Attacking the jirgas is a sign of weakness in the Taliban

Bajaur: attacking the jirgas

The Salarzai tribe that had begun to oppose the Taliban in Bajaur has been attacked near the town of Khar, the headquarters of Bajaur tribal agency. Their jirga was attacked by a suicide bomber who rushed into the gathering of elders and exploded himself on Wednesday. In all 22 elders were killed, including the leaders and commanders of the lashkar (militia) that they had put together to fight and expel the Taliban and their affiliated “foreigners” from the area. Forty-five members of the 300-strong council of elders were wounded.

An organisation of obscure origin has claimed the deed. This is a pattern and tells us how the Taliban and their patron Al Qaeda have come under pressure lately from the jirgas and reacted. In March, they had to massacre a jirga in Darra Adam Khel and last month they repeated the deed on a jirga in Orakzai agency, killing over a hundred elders. This is stage two of the strategy employed by the terrorists. They began by killing the maliks and single individuals of influence in the Tribal Areas to replace the traditional system of self-governance. Stage two is now upon us and is more problematic.

The jirga remains the apex of the system of authority among the tribes. When the maliks were being killed, the jirgas remained silent, linking the killings to “injustice” in Afghanistan. But as the Taliban began to impose their rule over them with punishments serving as instruments of fear, public reaction to them began to change. The problem was that the state at that time was not around to reassure them that they would be supported if they defied the terrorist regime. But now in Bajaur, for the first time, the Taliban and their “foreigners” are getting hurt in their confrontation with the Pakistan army, as is apparent from the suing for peace by Baitullah Mehsud, their “caliph” in South Waziristan. So now the tribes and jirgas are beginning to reassert themselves.

The Salarzai showed patience when their economy was being demolished and their schools were being pulled down by the Taliban. But after the army began operations in Bajaur, the Salarzai began to express their true response to the Taliban, something that has not happened elsewhere in the Tribal Areas, either because the military operations there have been fitful or have not succeeded. Therefore the attack on the Salarzai jirga clearly shows a new trend in the adventure story of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine: they are becoming unpopular among the tribesmen and trying to cow them down by attacking their jirgas.

But the jirga killings are simply going to damage the Taliban’s cause further. Nowhere was the popular reaction against the “foreign” terrorists more intense than in the Malakand division (Swat, Dir, etc). But the people there were “softened” in favour of the Taliban by the MMA government in Peshawar which ruled in the area, just as it did not encourage the people of FATA to rise against the terrorists. Thus when the elections rolled around, the Swatis clearly indicted the MMA government for not looking after them. They also began to condemn the government when the military operations inflicted a lot of damage on them without eliminating the terrorists. So the fear factor came in and their message was: leave us to the mercies of the Taliban.

Fortunately, things changed after the exit of President Pervez Musharraf from the scene and his policy of mollifying the MMA because it helped him stay in power through the 17th Amendment. With the PPP in power in Islamabad and an apolitical army chief in the person of General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani heading the army, the scene has changed for the better and the pressure on the Taliban has started to build up. This must be kept up and, more importantly, other tribal agencies should be brought under military operations.

South Waziristan, where the last military operation in May this year discovered the “suicide academy” where suicide-bombers were trained for the whole of Pakistan, is back in the hands of Baitullah Mehsud whose second marriage was celebrated by subservient tribesmen on the occasion of last Eid to show that he was still the “caliph”.

Kurram Agency is also a place gradually going out of the territorial jurisdiction of Pakistan. Since Peshawar failed to re-establish the traffic on the road going to Parachinar, the agency’s economy has become connected to Afghanistan. If you want to send food and medicines to Parachinar, you have to first smuggle them to Afghanistan. Since the Pakistani state could not come to the help of the besieged tribes there, their co-tribals from Afghanistan are coming in to defend them. This is not a situation which Islamabad can take for very long.

Attacking the jirgas is a sign of weakness in the Taliban “movement”. More and more tribesmen are going to turn against them as their elders are exterminated. More citizens’ militias will be formed against the Taliban; but the terrorists will be rolled back only if the Pakistan army goes in and helps its own people to defend themselves. This is the war that Pakistan has to fight, and from it hangs the prospect of what will happen in the region in the coming weeks and months. (Daily Times)