Many who fall in the grey area in between these two may agree with a third proposition which states that “attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan are legitimate”. It is in this triangular space, bound by these three propositions where the battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of millions of those Pakistanis who stand at the threshold of becoming radicalised. It is here where Fazlullah would be seeking to pick up maximum gains.

Where Mehsud and his clan may have felt that enough impact and fear had been created to sit down with the government and realise some of the political gains, Fazlullah and his clan clearly have a different view. Why cash the chips when you’re on a winning streak? Between now and when the US withdraws from Afghanistan next year, why not gain even more strength and bring the Pakistani state to its knees? You can extract bigger concessions that way.

A possible demand could include Pakistan’s demilitarisation not just from Fata, but from all the territory to the west of the Indus. In the meantime Fazlullah is likely to relocate the TTP’s power centre from the Mehsud region to Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan region, beyond the reach of the Pakistani military. This would give the TTP strategic depth and multiply its strength by building linkages with Afghan commanders and warlords on the other side of the Durand line.

The paradox of terrorism is that, on the one hand, tactical success does create impact, while on the other, the civilian casualties alienate the local population which is often counterproductive to political goals. There are already signs that terror attacks will shift from civilian to military/ political targets. From the perspective of the rebels this raises their prestige to warriors instead of terrorists and ‘legitimises’ the violence in the sense that there are now ‘two sides’ engaging in warfare instead of one side killing civilians.

One of the things Fazlullah has learnt from Al-Qaeda is how to use jihadi jingoism to undermine the morale of the security forces; and to create dissent among the ranks. The Jamaat-e-Islami, through the recent statement of its ameer, has already laid the foundation on which to build on. Finally, Fazlullah would also seek to integrate with the Punjabi Taliban and sectarian jihadi groups to build inroads into the ‘enemy’s’ heartland.

As the government dithers on action, the PTI and religious parties are busy filling their pockets with the political capital they acquire from drumming up anti-west hysteria. The liberal political parties have already been marginalised. The security establishment awaits a change in guard. Meanwhile the clock ticks as the date for Nato’s withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches. The window of opportunity for Pakistan is fast closing.