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Did US bomb Pak madrassa?

November 06, 2006 21:15 IST
The attack on a madrassa in Chenagai village of Bajour Agency bordering Afghanistan in Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, on the morning of October 30, indicates another U-turn by the Pakistani government in its policy in FATA.

The air attack killed 80 men, mostly madrassa students and teachers. According to media reports, the madrassa was attacked with three missiles fired from a pilot-less Predator plane. Of the 83 people who were residing in the seminary, only three survived the attack. Among the dead was Maulana Liaquat, who ran the seminary and was a leader of the banned pro-Taliban organisation, Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi, commonly referred to as the 'black turbans' on account of the distinctive black turbans worn by its members.

A Pakistani army spokesman claimed the attack was launched following reports that 'miscreants' and wanted men had taken refuge in the village, and emphasized that the seminary was no longer being used for imparting religious lessons and was being used as a military training camp.

The incident has infuriated the local population which claims that most of the dead were students aged 15 to 25 years studying in seminary. Most of the students belonged to Bajaur, while some were from the nearby districts of Dir and Swat. Local villagers claim the attack was launched by the US aircraft and report having seen a drone overflying the area the previous night. Helicopter gunships and other aircraft were also sighted in the region during the previous three nights.

The fact that the US had carried out an attack in the region in January this year gives credence to these allegations. It is also improbable that the Pakistani troops will carry out an aerial attack with attendant risk of collateral damage, when the task could be achieved much more effectively and without bloodshed by heliborne ground troops.

It is also pertinent to note that Pakistani authorities were slated to sign a peace deal similar to the one signed in North Waziristan with tribal leaders in Bajour, the same day. Military authorities have also claimed that Ayman Al Zawahiri, Libbi, Al-Misri and other Al Qaeda leaders were frequent visitors to the madrassa, which prepared new sucide bombers.

Apparently Pakistan does not wants to accept that the US has once again infringed on its sovereignty, as that would infuriate the public and more importantly weaken Musharraf's position within his own constituency – the Army.

Whatever be the truth, one thing is certain, that the Pakistani policy of buying peace by letting the militant have a free run within the region that was tried out in North Waziristan in September is as good as dead. Many in Pakistan feel that the North Waziristan deal was a good one as it localized the militants to a particular region in return for granting them freedom within the region.

It must be appreciated that Pakistan has always been a reluctant warrior as far as war the against Taliban in FATA was concerned and most Pakistanis believed that General Musharraf was fighting America's war in Waziristan. To top this, Pakistan lost a large number of troops in Waziristan and over 70,000 troops were deployed in the region, which had severely restricted Pakistan's ability to deploy troops to meet other internal disorders in Pakistan.

However, what seems to have forced a change of policy is the pressure from the West, which perceived the deal to be a sellout to the militants. After the deal signed on September 5, 2006, the militants in North Waziristan started institutionalizing their authority over the region. A state within a state has been created and those reported to be US spies are being eliminated.

The Taliban has not only set up an office in Miramshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, they have also appointed advisers to lay down the law in the region in accordance with the Taliban's interpretation of Shariat. According to an editorial in Dawn newspaper, 'With a parallel administration, judiciary, prison system and taxation regime taking shape, the writ of the state is conspicuous only by its absence'. What was even more damaging was the open acknowledgement by top NATO military commander Gen James Jones that the infiltration into Afghanistan had increased after the signing of the Waziristan deal. Many in the West believed that the deal in Waziristan made the NATO campaign in southern Afghanistan impossible to win.

Finally, the United States lost its patience and asked General Musharraf to stop making new deals with the Taliban within Pakistan. That probably explains the timing of the attack -- on the eve of another peace deal.

Having jettisoned the Waziristan model of buying peace, General Musharraf and his representative in Washington, DC, have made strong statements against the militants to gain favours from the US and its allies. General Musharraf said he was committed to crush militant activity wherever it existed and the operations in Bajour were a physical manifestation of his government's resolve. He asserted that all those killed were militants using weapons and said extremism and terrorism are the biggest threats to the world at large, the Muslim Ummah, the region and especially Pakistan.

The Pakistani government has, however, not succeeded in convincing the public at large, and there has been an spontaneous exhibition of outrage especially in FATA and NWFP, where tens of thousands of armed men have demonstrated and shouted slogans against Musharraf and the US.

The situation was so tense that Prince Charles, on a visit to Pakistan, was forced to call off a scheduled visit to Peshawar, capital of NWFP. Although the operation has been criticized by almost all those who are outside the government, across the ideological divide from human rights activists and social society groups to religios extremists, it has given the moribund MMA – an alliance of religious parties -- an issue to corner the government. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the MMA chief, accordingly led a demonstration to the borders of Bajour Agency, where he was stopped from entering the agency.

The attack is bound to revive violence all across the FATA and the tenuous peace in North Waziristan is not going to last. The Pakistani Army will have to move again in the region and this time the violence is not likely to be restricted to North and South Waziristan but is expected to embrace the entire tribal region. According to a report in The Times, London, it indicates that General Musharraf is under immense pressure from the West, is running out of options and does not have a coherent plan as he switches from peace deals with militants to attacks on them.

The Pakistani Army, which is already embroiled in Balochistan, is extremely reluctant to get involved in the region, not only because the tribals are seasoned fighters, but also because many of its troops have strong ethnic ties with them. Moreover, it feels that it is fighting someone else's battle in the region. The attack has helped the extremists garner new recruits. Media reports have indicated that in the immediate aftermath, a number of people publicly volunteered to act as suicide bombers against 'agents of America'.

In the coming weeks there is a likelihood of further violence in the region and Musharraf will be forced to send a reluctant army back to fighting in the tribal areas, which will eventually erode his standing within the Army. It appears that the Bajour operation is the next step in Musharraf's end game, which began with the assassination of Nawab Bugti.

The author is a New Delhi-based Strategic Analyst

More reports from Pakistan

Alok Bansal