Bilal Khan from the Revolution Observer questions whether Pakistan is at the brink of an internal conflict between the Pakistani army and the Taliban.
On November 1st 2013, the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by an American drone strike. Hakimullah Mehsud assumed control of the TTP in 2010 after the death – also via a drone strike – of its previous leader, Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.
Since then Hakimullah Mehsud has been involved in a series of gruelling and greatly damaging conflicts with the Pakistan Army. Following up on his campaign promises, Nawaz Sharif promised to engage in negotiations with Mehsud and the TTP.
Mehsud was killed amid the backdrop of these negotiations, which in turn were shadowed by a spate of fatal bombings in Peshawar as well as a deadly attack on a Pakistani Army general.
Firstly, the context of the so-called “peace process” must be understood. Nawaz Sharif did not pursue the process for the sake of pursuing peace in the country, but rather to placate widespread public exhaustion with the fighting in Waziristan as well as condemnation of the US-led “War on Terror”.
The terms set by both sides, ie Sharif’s demand that the TTP put down their arms and the TTP’s demand that Sharif cut Pakistan’s ties with the US, clearly indicated that the peace process was destined to fail.
Given Nawaz Sharif’s meek stance towards India’s transgressions against Pakistan’s water interests, one cannot consider Sharif a champion of Pakistan’s vital national interests, eg its territorial sovereignty.
Moreover, the fact that he visited the US and gladly accepted a new aid package clearly indicates that he is not in the process of reviewing Pakistan’s ties with the US. In summary, Sharif was never, at any point, serious about engaging with the TTP.
Secondly, despite a spate of bombings and attacks, the Pakistani military has shown reluctance towards fighting the TTP. Despite the highly fatal and targeted nature of the Peshawar attacks (which included targeting a Church, killing a large number of Christians), the police went on record to claim that the perpetrators had links with “foreign intelligence agencies.”
In contrast to the events leading up to the 2009 conflict in Swat, the reaction of the Pakistani army seems muted.
War on Terror and Pakistani defence
It is no secret that the rise of drone strikes in Pakistan has resulted in increased bitterness towards the US government and its policies; this feeling of animosity has also seeped to an extent into the Pakistani defence establishment.
Since participating in the “War on Terror” Pakistan incurred upwards of $100 billion in economic damages, both directly and in lost opportunities. With its economic growth stifled, the country has been unable to bring several critical defence programs, such as the JF-17, to completion, thereby resulting in an ever-widening military gap with India.
Compounded by the reality that the Pakistani government has neglected to cultivate stronger ties with China and defend Pakistan’s vital interests in the region, the Pakistani defence establishment may be seeking to distance itself from the US.
As a result, the US has made it a priority to resolve the matter: “Washington, including and perhaps particularly the Pentagon, is keen to rebuild its ties with Pakistan and the Pakistani defence establishment.”
With the Pakistani defence establishment in a state of limbo, the US strike against Mehsud undoubtedly places pressure on the TTP. It is well within the realm of possibility that the Pakistani military will find itself facing revenge attacks due to Mehsud’s death, thus instigating a reactionary response against the TTP, and in turn, another conflict.
It could also be thought that the Pakistani military may now feel that the TTP is on a weaker footing (by lacking Mehsud’s leadership). However, to the absolute shock of external observers, the attack on Mehsud was met with condemnation by the Pakistani public. The issue of Pakistan’s national sovereignty being violated took precedence over the antagonism held against Mehsud and the TTP.
End of peace talks?
In fact, public opinion against the US seems to have become even more galvanised, prompting the country’s government to respond passively on the matter, and leaving the military to simply remain silent. Hakimullah’s successor, Fazlullah, has reportedly voiced his intention to withdraw from the peace process, prompting concern that renewed fighting between the TTP and Pakistani military is on the horizon.
By inducing pressure on the TTP to entirely withdraw from the process, the US is essentially trying to steer Pakistan into another protracted internal conflict. The reason for this push is to continue weakening Pakistan by causing it to become more unstable, to incur more economic damage and to ultimately limit its capacity to pursue its vital interests, especially in regards to India.
The US views its increasingly warm ties with India as an important means to “re-balance” its strategic interests vis-à-vis China.
By virtue of its sheer population and large economic base, India is viewed as an important partner for the US. Should Pakistan grow stable and capable (economically and militarily) enough to detract India from this positioning, America’s wider strategic aims in the Far East will be at risk.
Thus, the prospect of Pakistan pursuing its interests and foreign policies independent of external influences will complicate America’s Far East/Pacific objectives.