Despite tall claims of the Pakistan army of causing heavy casualties in the ranks of the jihadis, there is little evidence to suggest that the Pakistan army is anywhere near enforcing the 'writ of the state' in North and South Waziristan. The operations of the Pakistan army, in which helicopter gun-ships, fighter aircraft, long range artillery have been used against militant strongholds, have caused immense 'collateral damage' and done little to gain the support of the locals in these areas.
Reports suggest that the tribesmen fighting against the Pakistan army are going from strength to strength and expanding their influence and their 'writ' in adjoining districts like Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and Bannu. In all these areas, the Pakistani 'Taliban' are issuing diktats on how people should run their lives and have put barbers, musicians, video and music shop owners, cable TV operators, out of business. They are meting out their brand of rough and ready justice and have killed smugglers and kidnappers and hanged their bodies from lamp-posts and there is little that the state authorities have been able to do.
As the level of violence mounts and clashes between the security forces and the Taliban become a regular feature, Pakistan will be forced to re-think its strategy on controlling its wild west.
But there are no easy options available for the Pakistani state, especially since its control over the Pashtun-dominated tribal belt bordering Afghanistan has always been very loose. Complicating the matter are the demands being made by the US and Afghanistan on Pakistan to crack down hard on the extremists in the tribal belt who it is believed are providing sanctuary to the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
The dilemma for Pakistan is that if it adopts a soft-approach, it will be accused of playing a double-game in the War on Terror. On the other hand, a hard approach is not working and is in fact making things worse.
The biggest problem that Pakistan is facing is that it can no longer use the traditional instruments with which it maintained its authority in these areas. The decades of jihad first in Afghanistan against the Soviets, then against India in Kashmir and in favor of the Taliban in Afghanistan and now against the Americans (and by extension, the Pakistan army which is seen as working on an American agenda) has completely changed the power equations in the tribal belt.
The tribal chieftains and Maliks the traditional instrument through which the Pakistani state enforced its authority among the various tribes no longer rule the roost in much of the tribal areas. If anything, the tribal chieftains and Maliks are today something of an endangered species. In a statement in Parliament, Pakistan's interior minister accepted that around 120 pro-government Maliks have been killed in targeted attacks the last few months. Independent estimates say the number is twice the government figure.
Anyone suspected of toeing the government line or believed to be working for the government is being targeted without any regard to the position he holds in local society. As a result, nobody wants to be seen to be associated with the government of Pakistan.
The breakdown of the authority of the Maliks together with the collapse of the system of patronage that the Pakistani state used as part of its carrot and stick policy to keep the tribes in check has created a political vacuum that has been filled by the jihadis and hard-line clerics. Most of the militant clerics and fighters are Deobandis and have been associated with the Jamiat Ulema Islam either as students in madrasas run by JUI or as members of the party. But despite their fraternal links with the JUI, they are today beyond the control of the party, something that is causing serious concern to the party leadership.
The JUI faces a difficult situation because the rising influence and popularity of the militants is going to ultimately adversely affect its vote-bank. At the same time, for reasons of political expediency, the JUI also cannot afford to be seen as opposing the militants or supporting the army action against them.
Ideally, the JUI would like to emerge as the peace-maker and reap the benefits of playing such a role. But the presence of external factors (read US pressure for strong action) is preventing them from playing this role effectively. What is worse, even on the occasions that JUI leaders have mediated between the warring sides, they have not been able to hold the two sides to the terms of the deal struck.
Apart from the mainstream Islamic parties like JUI, Pashtun nationalists too are in danger of getting further marginalized in the politics of the region. Even though the militants are ethnic Pashtuns, there is little, if any, element of Pashtun nationalism in their ideology. Ever since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pashtun nationalism which was spearheaded by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his son, Wali Khan, has steadily lost its appeal.
This was partly because of the ambiguous stand that the Left-leaning Awami National Party took on Soviet presence in Afghanistan and partly because the imperatives of waging jihad against the Soviets meant that the Pakistani establishment had to isolate the Pashtun nationalists by propping up, supporting and financing the Islamists, who were in the vanguard of the afghan jihad.
The fact that the Islamists want to subsume local identities under a larger Islamic identity something that suited the Pakistani establishment which was wary of ethnic nationalism resulting in secession has always pitted the Islamists against ethnic nationalists. It is this factor that lends credence to rumors of the Americans and the Pakistani establishment wanting to build the ANP as a bulwark against the radical Islamists. But even a hint of an association with the army or America will be enough to destroy whatever little chance the nationalists have to retrieve the situation.
The Islamic insurgency in Waziristan is part of a pan-Islamic phenomenon of radical groups fighting against whom they consider 'enemies of Islam'. The driving force is radical Islam rather than money or concessions or jobs or administrative and political offices. The enemy is eternal the forces of Kufr led by America and anyone seen to be siding with the enemy is also the enemy including the Pakistan army.
The Pakistani 'Taliban' are first and foremost soldiers of Islam. While they are not anti-Pakistan and have no agenda of undoing Pakistan, they want a Pakistan in which Islam and not America calls the shots. If this means having to confront the Pakistan army, then so be it. They are deadly opposed to Pakistan's assistance to America in the War of Terror and will be satisfied with nothing less than the ouster of American forces from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Islamists in Waziristan don't need, or even want, the army to fight on their side. All they want is that the army should not interfere in their activities, not target their 'guests', or restrict their movement to and from Afghanistan, where they are fighting the American-led coalition forces. The moment this demand is met, attacks on the Pakistan army will cease.
The only way the Pakistan army can do this is by breaking away from the Americans and withdrawing from the US-led War on Terror. This will not only mean giving a free hand to the jihadis to operate in Afghanistan, but also that the jihadis' will has prevailed over the army, which will then have to take the role of an equal, if not junior partner, to the jihadis. While the reversal of the patron-client relationship shared between the Pakistan army and the jihadis will be disastrous for Pakistan, it will also severely destabilize the entire region.
On the other hand, if the Pakistan army continues with the military operations against the Taliban, it could well get caught in a quagmire in the Pashtun belt. The danger is that as the intensity of military operations increases, and civilian casualties mount, the public opinion could polarize in favour of the militants. This could give rise to a new and more virulent form of Pashtun nationalism which would then mix with radical Islam to make a deadly cocktail that will wreak havoc not just in Pakistan but far beyond its borders.