By B. Raman
The death of three US soldiers (Marines?), living under civilian cover in the Lower Dir District of the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, in an explosion which a struck a convoy in which they were reportedly traveling with some Pakistani security forces personnel on February 3,2010, has been confirmed by the US Embassy in Islamabad.
Initially, the killed Americans were projected as journalists or as employees of the US Agency For International Development (AID), but subsequently, the US Embassy admitted that they were military personnel deployed in the area on a training-cum- civil construction mission. They were posted in the area to train personnel of the Frontier Corps (FC), a para-military unit headquartered in Peshawar and consisting largely of Pashtuns recruited in the NWFP and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Since 2005, there have been many reported instances of the penetration of the FC by the Pakistani Taliban and collusion of many FC personnel with the Taliban. There were also instances of the desertions of a large number of FC personnel to the Taliban during the fighting in the South Waziristan area.
Despite such instances, the US had proposed a project for the training of the FC personnel by members of the US Special Forces units and for undertaking civil construction projects in remote rural areas in the hope of thereby helping the FC win the hearts and minds of the local tribals and weaning them away from supporting the Taliban. This project, which was accepted by the Pakistan Government, has been under implementation for over a year.
The training project has two components. Under the first component, selected commissioned officers of the FC are taken to the US for special training. Under the second component, selected non-commissioned officers and other ranks are trained locally in the NEFP, but not in the FATA.
The three US military personnel killed on February 3 were reportedly proceeding in a convoy escorted by the FC to attend the inauguration of a school for girls constructed by the voluntary labour of the FC personnel and the US trainers. Available details regarding the incident are confusing. Some reports suggest the explosion was triggered off either by a suicide bomber or through a remote control device as the convoy was proceeding to the venue of the function. If this was so, it is not clear, as to how, many girls, who had assembled at the venue, were injured. A possibility is that the explosion struck the convoy just as it arrived at the venue.
It is also not clear whether the explosion specifically targeted the US military personnel or it merely targeted the girls school because the Taliban is opposed to girls’ education and the US personnel who were there got killed. A person, who claimed to be the spokesman of the Pakistani Taliban, has claimed that the Taliban carried out the attack and alleged that the three US military personnel were actually working for Blackwater, a US security firm employed by the US Government for physical security and training purposes in the Af-Pak area.
The Dir area of the Malakand Division is the native place of Sufi Mohammad, the founder of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a component of the TTP, which had established its control over the Swat Valley of the Malakand Division under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of Sufi Mohammad, who is a native of Swat. In operations undertaken towards the end of 2008 and in the beginning of 2009, the Pakistani Army managed to eject the TNSM from the Malakand Division, including Lower and Upper Dir and Swat. Its leaders evaded capture or death and managed to escape.
The explosion of February 3 shows that while the TNSM and its associates in the area may have lost their territorial control in the area, they still have some capability for random attacks with explosive devices. The incident is unlikely to affect the training programme of the US. What is significant is not the success of the terrorists on February 3, but their inability to identify and target US military trainers till now despite the fact that they have been operating in the area for over a year now. This speaks well of the high level of security of the training programme.
In the meanwhile, rumors regarding the death of Hakimullah, the Amir of the TTP, on January 26, 2010, as a result of the injuries sustained by him in a US Drone strike on January 14,2010, continue to persist despite the repeated denial of these rumors by the TTP. There is no way of establishing the veracity of these rumors unless the TTP itself decides to admit the truth, if he is really dead, as it did after a delay in the case of the death of his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud in a Drone strike in August last.
What is clear is that despite the spectacular success of the TTP in getting seven CIA officers and one Jordanian intelligence officer killed in the Khost area of Afghanistan on December 30,2009, through a Jordanian double agent, it seems to be facing difficulties in Pakistani territory due to relentless air strikes by the US with its Drones and the Pakistani Army operations in the South Waziristan area. It has lost territorial control in the Mehsud area in South Waziristan and the disruption of its command and control has resulted in the senior leaders of the organization such as Hakimullah himself if he is still alive, Waliur Rehman, its leader in charge of South Waziristan, and Qari Hussain Mehsud, in charge of its suicide wing, being forced to move from place to place in non-Mehsud areas in order to escape attacks by the US Drones. This has added to their vulnerability and affected their ability to carry out spectacular terrorist strikes in the non-tribal areas. The TTP seems to be a weakened , but not a defeated force.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai).