IED Blast kills GOC Swat, Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan, in Upper Dir

Spearhead Analysis – 16.09.2013

By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan

Major General Sanaullah Khan NiaziTTP claims responsibility, setting forth preconditions but reducing possibility for peace talks.

Three military officials, including two senior officers of the Pakistan Army, were martyred in a blast in Upper Dir near Pak-Afghan border on Sunday, according to a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations. Major General Sanaullah Khan (also referred to as Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi by certain news outlets), Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef and Lance Naik (Private First Class) Irfan Sattar were martyred in Upper Dir area when a roadside bomb – the incident resulted from an IED planted on the road near the Pak-Afghan border – went off in Bin Shahi area, while the officers and the soldier were returning from the inspection tour. “They were returning after visiting troop posts on the Pak-Afghan border”, the press release said. The officers were on a routine inspection tour of the forward positions of the Pakistan Army on the Pak-Afghan frontier.

In a separate incident, two roadside bombs went off in the city of Miranshah – the main city of the North Waziristan tribal agency – on Sunday, killing two soldiers. And on Saturday night, militants ambushed tribal police (either Khassadar or Levies forces) in the northwestern town of Bannu, killing two and wounding four others. NATO containers were also attacked and torched on the Quetta highway.

Major General Sanaullah Khan was General Officer Commanding (GOC) Swat Division – and therefore, commander of all Pakistan Army units and elements in the area – while Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef was the Commanding Officer (CO) of 33 Baloch Regiment – one of the Army’s Infantry elements deployed in the Malakand Division. Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan was posted as GOC Swat Division in March, replacing Maj Gen Ghulam Qamar. Maj Gen Sanaullah is the fourth general of the Pakistan Army to be martyred since the War on Terror began, and the second Army general from Mianwali district to be martyred in this engagement. On February 07, 2008, Maj Gen Javed Sultan, who too belonged to the Niazi tribe and hailed from Mianwali district, was killed in South Waziristan’s Tanai area along with seven other army officers when his helicopter crashed while returning to Kohat from Wana. At the time, Maj Gen Sultan was serving as GOC Kohat Division, and was leading troops fighting the TTP in South Waziristan. The senior-most casualty of the Pakistan Army in the War on Terror was Lt Gen Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, the Surgeon General of Pakistan Army, who was killed on February 25, 2008, by a suicide bomber at an intersection in Rawalpindi’s Saddar area. The fourth Army general to be martyred in the fight against the militants was Maj Gen Bilal Omar Khan, who was the director general (DG) of the Pakistan Army’s Armoured Corps at the time of the attack by suicide bombers during prayers at the Parade Lane mosque in Rawalpindi Cantonment. According to evidence obtained after the attack took place, Maj Gen Bilal Omar Khan had left the mosque, but returned after hearing blasts and gunfire – he grappled with one of the suicide bombers and broke his ribs before the bomber detonated his vest, while another attacker fired at the general with his automatic weapon.

The latest killings of the Pakistan Army’s senior officers come when the country is mulling over offering peace deal to the militants to put an end to the surging violence, which has so far killed over 40,000 people including at least 5,000 security officials. The incident also comes just a day after the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government announced a gradual withdrawal of troops from Malakand division starting next month. As per the plan – ostensibly devised by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government – in the initial stage, security forces will be withdrawn from Buner and Shangla districts – where the Pakistan Army initiated military offensives in 2009 to force TTP elements back into FATA and into their safe havens in Afghanistan – starting mid-October 2013. It is important to note that the Chief Minister of KP province, Pervez Khattak (along with the Chairman of the PTI) has made announcements to this effect, whereas the Pakistan Army is a federal institution, and the Prime Minister or the Army Chief should have made pronouncements regarding this development. Nevertheless, governance experts argue that after devolution of powers to the provinces under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, law and order has become a provincial subject, and the KP government may be feeling confident that it can install a robust, viable and effective civil governance mechanism in the Malakand Division once the Army vacates the area. Unless such a mechanism is in place, a premature withdrawal could be disastrous, and having to call the Army back in for the third time would be costly as well as fatal to public morale and the citizens’ faith in the democratic system (particularly in terms of service delivery on the law and order front). Both the provincial and federal governments need to be absolutely sure that the replacement civilian administration for Swat district and Malakand Division is capable enough to deal with the threats still faced by the Division (as well as districts within), and that the law enforcement and security apparatus set up between the Army withdrawal stages is not only adequate, but, as mentioned above, robust and viable for the specific case of Swat. This will be a major test for Pakistan’s civil administrators in general, and the PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in particular.

The Awami National Party, which ruled the KP province from 2008 to 2013, has already gone on record to state that the incident is “the outcome of Taliban regrouping” because the incumbent PTI government has a “soft corner” towards the TTP. It must also be noted that the TTP threatened three mainstream Pakistani political parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the ANP – from participating in the 2013 elections, warning them of dire consequences since these parties had adopted a tough approach against militancy and extremism during their tenure. The TTP followed through on its threat, assassinating many contestants from these parties, and targeting many public gatherings hosted by these parties, in the run-up to the 2013 general elections. ANP spokesman Senator Zahid Khan said that militants have returned to Swat and other parts of Malakand division and they have reinforced their positions because the PTI is “hell-bent” for talks with Taliban. According to the Business Recorder, Senator Khan “held the government’s ‘ambiguous’ policy responsible for providing an opportunity to militants to operate in the province without any fear, adding that it seems as neither the provincial nor federal government had any clear policy whether they should initiate talks or use force against terrorists”. The incumbent PTI has vehemently denied these accusations, as spokesman for the KP Chief Minister, Sheraz Piracha, has “rejected re-emergence and regrouping of Taliban in Swat and other areas of Malakand division”, but acknowledged that the bombing in Upper Dir “underscored the need for assessing the security situation” on a dynamic basis. ANP leader Haji Adeel called Maj Gen Sanaullah’s martyrdom deplorable, and said that this attack “might disturb the negotiation process”.

Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, Chief of the JUI-F, has a unique angle on the peace talks: he says that “a new era has started” with regard to negotiations between the government and the Taliban, and that he “appreciates ongoing efforts aimed at paving the way for dialogue with the Taliban”. It is unclear whether he is referring to talks between the Pakistan government and the TTP, or talks between the US and/or Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban, since he also makes mention of release of prisoners; an issue that is moving forward in terms of the Afghan Taliban’s demands as reports indicate that Pakistan is about to release one of the Taliban’s founding members – and perhaps the most important Afghan Taliban commander until his capture from Karachi in February 2010, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – while the TTP is only facilitating jailbreaks in Pakistan, as the Pakistani government has (so far) refused to release any prisoners with ties to the TTP or other terrorist or extremist organizations operating within the country. However, the JUI-F chief has also warned that “many elements having links with foreign forces would try to thwart the talks”.

The proscribed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the killing of the army officials. Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid claimed responsibility for the bombing from an undisclosed location, most likely in Afghanistan or in a certain area of Pakistan’s tribal agencies (FATA) which have, over the years, become a no-go area for law enforcement agencies, the media, and – in some cases – even the Pakistan Army. In the same vein, the TTP has also set forward two preconditions for talks with the government: removal of the Army from the tribal areas and release of prisoners captured by Pakistani security forces in the last decade (in a separate development that is referred above, there are reports that Pakistan is going to release senior Afghan Taliban commander – one of the four founding members of the Afghan Taliban movement, who was thought to be the movement’s second-in-command since the US-led invasion in 2001 as well as de facto leader of the Taliban ground forces fighting the NATO-ISAF in the landlocked and wartorn country – Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar: the Prime Minister’s Advisor on National Security, Sartaj Aziz, said that Baradar would be released in the month of September). The TTP spokesman said that “The Pakistan government must take steps which can develop an atmosphere of trust and can remove the doubts and suspicion”.

The latest attack, however, puts the very notion of talks in limbo, especially with the preconditions that the outlawed TTP has set, when the government is ready for talks without any preconditions. The TTP spokesman said that the attacks would continue while the militants decided if the government’s offer was genuine or not – a clear indication to the government and major political parties that their APC alone would not yield concrete results against terrorism, and that the militants have their own timeframe which they will follow in order for the fighting to stop. Last year, the TTP said that they would only consider peace talks if the government imposed strict Islamic law all over the country and went to war with its arch-nemesis, India. At the time, the TTP stated that it wanted Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman (chief of the JUI-F political party), Nawaz Sharif (chief of his own faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-N, and now Prime Minister of Pakistan), and the Pakistan Army (ostensibly through its Chief of Army Staff, General Kayani) to act as guarantors of the peace talks – with the former PPP regime – and its outcome. Those peace talks never took place.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that the latest attack would not affect the fight against militants. “The Pakistan Army has made substantial sacrifices to protect the nation against the menace of terrorism and such cowardly acts by terrorists cannot deter the morale of our armed forces,” Sharif said in a statement. In a phone call to Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Prime Minister said that bombs won’t affect the fight against terrorists. President Mamnoon Hussain also expressed profound grief and sorrow over the martyrdom of senior army officers, along with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Ahead of the attacks on Saturday and Sunday, the TTP released eight government officials on Friday, whom it had been holding for over a year: the militant group called it a “goodwill gesture” ahead of peace talks with the government. Nonetheless, skepticism about the proposed talks lingers.

The timing of the attack is also significant in terms of Pakistan’s internal political scenario as it comes only after weeks of discussions within Sharif’s government about whether to pursue peace talks with the TTP, or Pakistani Taliban, who – according to many security agencies in Pakistan, and as reported by Reuters as well as The Independent – are separate from Afghanistan’s Taliban, although allied with them in the fight against the U.S. Last week, major political parties held an All Parties Conference (APC) on the one-point agenda of terrorism, and agreed that talks should be pursued with the militants; but it was not clear when talks might begin, who might take part or if they would be held under any conditions. The APC, held on September 09, “authorized the government to initiate a peace process” according to the New York Times; Army Chief General Kayani was also included in the APC. BBC News also reports that it is “unclear” what steps Prime Minister Sharif or his government will take – despite having pushed for negotiations with the militants himself in the past as well as in the capacity of Prime Minister – in order to initiate or facilitate peace talks with the TTP, especially after the attacks on Saturday and Sunday, and the growing anger among the country’s Armed Forces and public over the brazen attacks carried out by Islamic fundamentalist elements under the TTP umbrella, from the groups operating in the lawless FATA tribal areas and the volatile KP and Balochistan provinces, to the sectarian-motivated groups operating in Punjab and Sindh, to the extremely well-equipped and sophisticated cells that conduct target killings, kidnappings for ransom, and other criminal activities that take place in urban centers of Pakistan and ultimately benefit the terrorist umbrella group posing an existential threat to the peace and security of Pakistan and its citizens.

Most importantly, it is unknown whether the Pakistani government – or any institution within, whether it is the Pakistan Army; or a political party like the PTI, MQM, or ANP – have set any preconditions for talks with militant groups such as the TTP, or those outside the TTP umbrella. It is also unclear how much the PTI’s four-point agenda on eliminating terrorism – which was presented at the APC – has been taken into account at the APC, and at the federal government level. The PTI’s four points, as enunciated by the party chairman, Imran Khan, were: (i) dislodging Pakistan from the US-led war on terrorism, (ii) holding dialogue with the Taliban (without being clear on whether it is the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistani Taliban/TTP), (iii) adopting a policy of “Mandela-style” reconciliation, and (iv) launching military offensive against the militants who refuse to hold talks and after exhausting all peaceful options.

As is obvious, Reuters’ Katharine Houreld notes that the killing of Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan and his colleagues would likely make it more difficult for the government to enter negotiations with the TTP, who have now set preconditions after an attack on a senior Army officer. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), an umbrella group of over forty different factions, have said they would have their own meeting to decide whether to negotiate with the government or not, and analysts have said it might be difficult for them to reach an agreement. It is also unclear whether Mullah Fazlullah – the leader of anti-state miscreants in Swat – is part of the TTP umbrella, or whether he aims to achieve separate recognition from the TTP (as he did in 2007 and in 2009) with the hope of concluding a separate peace treaty for Swat. Infighting between various TTP factions is not new, and such infighting has led to the death of senior TTP commanders and militant cadres by their own colleagues and by other elements supposedly – or claiming to be – under the TTP umbrella.

Commenting on the incident, Rahimullah Yousafzai, the most senior journalist covering Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs since the past few decades, including increased militancy over the past decade, said that Mullah Fazlullah, a fugitive leader of the Swati Taliban, might be behind the IED attack. The Army launched an operation in Swat Division to clear the area of militants led by Fazlullah in 2007 – the first phase of the attack commenced on October 25, 2007, but ended on November 07, 2007 with the Taliban taking control of the district. The Pakistan Army regrouped its elements in the area and sent in reinforcements, starting a second offensive on November 15, 2007, and took complete control of the area by December 06, 2007. Afterwards, peace talks between Fazlullah’s father-in-law – the leader of the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) Sufi Muhammad – and the then-government took place, and an accord was reached in February 2009. However, the TTP failed to fulfill its part of the bargain, and the Pakistan Army – backed by elements of the Pakistan Air Force – launched a new offensive on May 16, 2009, codenamed “Operation Rah-e-Rast”, to take complete control of the Swat valley and capture or kill all militants in the area. This was part of “Operation Black Thunderstorm”, a military offensive launched by the Pakistan Army and Air Force on April 26, 2009 to retake control and establish writ of the state in restive areas such as Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla, in addition to Swat – the operational objectives of this mission were met on June 14, 2009, and the TTP elements were wiped out from the abovementioned areas. The operation in Swat (and the rest of Malakand Division) truncated successfully on July 15, 2009, with the restive valley secured and senior Taliban leaders captured or killed. However, one of the main demands of the militants – the establishment of Sharia law in the Malakand Division – was addressed by the then-federal government with the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation 2009, promulgated on April 13 of that year. This remains a controversial piece of legislation which aims to provide speedy justice but establishes a parallel judicial system in the Malakand division; though it was drafted and promulgated on their demand, it was also a cause of consternation for Fazlullah and Sufi Muhammad, who pulled out of talks with the government, causing the return of the Army with full force, complemented by the Air Force, to eliminate anti-state elements from the region.

Fazlullah, however, escaped, and is assumed to be hiding in Afghanistan: Rahimullah Yousafzai has said that Fazlullah and his militants have sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s Noristan and Kunar provinces that border Pakistan, and that the Swat area was relatively calm as the martyred Maj Gen often visited various parts of the region under his command. According to these reports, it seems quite likely that the attack that targeted Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan is designed to thwart attempts at peace talks between the government and the TTP, and also to transform Swat again into a restive and lawless area: in perception if not in terms of ground reality. Saleem Khan Safi, another senior journalist and expert on Taliban militancy, said that the government in Islamabad was not serious in its efforts to tackle the issue of terrorism.

In addition to political parties like the ANP, former President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has also warned against policies that appease militants, as he urged the people to “guard against extremist mindset and appeasing militants”. Noting that September 16 was International Democracy Day, he paid tribute to all those who endured torture and imprisonment, and even sacrificed their lives, for continuity of democracy and democratic processes. He said that threats to democracy had taken new forms, and that “the greatest… threat to democracy emanates from the militant mindset [that] seeks to impose their agenda through force”. He also made reference to the martyrdom of Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan, saying that it was a clear indication of the futility of appeasing militants.

In sum, previous attempts to pursue peace with the TTP have failed. The Taliban expressed a willingness to engage in talks with Islamabad at the end of last year, but ultimately backed out after their deputy leader – Waliur Rehman Mehsud, a proponent of talks with the Pakistani government – was killed in a US drone strike. The timing of that particular drone strike was also very odd, since it squandered the first and only real chance that the Pakistani state had to negotiate with the TTP, and to have a TTP leader in place who would support peace with Pakistan on mutually acceptable terms. Though Shahidullah Shahid, TTP spokesman, has dispelled the notion that the attack was not sanctioned by the TTP leadership, the group is known to claim responsibility for attacks that have occurred even if they have not been part of the planning, implementation, preparation, or execution processes of it. As such, Shahid’s statement claiming responsibility for the Sunday attack also clouds the fact that the TTP umbrella is not as well-knit and does not have a unified command – in fact, he admits that the various factions within the TTP will talk amongst themselves to see whether they should initiate peace talks with the government or not. Hence, even if peace talks take place between the Pakistani government and the TTP, and a peace accord is reached, it will remain very unlikely that the TTP will be able to rein in all of the militant elements under its umbrella, since each of these elements have their own agenda and their own ideology, which is interconnected in one way or the other with the TTP’s agenda to dismantle and destroy the Pakistani state as it stands today (and to replace it with an Islamic Emirate with their own interpretation of Sharia law and so-called Islamic principles). This is quite different from the Afghan Taliban, who have a military, political, and religious/spiritual leader in Mullah Omar, and whose various factions, operatives and groups are ultimately answerable to a council or “shura” that is headed/chaired by Mullah Omar.

“The government’s difficulties have increased,” according to Rustam Shah Mohmand, a retired diplomat who belongs to the Mohmand Agency in FATA. “Today’s incident seems [to be] aimed at sabotaging the peace talks. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban faction that is opposed to talks can influence senior Taliban leaders” or not. Adam Withnall of the UK daily “The Independent” newspaper is of the view that the rare killing of a high-ranking military officer could have “undone weeks of debate and diplomatic progress” and would most likely derail the possibility of peace talks between the Pakistan government and the TTP. “Last week, major political parties held a conference on the issue and agreed that talks should be pursued, but the death of Maj Gen Khan will make the possibility of peace more distant than ever”.

In a statement on Monday, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has emphasized that while it is understandable to give peace a chance through the political process, no one should have any misgivings “that we (Pakistan Army) would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms.” Army Chief Gen Kayani added the Pakistan Army had the capability and determination to fight terrorists, and those responsible for the killing of officers would be brought to justice. While reaffirming Army’s support to the political process, the COAS also said, unequivocally, that terrorists will not be allowed to take advantage of it. The Army Chief’s statement came on the heels of the targeted killings on Sunday and after the TTP spokesman had set the preconditions for talks with the government: the withdrawal of the Army from FATA and release of all Taliban/TTP prisoners.