June 14, 2008

Shock and awe in Mohmand Agency

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 9:23 pm
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JUNE 14, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008
Rahimullah Yusufzai

At the funerals of the 13 Pakistani paramilitary troops killed in the recent US air strikes in Mohmand tribal agency, mourners respectfully described the deceased as martyrs who laid down their lives fighting for their homeland. Imams, or prayer leaders, in their sermons prayed to Allah to destroy the non-Muslim forces that were out to harm Muslims and Islamic countries such as Pakistan. It was after quite a while in NWFP and FATA that those attending the funeral for fallen soldiers were all convinced that the slain men were shaheed, or martyrs.

The mood this time was different. Along with grief and anger, there was this feeling of pride in the soldiers who died fighting aliens and non-Muslims instead of fellow Pashtuns, Muslims and Pakistanis. Funerals for soldiers who were killed fighting Taliban militants in Swat, Waziristan or other places in FATA sometimes generated controversy whether it was right to fight one’s own people. A fatwa issued by some Islamic scholars even triggered a religious debate as to who was a martyr, the soldiers or the militants. The clergymen had decreed that the militants were the real martyrs and in the process put the families of deceased soldiers and village communities in a difficult situation while trying to figure out the consequences of the controversial fatwa.

At Menay village in the Naguman area near Peshawar, mourners tried to gently outdo each other in carrying Frontier Corps soldier Zartaj Khan’s flag-draped coffin. It was an honour to shoulder his coffin because apart from being a brother, friend and fellow villager Zartaj was also a martyr. The same sentiment was evident in Mullagori area in Khyber tribal agency where the bodies of Havaldar Saifullah and Sepoy Akhtar Baz were brought home for burial.

At the Panda Ground in Peshawar Cantonment, the funeral prayers for 10 FC soldiers including Major Mohammad Akbar were performed. NWFP Governor Owais Ghani and Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hotii also offered prayers along with top civil and military officials and later gave an unprecedented joint statement in which they noted that the US-led coalition forces violated Pakistan’s airspace and entered our territory to attack the FC border post in an unprovoked act of naked aggression. They said Pakistan may review its policy of cooperation with the US in the “war on terror” if such attacks continued.

The death of the 13 paramilitary soldiers and several civilians in the US air and artillery strikes in Mohmand Agency has both angered and saddened the people all over the country, particularly in NWFP and FATA. Protests were held, politicians gave strong-worded statements condemning the US aggression and Islamic parties called for revenge. Anti-US sentiment, already high in both settled and tribal areas of NWFP, rose sharply since the attack last Tuesday night. The resentment against America was probably never so high after it had peaked following the US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in October 2001.

The incident even forced a change in the tone of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), which due to its opposition to the Taliban and support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai was seen to have come close to the US position with regard to Islamic militancy in the region. Its leaders argued that the US had committed aggression against Pakistan and it was time to review Islamabad’s relations and cooperation with Washington. They even advised the US to divert funds from its military mission in Afghanistan to reconstruction to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and provide more funds for development activities in NWFP and FATA to achieve the same objectives.

The strong criticism by the ANP must have upset the US, which was hoping that the replacement of the MMA’s Islamic government in NWFP with the ANP-led coalition would better serve American interests in the province and make it an inhospitable place for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Already, the US and its allies including Afghanistan were unhappy over the Swat peace accord signed by the ANP-PPP coalition government with the Maulana Fazlullah-led Taliban militants. The Karzai government in particular was banking on the ANP to spearhead efforts to expel Afghan Taliban who may be hiding in NWFP and FATA and rein in the Pakistani Taliban offering sanctuaries their Afghan counterparts and crossing the border to launch attacks in Afghanistan. That is unlikely to happen, more so in the wake of the two US air strikes that targeted Damadola in Bajaur and now Mohmand Agency since the February 18 elections which brought the ANP and the PPP into power in NWFP.

The situation on the ground is also expected to change now that the US-led NATO forces have for the first time directly attacked a Pakistani border post. It would be na�ve to expect the FC troops to cooperate with the US, NATO and Afghan forces after the killing of their colleagues in air strikes by American jet-fighters, gunship helicopters and drones. There was already distrust between the Pakistani soldiers and the US-led coalition forces and matters weren’t being helped due to the constant criticism by American government functionaries, the media and think-tanks that the Pakistan military wasn’t doing enough to evict Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the tribal areas and control cross-border infiltration of militants into Afghanistan. The FC in particular came in for strong criticism and a recent report by Rand Corporation commissioned by the US state department even accused it of helping the Taliban militants to cross the border and track down the movement of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. This could be the reason that the FC post at Goraparai on the border with Afghanistan was specifically targeted from the air.

The circumstances also forced the Pakistan government to issue its strongest statement thus far to condemn the US-led forces for launching an “unprovoked and cowardly” attack on its border post in Mohmand Agency. It perhaps had no other choice as failure to protest the attack in a strong language would have demoralized the Pakistani troops, who are already reluctant to fight this unpopular war widely seen as benefiting the US and harming Pakistan. The newly-elected democratic government also had to keep in mind the sentiments of the enraged public, which wanted a break with the policies pursued by President Musharraf. In particular, most Pakistanis would prefer to stay out of the US “war on terror” and place limits on the terms of cooperation by Islamabad with Washington, which as we all know is pursuing its own political and military agenda for the region.

It is obvious that the US and its NATO allies are determined not to allow Pakistan to go ahead with its policy of signing peace accords with militants. The air strikes are meant to send the message that such accords are unacceptable. The US and NATO military commanders would like the Pakistan Army to fight alongside their troops instead of sitting idle after inking peace agreements with the militants. With Taliban attacks reaching record levels in Afghanistan this year, the US-led coalition forces is taking a higher number of casualties. This would affect public opinion in western nations having troops in Afghanistan and could even force some NATO members to consider pulling out their soldiers. There is thus the need to find a scapegoat for the reversals that the NATO forces could find in the Afghan battlefield. Pakistan fits the bill owing to its past policy of supporting the Taliban. However, the US and its allies must realize that Pakistan’s support is crucial in keeping the Taliban in check in Afghanistan. This cannot be achieved by launching air strikes in Pakistan that claim to target militants but instead kill civilians and now even Pakistani soldiers. Such tactics would further inflame anti-US sentiment in Pakistan and make it almost impossible for its government and military to offer cooperation to the US and NATO.

The writer is executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email:


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