A report in this newspaper yesterday has suggested that the state has intensified ‘back-channel efforts’ to win the support of militants in North Waziristan against the Baitullah Mehsud network, now led by Hakeemullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan. The report is in keeping with the three-pronged strategy of the state in South Waziristan, i.e. the use of blockades and aerial and artillery firepower against the Mehsud strongholds, encouraging rival factions within the Mehsud tribe to take up arms against the Baitullah Mehsud network, and attempting to win over powerful warlords such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir (South Waziristan).
Thus far the state has had moderate success with its strategy. But a word of caution: particularly with commanders like Gul Bahadur and Nazir, ensuring consistent cooperation with the state has been an elusive goal. Gul Bahadur and Nazir, who formed the United Mujahideen Council with Baitullah Mehsud earlier this year, are unpredictable characters who have periodically attacked the security forces. Their ultimate objective appears to be to secure their quasi-kingdoms and rule with little or no ‘interference’ from the state. So the idea that Gul Bahadur, for example, is a ‘good’ Taliban does not really stand up to scrutiny. In early June, the kidnapping of students from the Razmak Cadet College in North Waziristan was apparently facilitated by Gul Bahadur.
Nevertheless, in an area as fraught with danger as the Waziristan agencies the state will on occasion have to hold its nose and strike ‘deals’ with at least some local elements. However, here too problems are apparent. For one, the use of tribal elders and jirgas as mediators is not necessarily viable any more. With the decapitation of the traditional tribal leadership, the maliks, in many parts of Fata, especially the Waziristan agencies, the influence of the institution has waned and there is a big question mark over its ability to hold the militants to their side of any bargain. Second, militant leaders such as Gul Bahadur are believed to be involved in and supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan and linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Anything done by the state here that further entrenches Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan is sure to unsettle the US and Afghan governments and may worsen the already tense relationship between the three countries.
Third, the state must be careful and ensure that it is not effectively replacing one menace with another — just like Baitullah Mehsud arose to torment the state after a rival Mehsud group fell out of favour, so may other groups create more problems for Pakistan in the not-too-distant future.