Pakistan Fights Back

Behind the Operation in North Waziristan

Damaged vehicles on the tarmac of Karachi's Jinnah International Airport, after an attack by Taliban militants, June 10, 2014. Athar Hussain / Courtesy Reuters

The Pakistani military has finally marched into North Waziristan with its guns blazing. The second-largest of Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), North Waziristan has served as a sanctuary of choice for the Taliban and foreign militants since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. They have used the territory to foment insurgent violence in Afghanistan’s adjacent Paktika and Khost provinces and to plan attacks on Pakistan and Indian and Western targets in Afghanistan.

For years, the Pakistani army had resisted U.S. pressure to launch an offensive in the area on the grounds that it lacked the capacity to do so and was already stretched thin by its existing deployments in the other FATAs. However, as I argued in “Getting the Military out of Pakistani Politics,” my 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs, the army’s reluctance was the result of its considered policy of fighting only militant groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, that had declared war on the Pakistani state. It was all too happy to shelter those, such as the al Qaeda­–affiliated Haqqani network, whose guns were directed at American and Afghan forces across the border.

The immediate trigger for the army’s offensive in North Waziristan, codenamed Zarb-i-Azb (or the Strike of the Azb, the Prophet Mohammad’s sword), was the daring June 8 terrorist raid on Pakistan’s main international airport in Karachi, which was reportedly carried out by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban. The Karachi attack proved to be the last nail in the coffin for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s already stalled peace talks with the Taliban, which began late last year.

It is not entirely clear what Pakistan hopes to achieve with Zarb-i-Azb, which is said to involve some 25,000–30,000 ground troops and plenty of artillery, tanks, and fighter aircraft. For one, it remains to be seen whether this will be a sustained offensive or a stop-gap measure. Formally announcing the assault’s launch in parliament on June 16,

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