IN the past couple of weeks, Al Qaeda and its franchises have come back with a vengeance, attacking Pakistan, its security forces and the public. This also appears to be a prelude to an increase in violence in Afghanistan in the near future.
An important aspect of these new series of attacks is their concentration on Islamabad, Peshawar and locations along the Durand Line. In their latest onslaughts on urban centres, militants have used both improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. Clearly, the militants are in good health and pose a serious existential threat to Pakistan.
The new attacks are significant in that they convey a message to Pakistan and the combined forces of more than 43 nations deployed in Afghanistan, that the recent loss of Osama bin Laden and one of Al Qaeda`s foremost commanders, Ilyas Kashmiri, have not stripped it of its fighting abilities. The attacks also reflect the resilience and institutional capacity of the second tier of the insurgent team which is proving itself adept at meeting new challenges.Another factor that has added significance to the recent militant activity is the capacity of Al Qaeda and its various branches in Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry out multiple border incursions, as seen in Dir, Kurram and South Waziristan, within a short span of time.
Add these capacities to the assumed presence of militant cells within the Pakistani security services and serious questions are raised about whether the strategy followed so far in dealing with the militants is actually effective. The militants` ability to field insurgent groups of up to 300 men, as seen in the two recent attacks on Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is worrying.
According to local officials, a Taliban force of more than 200 fighters who were armed with light and heavy weapons and some of whom wore military uniforms attacked a police station in Shaldalo village of Upper Dir on June 1. The incursion was resisted by the Pakistani police and paramilitary forces and the engagement lasted several hours. Pakistani helicopter gunships took part in forcing back the militants — 23 security personnel were killed and the Taliban are said to have suffered casualties, but no dead bodies were recovered.
The Taliban had earlier launched a similar attack on April 22, when more than 400 fighters attacked a police post in Kharakhai in Lower Dir district. They overran the outpost while killing 16 Pakistani police personnel. Both attacks originated from across the border in the Afghan province of Kunar, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have established safe havens after the US forces made a questionable withdrawal from Kunar and Nuristan in March 2010, creating a security hazard for Pakistani forces.
The Taliban have learnt that if they are relentless in their resistance, the US does withdraw. In leaving Kunar and more specifically the strategic Korengal valley, the US followed the path taken by the erstwhile USSR when it too withdrew from this part after the Mujahideen attacks became deadly. This was heralded as the beginning of the end of Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Does the loss of control over Kunar and Nuristan also herald a similar retreat by the US from Afghanistan?
“The withdrawal is a great victory for us,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in April 2010, when the Taliban forces occupied US posts in Korengal and Pech valleys. “The area is very, very important for us. Its mountains provide a good hideout, it can be used as training ground and lead our operations from the region there.” The severity of attacks on Pakistani territory in 2011 has proved him right.
It is not understood why Isaf commander Gen Petraeus told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15 that the Taliban`s momentum had been reversed in most areas of Afghanistan. At best, the situation is fragile and easily reversible. The situation on the ground seems to contradict the general`s hopeful projection.
Gen Petraeus added that America`s “core objective” was to “ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda”. Yet the two attacks on Dir clearly show that Al Qaeda has become a formidable presence in this part of the Hindu Kush and that the US has not been able to deny it this sanctuary.
For Pakistan, the policy options are either to conduct hot pursuit into Afghanistan, or to fence the Durand Line to protect itself against attacks. To do nothing is dangerous.
Due to this security threat from Afghanistan, the recent Pakistani gains in Swat, Buner, Dir, Bajaur and Mohmand appear to be tenuous. It is also clear that the insurgents are now deeply embedded within the region.
So, what next?
The following predictions can be safely made: the gains made by the Pakistan military in Swat, Dir and Bajaur will be tested; it is also clear that while the Pakistani military holds sway in the valleys, the mountains mostly belong to the militants. Yet while the Hindu Kush range provides them with advantages, it also limits the type of war that they can wage: they cannot field large groups. However, the mountains give them the ability to easily change their axis of attack more quickly than the military, which is dependent on a long supply chain.
Furthermore, public opinion in Pakistan that is favourable to the militants allows them to receive a steady supply of volunteers. These factors provide them the ability to conduct a war of attrition against Pakistan for a long time to come. They also have the ability to extend insecurity to other parts of the country to lessen the pressure against them.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.