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Mullah Nazir’s death will change nothing

The death of Mullah Nazir during a drone attack on his vehicle near the Afghan border has come as no surprise to many people, including those from South Waziristan.

There was an almost universal belief in the area that in the relentless drone campaign that has defined the US war effort in the tribal area, sooner or later Mullah Nazir, a prominent Ahmadzai Wazir militant leader who was the most influential anti-US commander, will be successfully targeted and eliminated.

But the attack brings home an ominous fact for Pakistan’s policymakers – the extent to which US intelligence outfits have penetrated the tribal areas. It also highlighted the ease and facility with which they hire poor tribesmen and plant them to identify and then report with precision their location and whereabouts for the drones to hit and kill.

This spectre raises troubling questions about the limits to which an external agency can operate in Pakistan without any regard for such criminal ingress into the territory of a foreign country.

The attack on Mullah Nazir will not fundamentally alter the state of the insurgency inside Afghanistan. But it may upset the present tribal balance as far as Ahmadzai Wazirs are concerned.

The incident will not in any way impact the insurgency in Afghanistan negatively, because very few militants could succeed in going across into Afghan territory due to the extremely tight restrictions and monitoring across the border.

First, there are far too many check-posts, so it has become impossible for any groups to cross over. Even individuals find it difficult to go past the many barriers on their way to Afghan territory. A very small number of unarmed tribesmen may still be able to cross over, mostly at night. But group crossing is a near impossibility.

Militants who do cross over would constitute a tiny fraction of the number of resistance volunteers involved in attacks on government and coalition forces in adjacent Afghan territory.

Since the insurgency is now in its eleventh year, a large number of well trained and deeply motivated volunteers are available to continue a fight that is no longer dependent on the sagacity or leadership of one commander, who in any case was operating in a limited sector of Paktika.

Lastly, the resistance has developed a system whereby a fallen commander is immediately replaced by another commander. This has to be the case in any such insurgency because death, accidental or planned, always looms over men like Mullah Nazir.

However, Mullah Nazir’s death may change the local political/military landscape in some way. The Uzbeks and Chechens who were forcibly expelled from the area may try to return with the help of commanders opposed to Mullah Nazir.

This might complicate matters for the Pakistani military operating in the area. More importantly, the Pakistan military has lost one of its most trusted tribal elders who had played a crucial role in preventing attacks on government installations and security forces.

Whether his replacement would be as effective in ensuring there are no assaults on government forces remains to be seen. It is also not clear how Mullah Nazir’s group will sort out the many issues that have strained the group’s relations with the main body of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan headed by Hakimullah Mehsud.

The death of Mullah Nazir comes at a time when the authorities in Pakistan are considering how to respond to an offer of unconditional dialogue made by the TTP. If sanity prevailed, the government would begin to engage with the militants at many different levels.

Consider the losses sustained to-date by the state and the people: more than 60,000 tribesmen killed, countless wounded; 1.5 million people from the tribal area displace; more than 15,000 houses destroyed or damaged; infrastructure destroyed; schools and health clinics either damaged or closed; roads closed for years; and the residents of the area subjected to daily humiliation by interceptions, searches, detentions and disappearances; the population terrorised and the children traumatised.

Meanwhile, particularly with trade at a standstill – to say nothing of mobile telephones and electricity disconnected for years from most areas – the economy of the area has come to a grinding halt. Would it be a wise policy to accept the continuation of the carnage and the bombings?

Should Pakistan not make a political move to seek negotiated settlement of an unnecessary conflict that has pitted the security forces against the local people? And what have we achieved by pursuing this single-track policy at the behest of the United States for so long? Nothing but a fractured polity and a polarised society.

A change of policy or approach is long overdue. Before the current senseless, lopsided strategy causes further irretrievable damage, there is need for an immediate reappraisal of policy. That must include pulling the country out of the so-called war on terror.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, "Mullah Nazir’s death will change nothing," The News. 2013-01-10.