Long held to be the gate to Afghanistan, Peshawar in Pakistan is today a besieged city. Militants of various Taliban groups now have a stranglehold over regions around the city. The Pakistan government showed some “resolve” on Saturday when it used a paramilitary force to shell militant positions outside the city.
It’s too early to say whether (if at all) Peshawar will “fall” in militant hands. But facts on the ground indicate that security has deteriorated greatly. One, most well-to-do residents of the city have migrated to other cities of Pakistan. Two, the usual guerrilla tactics of “eating at the margins” of authority are amply visible. In towns around Peshawar, militants hold court, punish and execute criminals and simply roam freely, without any fear of security forces.
Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the North-West Frontier Province (of which Peshawar is the capital) have traditionally been difficult to administer. But two factors, among other issues, stand out as major causes of the present problem. One, the Pakistan government has not been consistent in its approach to militants in Fata and elsewhere. After the first “peace” deals were scuttled during the Musharraf era, the government decided to pursue a military approach to the problem. This was abandoned when the civilian government took over in March.
This inconsistency has not escaped the militants, who have made it a part of their strategy. For example, after Saturday’s shelling, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (or the Pakistani Taliban) “walked out” of “talks” with the government. Under normal circumstances, a militant walking out of talks would hardly bother a government. But these are not normal times, nor is Pakistan a normal country. This is sure to rattle the government.
Two, the government has never bothered to contain militant Islam in the region. It abandoned countering these tendencies at an ideological plane decades ago. As a result, the security forces, too, are in the grip of militant Islam, something that makes them averse to fighting militants from across the border in Afghanistan and within Pakistan. A siege within that is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.
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