Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dirty War

The war is on my doorstep. This is what doesn't usually get covered in the West's mainstream media: there are multiple wars going on in Pakistan. We only hear about the major ones: Swat, Waziristan. But there are currently operations ongoing in other parts of the tribal belt as well. One, oddly named 'I Have Come Again', started yesterday in Khyber Agency, right on the border with Peshawar, primarily against the Lashkar-i-Islam (LiI).

I know the LiI. I met their leader, Mangal Bagh, at his compound in Bara last year, where the current operation is unfolding. My sources tell me Bagh is not in Bara now - he's in hiding somewhere else in the Agency (I know where but I think it's prudent not to say, to maintain journalistic neutrality not to mention preserving my life).
I'm relatively certain the Pakistani ISI knows where he is. This is what's so strange about this operation: I have multiple sources telling me Bagh is an ISI man. He's one of those militants who refuses to join the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and has gone as far as to deny TTP militants access to the territory under his control. The deal, as far as I can f igure it, is that if he keeps out of Pakistan's war against the Taliban and he can have his little fiefdom.

So what exactly has gone wrong? Bagh's men have been accused of attacking NATO supply convoys heading to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass, but that's been going on for a some time now. The prevailing logic was that Bagh was attacking foreign interests, not Pakistan, and by proxy, supporting the Taliban's jihad in Afghanistan, which is in the interest of the ISI.

So if not the convoy attacks, then what? Bagh has also imposed the jizya tax on all non-muslims living in Bara, an area well-known for its Sikh minority. But again, that happened months ago and the government did nothing at the time. Actually, the jizya is not necessarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism. It's a tax, like the zakat that all Muslims are supposed to pay. Taken together, the two taxes form a single income stream for Islamic rulers, much like income tax in the West. At any rate, the jizya is not sufficient provocation for a military operation. Then what?

Bagh also controls the lucrative drugs and smuggling trade in Khyber. Bara is a key transit point for hash and opium/heroin, not to mention the riotous illegal goods business. He's also imposed a tax on those activities, padding his coffers and forcing hash prices in Peshawar up by as much as 300%. But again, Bagh's been in this business for years. It's nothing new. A Pakistani military commander told me once that drugs and smuggling are a time-honoured tradition in Khyber (which is why it is the richest of Pakistan's seven Tribal Agencies). Most of Bara's men are involved in some way in the business so the Pakistani authorities do not want to touch it - the last thing they need is to make more enemies.

So what's left? Kidnappings? Bagh is involved. Encroaching Talibanization? Bagh is involved (he is the one threatening music shops and cinemas in Peshawar). Mangal Bagh has put his militant stamp on Peshawar like no other militant has. But the problem is that a lot of people, especially in his stronghold, support him. They credit him with taming Bara, a place infamous for its criminals. "Before Mangal Bagh came, there was prostitution here," one local resident told me. "There was alcohol and murder. Everyday someone was killed." Bara was the wild west of tribal country. It was out of control, leaderless and slipping into anarchy. Now, it's Mangal Bagh who is Don. And he's brought in his own brand of Islamic justice.

So the question remains: why an operation now? There are a number of possibilities. Bagh is currently at war with a local, pro-government tribal militia. There are many of these militias that have popped up over recent months throughout the Tribal Areas (more on that in an
upcoming article in Maclean's magazine). The government needs these militias, especially now as Pakistan's wars shift into a new phase, one in which the enemy isn't an overarching militant movement, or an alliance of militant groups, but a splintered collection of localized insurgents. Over the past year, the Pakistani military has hit at militant networks hard; they've broken them up, scattered them. The recent leadership dilemma the TTP has faced is part of a process of fragmentation. The Pakistani military strategy seems to be to keep these groups divided but in doing so, they now face dozens of smaller, uncoordinated insurgencies. In this case, in terms of guerrilla warfare, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Enter the tribal militias, or lashkars. They are now the frontline against these groups, the ones with the local knowledge and support to take on what are quickly turning into localized tribal conflicts. Is the Pakistani military showing its support for these groups, specifically in Bara for the one fighting Mangal Bagh, by carrying out operations?

It's hard to say right now, the operation only started yesterday. It could also be a mere show of force, to placate domestic and international concerns over Pakistan's commitment to the war (the U.S. has been very critical of Pakistan's inability to protect the Nato supply route). It could also be that Mangal Bagh has overreached and lost the favour of the ISI. He is, by any measure, a powerful force now, well-funded and well-armed (the Pakistani authorities list him as Pakistan's sixth most-wanted militant). Perhaps this is a preemptive strike, to take down a man who is becoming to big for his own baggy britches. Or it could simply be a warning. This needs more investigation and time to see how things play out. In my opinion: this is the start of Pakistan's dirty war.

Photo Credits: (from top) The border between the Khyber Tribal Agency and Peshawar, Adnan R. Khan; Mangal Bagh and his senior commanders at their compound in Bara, Adnan R. Khan; A hash shop in Khyber, Adnan R. Khan; Lil militants in Bara, Adnan R. Khan.


0 Responses to "Dirty War"

Post a Comment


Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved | Blogger template by Brian Gardner converted & enhanced by eBlog Templates