KARACHI – Spiraling conflict between the Pakistan army and Islamist militants along the Afghan border, straddled by pro-Taliban, Pashtun tribes, has led security analysts to talk of a full-fledged insurgency that poses a graver threat to the country than admitted by authorities.
"Frequent, bloody gunbattles, heavy casualties, ambushes, attacks on military outposts, and killing of informers and army collaborators are not ordinary crimes. Make no mistake. It is an insurgency," said A.R. Siddiqui, well-known commentator on military affairs and a former brigadier in the Pakistan army.
Siddiqui told IPS that he saw the three-year-old conflict as an "offshoot or even a continuation" of the "war against terror" prosecuted by the United States against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, aerial attacks on New York and Washington.
Recent reports of violence from the border area of Waziristan are indeed gory. In one incident, an attack on a Pakistan army contingent by suspected Islamist militants led to exchanges of fire that resulted in the deaths of 15 women and two children.
The army, which retaliated with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), managed to hit a vehicle in which the women and children were riding, completely blowing it up.
In another incident, the army found 26 bodies on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, which separates this country from Afghanistan. The bodies were said to be those of Taliban members killed by U.S.-led coalition forces on the other side of the border.
Coalition forces have been coordinating operations with the Pakistan army in both North and South Waziristan and this is part of efforts to capture al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, said to be hiding in the mountainous region along with a band of their supporters.
But in spite of the supposed coordination, the Afghan government and U.S. officials have frequently leveled accusations of continuous incursions by the Taliban from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The extraordinarily high levels of "collateral damage" and the deaths of many women and children in recent weeks has caused outrage that has only resulted in further alienation of the Pashtun tribes that dominate Waziristan and have formed the backbone of the fundamentalist Taliban movement.
"This is inexcusable," said Siddiqui. "Either Pakistan’s intelligence has failed, or wrong information was fed by the coalition’s military sources in Afghanistan. It is going to intensify the insurgency in all the tribal areas and will mean many more recruits to Taliban and other militant outfits in both countries."
Reacting to charges by the U.S. military that the Pakistan government was being soft on the Taliban, Siddiqui pointed out that, in fact, Islamabad has been arresting people from all parts of the country although many of the detainees are believed to be innocent.
"People are being arrested right, left, and center," said human rights campaigner and political leader B.M. Kutty, adding that he believed the government approach to be "purely reactive."
The Pakistan army first began operations against al-Qaeda elements holing up in Waziristan in July 2002 but quickly got bogged down in a war with fiercely independent Pashtun tribes that saw the expeditions the first in more than half a century as an attempt to subjugate them.
Siddiqui said the arbitrary arrests and the killing of women and children would embitter the influential tribes and this could result in severe political consequences for Islamabad.
Pashtun tribes are spread across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in which Waziristan falls, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and on the other side of the Durand Line in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui said what was needed urgently was a "thorough inquiry into the claim that the Pakistan army had been fired upon from inside a vehicle carrying women and children" because "this sort of thing is going to make the insurgency emotionally more intense."
For his part, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said he is particularly concerned about Pakistan’s image as the hotbed for Islamist extremism, militancy of various shades, and support base for the Taliban and the al-Qaeda.
Last week, Musharraf made a speech charging two Pakistan-based militant organizations, the Jaish-i-Mohammed and the Sipah-i-Sabah, which he had ordered banned, with being "responsible for indoctrinating some of the London bombers."
Musharraf also said he believed that some of the religious schools (madrassas) were "dabbling in the military training of their students and preparing jihadis."
But the fact is that it is business as usual for the leaders of many banned outfits who are either out of jail or on bail and busily promoting militancy.
A worrisome development is the export of Taliban ideology from the NWFP to the rest of Pakistan, most palpably in the shape of the fundamentalist "Hasba bill" passed by the provincial assembly on July 15 and now awaiting presidential assent.
"The Hasba bill is unnecessary as well as un-Islamic. It is an electoral stunt in the name of acting on Islamic injunctions," said Yousouf Masti Khan, general secretary of the Workers National Party.
Khan said the pro-Taliban MMA, the group of religious parties that rules the NWFP, was out to "win the upcoming local bodies elections and have adroitly put Musharraf on the horns of a dilemma."
"If he [Musharraf] were to take strong action against the MMA government in the Frontier, they would go around the country claiming that they were victims of injustice by non-Islamic forces in power at the center."
Musharraf has ordered a crackdown on militancy now that the details of what the London bombers were doing in Pakistan, where they stayed, and how they were indoctrinated are known.
It is more than apparent that a vast network exists not only of Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters but also of pure jihadis.
Kutty said all of this led him to believe that Pakistan was "not only heading toward conflict and chaos, but was in danger of producing a fascist leadership in the name of Islam."
Disturbingly, the Hasba bill only carries out what the constitution defines as the purpose for Pakistan’s existence to enable Muslims to live their lives in accordance with Koranic injunctions.
"If people think it is not right, then what they should do is try to amend the constitution and have a proper democratic constitution rather than one which puts us on the road to obscurantism and fascism," Kutty said.
"It is a bewildering situation," Khan, an ethnic Baloch nationalist, said. "The government’s approach is purely military. It has no political strategy or political know-how."
The incidents in Waziristan have only added to the popularity of al-Qaeda among illiterate and simplistic congregations that fall under the spell of Friday-prayer oratory, say observers.
"Islamabad’s policy of drift cannot long continue without negative consequences for the future of the country itself the country is going nowhere, no overall policy is visible," Kutty lamented.