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Turbulent North Waziristan: Gul Bahadur Threatens to End the Peace With Pakistan

S ource: AEI

Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the most powerful Taliban commander in North Waziristan agency and an ally of the Haqqani Network, menaced recently that he would tear up a long-standing peace deal with the Pakistani military.[1] The threat comes after the Pakistani military caused significant collateral damage when it retaliated against a militant attack on one of its positions. While the incident has considerably raised tensions between militants and the military, it is unlikely to lead to a permanent rift between the two and even less likely to precipitate the kind of operation the U.S. would want Pakistan to launch in the tribal agency.

 

An Unexpected Assault

Militants operating under cover of darkness on November 7 used the roof of a tall building located in the Miram Shah bazaar area to launch rocket and small-arms attacks on two nearby Pakistani military checkposts.[2] The militant attacks did not cause any military casualties but did precipitate a gun battle that reportedly lasted as long as sixteen hours. According to differing accounts, troops responded to enemy fire with everything from mortars and artillery to helicopter gunships, raking buildings in which they believed the assaulting militants might be sheltering.[3]

The next morning, the military declared a curfew in North Waziristan agency and began using explosive charges to raze a number of structures in the area because, according to military officials, “militants fired a rocket at the security checkpoint from one of the buildings.”[4] The demolition was extensive: among the structures the military destroyed were a six-story building housing a private surgical complex, two four-storied hotels, over fifty medical stores and numerous other shops in the bazaar area.[5] According to locals, the hospital’s emergency block and operating theater were destroyed along with expensive and sensitive medical equipment. The destruction caused a number of nearby structures to collapse, killing two people, including a young girl.

 

Local Outcry

Locals protested loudly against the assault, saying that they had been given no notice of the impending attack, and lamenting that they had been punished on such a vast scale for the actions of individuals.[6] Prominent militant commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur also used the incident as an opportunity to lambast the army.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur is the most influential power broker in North Waziristan agency.[7] He controls a swathe of territory stretching (mainly) from Miram Shah, the administrative headquarters of the agency, west to the Afghan border.[8] The Haqqani Network, to which he is closely allied, shelters, trains and operates in Gul Bahadur-controlled territories.[9]

Gul Bahadur also maintains a long-standing, if unofficial, peace deal with the Pakistani government.[10] He focuses his fighters’ attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan and refrains from attacking the Pakistani state. In exchange, the Pakistani military essentially allows him to maintain his own fief in territories under his control. Under the terms of the agreement, the Pakistani military does not conduct military operations in his area of influence without the prior communication and, usually, consent of Gul Bahadur’s faction.[11] Even military convoys that need to traverse through Gul Bahadur-controlled areas normally provide advanced notice of their movements.[12]

In a pamphlet released on November 12, Gul Bahadur railed against the Pakistani government and threatened to scrap the peace agreement. He criticized Pakistan for allowing the U.S. to conduct drone strikes inside North Waziristan and for “repression on our common people at the behest of foreigners.”[13] He added that his group was “disbanding the Jirga (council) set up for talks with the government. If the government resort[s] to any repressive act in future, it will also be very difficult for [Gul Bahadur’s group] to observe patience anymore.”[14]

The unusually severe assault and the strong reaction from the main Taliban faction in the region has reportedly alarmed many locals in North Waziristan who fear the Pakistani state may launch an operation in the agency on the scale of those launched in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009.[15]

 

Too Important to Fail

Despite the fears of locals (and the hopes of many in U.S. and some Pakistani policy circles), the momentary spike in violence is unlikely to lead to any grand military operation targeting militants in North Waziristan. Nor is it likely to signal a significant or permanent break between the Pakistani military and its ignominious ally, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, his harsh recriminations and threats of retaliatory violence notwithstanding.

The Pakistani military and Gul Bahadur have had similar spats in the past, some even resulting in exchanges of fire between the military and Gul Bahadur-aligned militants.[16] Gul Bahadur has frequently assailed Pakistani cooperation with the U.S. and Pakistan’s acceptance of and assistance with U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas.[17] The usual end result has been a reconciliation process and a reaffirmation of their non-aggression pact.[18]

In many ways, the Pakistan Army-Gul Bahadur alliance is “too important to fail” for both sides. Gul Bahadur is one of the most important facilitators of Haqqani Network activity in the tribal areas. Such an operation would significantly disrupt Haqqani Network activities based out of North Waziristan, given that many Haqqani operatives are hosted by, and co-locate with, Gul Bahadur’s faction. This would be an outcome relished in Washington, but bemoaned in those circles of the Pakistani military that continue to see the Haqqani Network as Afghan proxies par excellence.

Gul Bahadur also has several thousand men under his direct command and even more through local commanders who pledge allegiance to him.[19] He has looked the other way when the Pakistani military has needed to use territory in his sphere of influence to launch operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani insurgency group targeting the state.[20] Even though Bahadur frequently turns a similarly blind eye to anti-state TTP activity in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military knows that if the peace deal is scuttled and Gul Bahadur opens hostilities against the military, the resultant action will cause the state a great deal of hurt. Pakistani outposts scattered throughout North Waziristan would almost certainly come under attack, and the roadways would no longer be safe for convoys to resupply forward operating bases, outposts, and military camps. Pakistan already suffers a lack of aerial lift capacity and the army would likely be unable to keep its six-plus brigades deployed throughout North Waziristan supplied by airlift alone for a significant amount of time.[21] Moreover, any North Waziristan operation against Gul Bahadur’s group that is forced on the Pakistani military will likely bring together Gul Bahadur and the TTP, an alliance the military has been able to successfully forestall to this point.

 

No End in Sight

The seeds of appeasement have already been planted. According to reports, “certain government functionaries with the help of pro-Taliban clerics [are already] working hard to defuse tension and avoid confrontation.”[22] Military and government officials have promised to open an inquiry into the incident and promised local leaders that “members of the [peace] committee would be taken into confidence before launching any action against militants in North Waziristan.”[23]

Gul Bahadur has a local gallery he must play to; from that perspective his fulminations are unsurprising and even necessary to shore up his credentials in the Taliban community and avoid being labeled a state lackey. His diatribes are unlikely to be persistent, however, and one can expect to see the exchange of compensation money and a reaffirmation of the non-aggression pact between the two sides before too long. Gul Bahadur is a pragmatist and knows his hold on power will only be weakened by a serious confrontation with the military.[24]

The Pakistani military continues to come under sporadic attack on its forces in North Waziristan. It is likely to continue to take intermittent retaliatory action. On occasion, this action may go beyond what local power brokers, like Gul Bahadur, consider to be within the bounds of acceptable actions and they will react to preserve what they see as their dignity and purview. None of this is likely to lead to a permanent break between the two; the consequences for local militant groups, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani military and Pakistan’s Afghan policy are too dire. Until those basic underlying factors change, the existing alliances remain “too important to fail.”



[2] “Two killed, shops destroyed in Miramshah clash,” Dawn, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.dawn.com/2011/11/10/two-killed-shops-destroyed-in-miramshah-clash.html
[3] Malik Mumtaz Khan, “North Waziristan tense after killing of girl, losses in shelling,” The News, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=76775&Cat=2
Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Inquiry ordered into Miramshah hospital attack,” The News, November 12, 2011 .Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77157&Cat=7
“Two killed, shops destroyed in Miramshah clash,” Dawn, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.dawn.com/2011/11/10/two-killed-shops-destroyed-in-miramshah-clash.html
[4] Malik Mumtaz Khan, “North Waziristan tense after killing of girl, losses in shelling,” The News, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=76775&Cat=2
Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Inquiry ordered into Miramshah hospital attack,” The News, November 12, 2011 .Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77157&Cat=7
[5] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Gul Bahadur-led Taliban warn of retaliation,” The News, November 13, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77337&Cat=7
[6] Malik Mumtaz Khan, “North Waziristan tense after killing of girl, losses in shelling,” The News, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=76775&Cat=2
[7] Jeffrey Dressler, “A Dangerous Mix: Militant Groups in North Waziristan,” CriticatlThreats.org, June 1, 2011. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/dangerous-mix-militant-groups-north-waziristan-june-1-2011
[8] Reza Jan, “North Waziristan Map,” AEI Critical Threats Project, June 7, 2011. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/north-waziristan-map-june-7-2011
[9] Charlie Szrom, “The Survivalist of North Waziristan: Hafiz Gul Bahadur Biography and Analysis,” AEI Critical Threats Project, August 6, 2009. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/survivalist-north-waziristan-hafiz-gul-bahadur-biography-and-analysis
[11] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Gul Bahadur-led Taliban disband peace Jirga, suspend talks with government,” November 13, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=10253&Cat=13
[12] Tahir Khan, “North Waziristan: Gul Bahadur’s aide killed in clash with rivals,” Express Tribune, August 22, 2011. Available:  http://tribune.com.pk/story/236757/north-waziristan-gul-bahadurs-aide-killed-in-clash-with-rivals/
[13] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Gul Bahadur-led Taliban warn of retaliation,” The News, November 13, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77337&Cat=7
[14] Ibid
[15] Malik Mumtaz Khan, “North Waziristan tense after killing of girl, losses in shelling,” The News, November 10, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=76775&Cat=2
[16] Charlie Szrom, “The Survivalist of North Waziristan: Hafiz Gul Bahadur Biography and Analysis,” AEI Critical Threats Project, August 6, 2009. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/survivalist-north-waziristan-hafiz-gul-bahadur-biography-and-analysis
[17] Malik Mumtaz, “Militants warn of ending peace accord in NWA,” The News, March 21, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=37364&Cat=2&dt=3/21/2011
Haji Mujtaba, “N. Waziristan militant leader threatens Pakistan government,” Reuters, November 12, 2011. Available:  http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/12/us-pakistan-waziristan-threat-idUSTRE7AB08820111112?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+reuters%2FworldNews+%28News+%2F+US+%2F+International%29&utm_content=Goo
[18] Malik Mumtaz Khan, “NWA Jirga upset over attack on FC convoy,” The News, January 18, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=26331&Cat=2&dt=1/18/2011
[19] Hussain Afzal, “Pakistani militant threatens to quit peace deal,” AP, November 12, 2011. Available:  http://news.yahoo.com/pakistani-militant-threatens-quit-peace-deal-170141178.html
[20] Reza Jan, “The FATA Conflict After South Waziristan: Pakistan’s War Continues Against Militants in Orakzai, Bajaur and North Waziristan,” AEI Critical Threats Project, February 22, 2010. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/sites/default/files/pdf_upload/analysis/CTP_FATA_Conflict_After_South_Waziristan.pdf
[21] Shuja Nawaz, “Ungovernable,” The American Interest, September/October 2011 issue. Available:  http://www.the-american-interest.com/article-bd.cfm?piece=1007
[22] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Gul Bahadur-led Taliban warn of retaliation,” The News, November 13, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77337&Cat=7
[23] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Inquiry ordered into Miramshah hospital attack,” The News, November 12, 2011 .Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=77157&Cat=7
Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Gul Bahadur-led Taliban disband peace Jirga, suspend talks with government,” November 13, 2011. Available:  http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=10253&Cat=13
[24] Charlie Szrom, “The Survivalist of North Waziristan: Hafiz Gul Bahadur Biography and Analysis,” AEI Critical Threats Project, August 6, 2009. Available:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/survivalist-north-waziristan-hafiz-gul-bahadur-biography-and-analysis
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