It's all over bar the shouting. After the militants took over a counter-terrorism facility for more than 48 hours, the shooting at last stopped. But Pakistan’s noisy politics is likely to get noisier as the opposition will certainly hold on to the tragedy which left 33 dead.
Whether many of those dead were militants or hostages will probably never be known given the opacity of the Pakistani state. But it's an operation that highlights how tenuous Pakistan’s stability is, and one that demonstrates to counter-terrorism experts everywhere to always expect the worst.
None of this is good news for India though there will be many who derive a certain satisfaction on seeing Pakistan at the receiving end of its own earlier proteges. But terrorists are known for shifting and changing ideologies to suit themselves and their pockets.
An amalgamation of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State Khorasan(IS-K) is dangerous as the National Investigation Agency filed case after case showcasing its slow ingress into India. The US is equally worried, and has declared full support for Pakistan. Expect more drone strikes and targeting of leaders without much result. Meanwhile, India has learnt the Counter-Terrorism(CT) lessons that Islamabad is now learning many times over however one vital difference.
What Unfolded in the Bannu Hostage Tragedy
The attack took place on the 18th just after the TTP called off an uncertain ceasefire in late November when 33 of its militants detained inside the Bannu Counter-Terrorism Department centre, managed to overpower their interrogators and take a number of law-enforcement personnel hostage. It's as well to understand that Pakistan’s Counter-terrorism forces are a hardened and highly experienced lot, with little in terms of legal constraints to limit their operations.
Besides, only the best get to serve in these units which have been operating in the tribal areas in particular ever since General Musharraf was - very reluctantly – to deal with his former ‘colleagues’ in militant ranks and limit their audacity. It didn’t succeed.
Ceasefire after ceasefire followed by innumerable peace talks did little. With US assistance in terms of drone strikes, TTP leaders were decimated leading to a lull. But in a primary lesson for CT ops, this simply led it to first, seek shelter in Afghanistan, and second, to splinter into small amoeba-like groups which operated more or less independently.
At least one was a Pakistani proxy. As the Taliban emerged in triumph on the backs of the Pakistan-US deal, the TTP came with them and received grateful shelter after years of operational support. Today, the TTP wants its pound of flesh and that is Pakistani territory.
What Differentiates Pak’s CT Strategies From India’s
The Indian Army neither bombs its own citizens nor rains down artillery on them. Indeed, it uses the most minimal force as compared to other operations. That pays on the ground.
Pakistan needs to learn some hard lessons. First is obvious: drop completely and absolutely the notion that sponsored terrorism in other countries can be ‘managed’ for their own benefit. Second, when your own people turn terrorists, it's time to look inward. That lesson is the hardest because ‘inward’ doesn’t mean the Pakistani army, but the people, and that one serves the other.
That’s a mindset that has few takers inside the country. Meanwhile, brace yourselves. It’s a bad time for the subcontinent. Bannu can happen again, and yet again. Those masked men are going nowhere. A lick of paint and a new name, and they’re brand new, ready to fight elsewhere. No, Pakistan’s CT forces have learnt nothing at all.
As Pakistan’s CT strategy unravels, there is more on the table for the new Chief General Munir to mull over, and a new operation is to be named after at least four earlier iterations since Gen Kayani’s Rah e Rast in Swat, Rah e Nijat in South Waziristan, Gen Raheel Sharif’s Zarb e Azb in Waziristan and Gen. Bajwa’s Radd ul Fasaad.
By the time Bajwa retired, there were doubts about whether the army was at one on this strategy, or anything else including who should be the Prime Minister. Final CT lesson: It erodes your own force. Another operation will be launched, without much good. The TTP is only getting stronger.
Some Tough Lessons for Pakistan To Learn
Consider the demands of the hostage-takers. They initially demanded a safe passage to Afghanistan, but later changed this for a demand to be moved to North or South Waziristan, the ‘ground zero’ of Pakistan’s Afghan operations for decades. Today it is a militant hell.
Again, there is a lesson there for CT operators. Creating ‘safe havens’ for murderers and criminals who are also militants, is a really bad idea. After a stalemate lasting nearly 48 hours, authorities decided to go in with all guns blazing to free the hostages. And that’s a lot dead, including at least three from the elite Special Services Group (SSG).
The officials described them as ‘miscreants’. They were anything but that as apparent from the sheer gall of the operation, not to mention a video released where they make their demands. If the SSG were tough, so were these ‘miscreants’. Probably tougher. There's a third CT lesson: never underestimate the ‘non-state’ guy. He has more to lose.
What the TTP Wants
Talks with the TTP started secretly somewhere in early April following the mediation by the Taliban and the Pakistani state freeing several of its leaders, including two important TTP commanders to show goodwill. One of them was earlier convicted of kidnapping two Chinese engineers for ransom and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was officially pardoned by President Alvi before being handed over. That showed a high degree of desperation which would have been fully appreciated by the TTP leaders.
Their demands then included Sharia law, that all Security Forces should leave the borders, and reversal of the Fata merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa done through a constitutional amendment, not to mention compensation of their killed and wounded.
The military refused the merger to which the militants rather surprisingly brought forward documents proving the commitment made by no other than Mohammad Ali Jinnah with the tribal people guaranteeing their autonomy in an independent Pakistan. That was one in the eye for the military, who demanded that the TTP disband.
All this was fine as long as the Taliban were on board, especially Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. Then came a drone strike in the heart of Kabul against Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri in July, and the death of a senior TTP leader Abdul Wali and three others in August, as they reportedly were on their way for talks. None of this would have heartened the Taliban or the TTP. A possible fourth lesson. Talking to militants on foreign soil is a bad idea, no matter how much you pressure the hosts. In the end, both are likely to turn ugly. At least sections of the Taliban are tired of Pakistan and have showed it with guns.
Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Receives a Blow
As news of the talks inevitably leaked, leading to a demand that Parliament be taken into confidence over such a sensitive matter. Whether it was, is unlikely. No security force likes to give details of its operations to a babbling politician. The army declared success after success, and even did a ‘surgical strike’ into Afghanistan. In any event, the talks seemed to have worsened the situation.
A rare briefing by the Counter Terrorism Department to the Parliament said that the TTP had "gained considerable ground" and "increased its footprint and magnitude of activities" in Pakistan during the peace talks process.
In other words, the militants slowly infiltrated back into the tribal areas from where they had sprung, and then called off the ceasefire, noting that the Pakistani intel had not proved sincere, and had continued operations against it.
That seemed true. At the briefing, officials told the committee that 200 search and sanitisation operations and 77 intelligence-based operations have been conducted in the district of Malakand alone. Not unnaturally, the TTP responded in kind with the officials citing four attacks from September onwards, including a kidnapping and holding for a ransom of Rs 10 million. Clearly a group with expensive tastes.
And meanwhile CT sources like the The Militant Wire reports that Pakistan’s most feared outcome is likely to come true. An already publicity-savvy group, the TTP has joined hands with pro-Islamic State groups who spread the word in multiple languages.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)