Events over the past week highlight the deteriorating situation in the country
NWFP/FATA map. Red agencies are openly controlled by the Taliban; yellow are under threat. Click map to view.
Over the past week, the Taliban have been very active in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. The Taliban attacked the town of Tank, re initiated its turf war with the Uzbeks in Waziristan and continued to consolidate gains in Kohat and Bannu. But perhaps most disturbing event isn’t the slow disintegration of the Pakistani state at the fringes, but the open defiance from the Taliban in the heart of Pakistani capital. At the peripheries, Pakistan is either engaged in a full scale civil war or is abandoning territory. At the core in Islamabad, the Islamist see real weakness in the Musharraf regime, and are growing bolder each day.
The Talibanization of Islamabad & the Las Masjid
The recent developments in Islamabad prove the Taliban and al Qaeda are not satisfied with remaining confined to the tribal belt or even the Northwest Frontier province and Baluchistan. The pro-Taliban leaders of the Las Masjid have become emboldened by the weakness of the Musharraf government of late, and are now openly challenging the rule of law in the very heart of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Zaffar Abbas, in an article titled “The creeping coup,” explains how two brothers, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, run a pro-Taliban movement in and around Islamabad. Aziz “heads Islamabad’s biggest Jamia Fareedia madrassa” which “at any time… boasts over 7,000 students seeking higher degrees in Islamic education.” Ghazi “manages Lal Masjid, which is situated in central Islamabad between the prime minister’s office and the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Ghazi “is now spearheading the Islamic ‘brigade’ which includes several thousand madrassa students, both men and women.”
“Lal Masjid and its adjacent Hafsa madrassa have not only managed to enforce the Taliban-style system of ‘moral policing’ in matters of ‘vice and virtue’, to date they remain in control of the situation” in Islamabad, notes Mr. Abbas. Bands of burka-clad women wielding batons patrol the streets enforcing Sharia, just as Saudi Arabia’s notorious ‘Department for Virtue and Vice,’ or the religious police, do. “Within no time [after becoming emboldened by government weakness over the past few months] groups of men and women from the brigade started visiting shops, threatening them with dire consequences if they didn’t stop selling DVDs, CDs or music cassettes,” reports Mr. Abbas. “People were also issued directives about dress codes and other ‘moral and ethical’ issues.”
This week, members of the Lal Masjid militia kidnapped a woman, her daughter in law and her infant, and held them until the older woman admitted to running a brothel and denounced her crimes. Two police were held inside the Lal Masjid, and were later released. No arrests were made. The Lal Masjid is off limits to the Pakistani government.
On March 30, flush with success from the kidnapping standoff, Aziz has taken upon the government’s weakness and has called for the implementation of universal Sharia law in Pakistan. Aziz even gave a deadline.
Maulana Abdul Aziz, the prayer leader at Lal Masjid and principal of Jamia Hafsa, on Friday gave the government a week’s deadline to “enforce Sharia” in the country, otherwise “clerics will Islamise society themselves”. “If the government does not impose Sharia within a week, we will do it,” Aziz told a gathering after Friday prayers. Similarly, he gave the Islamabad administration a week to shut down “brothels”, otherwise “seminary students will take action themselves”. “If we find a woman with loose morals, we will prosecute her in Lal Masjid,” he said. Sources told Daily Times that the Jamia Hafsa administration would compile a record of brothels and gambling dens over the week, and then launch a drive. They said the seminary believed these places were being run in collaboration with civil society organisations. “Jamia Hafsa will hold a conference on April 5-6 at Lal Masjid, where ulema will finalise a strategy against brothels and gambling dens,” said Aziz, adding that the drive would not be limited to Islamabad.
A suicide bomber hits a military camp in Punjab
As the crisis inside the capital deepens, the Pakistani military was stuck by a suicide attack. Two recruits were killed and 8 wounded when a suicide bomber walked up to trainees outside a military base in Kharian in Punjab province. The Kharian base “is considered to be an important military installation and is the headquarters of an army corps,” notes the New York Times. “Mechanized infantry, armor and artillery are stationed in the garrison.”
A similar attack in Dargai in northern Pakistan last fall killed 45 recruits and wounded scores.
Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud has been directly implicated in this year’s suicide campaign, where bombers struck in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Mir Ali and elsewhere.
A Bajaur Accord, the TNSM and the death of an ISI agent
The Bajaur tribal agency has long been both an al Qaeda sanctuary, and a command and control center. On March 26, the Pakistani government essentially codified the ugly truth on the ground in Bajaur, and signed off on the Bajaur Accord, which ceded control of the region to the local Taliban under the guise of dealing with the tribes.
Within 24 hours of the signing of the ‘peace agreement’, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (the TNSM, or Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law) flexed its muscles, and demanded the release of Sufi Mohammed, its leader, or it will prepare to unleash over 100 suicide bombers nationwide. The deadline has passed and there has been no further news on the status of Sufi or the suicide campaign.
Also, on March 27, Major Hamza, an Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agent assigned to tracking al Qaeda in Pakistan, and Subedar Saeedur Rehmanan, Hamza’s deputy, were murdered in Bajaur province along with two other ISI officials. Hamza and his team were traveling incognito and according to Alexis Debat, were hunting Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command.
Mr. Debat’s Pakistani military sources told him “they believe ‘elements close to al Qaeda’ carried out the hit on the four officers” and “denied the attack was an ‘inside job’ aided or carried out by rogue ISI officials sympathetic to al Qaeda.” However “Pakistani officials conceded the attackers knew closely-held details of the men’s journey, including the timing of the men’s trip, their route and their purpose.”
The evidence certainly points to an “inside job.” The rental car was identified by two masked men on motorcycle, who attacked with grenades and assault rifles. Hamza and Rehmanan, the two prime targets, were the first two killed. Days later, Pakistani police arrested 11 suspects in the Hamza murder, including two ISI agents. Pakistani military claims that the ISI was not involved ring hollow, as Hamid Gul’s hidden hand is at work to eliminate men like Major Hamza from the service.
Waziristan fighting continues to be manipulated by the government
South Waziristan remains a Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold, despite the fighting between the Taliban of Mullah Nazir and al Qaeda Uzbeks. After a ceasefire was brokered between the two factions, fighting resumed yesterday. The Pakistani government claimed 56 more Uzbeks were killed, while locals put the number at 11.
The Pakistani government has claimed all along this fighting is evidence of the effectiveness of the Waziristan Accord. The government claims Mullah Nazir is a ‘pro-government’ tribal leader working to eject all foreigners. But in fact the fighting is equivalent to a mafia turf war, with Nazir seeking to gain power, prestige and land at the expense of the Uzbeks, who settled in the region after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Nazir backs the “Arabs” (or al Qaeda) and has pledged to continue the jihad in Afghanistan.
While enemy infighting certainly has its advantages, the political mileage the Pakistan government is getting out of the fighting outweighs any body count racked up in South Waziristan. The Pakistani government will use this fighting to demonstrate the success of the peace accords, and press for further surrenders in the Northwest Frontier Province.
Tide turning red in Tank
In the district of Tank in Northwest Frontier Province, the Taliban fighters of Baitullah Mehsud made a bold attempt to openly seize power in the city of Tank. Over 200 Taliban fighters massed and attacked the town’s police stations, looted and burned two banks and destroyed a the office of a cable provider. The government claimed 25 Taliban and one police officer were killed, but the Pakistani military has inflated enemy casualties in the past while hiding their own. Tank, which is a ‘settled’ district of the Northwest Frontier Province, is now under curfew after Army units moved in. The Taliban are still holding positions outside the town.
The fighting in Tank began after the principal of a local high school asked police to prevent the Taliban from recruiting. A skirmish ensued, and the Taliban later returned and kidnapped the principal. Over 100 students have been recruited by the Taliban in this single school.
Tank borders South Waziristan, where the Taliban openly rule and Baitullah Mehsud is strongest.
Kohat turns, Bannu is next
Last week, we noted that Kohat should now be considered Taliban influenced territory – meaning the Pakistani government has yet to sign a ‘peace deal’ as it has in the Waziristans or Bajaur, but the district is essentially under Taliban control. Isfandyar Wali, the leader of the Awami National Party, recently said the Taliban control Kohat. “I am constantly saying that Taliban are very rapidly getting powerful in the North West Frontier Province, but nobody is listening to me,” said Wali.
The Taliban are now enforcing Sharia in Kohat. “Taliban militants seeking to impose Islamic law blew up two video shops and torched a cable television operator’s office in Kohat,” the Daily Times reported on March 31. “The attackers forced people out of the local office of World Cable 2000 and sprinkled kerosene over it before setting it on fire. Later they detonated crudely-made bombs at the video shops.” Events such as these are becoming commonplace in the Northwest Frontier Province.
In Bannu, the Taliban kidnapped female poll worker on March 30. “The staff-members are being kept at the Government Primary School, Khidry Mohammad Khel,” the Daily Times reported on March 30. “According to a private TV channel, the Taliban have said that ahead of the election, candidates and militants agreed that women would not poll votes.”
Bannu, like Tank, borders North and South Waziristan, where the Taliban are strongest. Bannu should be considered Taliban influenced territory. Other districts and tribal agencies are sure to follow as Pakistan’s unspoken civil war proceeds apace.