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, Sharif claimed that the fight would go on until terrorism is completely wiped out. If the past is any guide, though, Zarb-i-Azb is likely to be yet another “drain the swamp” operation, a strategy favored by the military, in which troops first force civilian populations to leave the area to deny militants cover and then launch artillery and airstrikes to pave the way for ground operations. That is the strategy the military used in South Waziristan in 2009, but the Taliban leadership simply retreated to North Waziristan and other tribal areas to fight another day. In fact, news reports suggest that the Pakistani Taliban and their foreign allies have already escaped to their mountain hideouts or have crossed over into Afghanistan in anticipation of the offensive.
The Pakistani military has routinely opted for brute force followed by appeasement. For example, previous military raids in FATA were followed by peace agreements with different leaders of the Pakistani Taliban. These truces gave the militants time and space to regroup and rearm, and they emboldened terrorist groups to spread their tentacles from their initial sanctuary in the Waziristans to the rest of FATA and beyond. In fact, different Pakistani Taliban factions have reportedly established footholds in several Pashtun-dominated Karachi neighborhoods, which they use to raise funds through extortion, kidnappings, and robbery.
It also remains to be seen who the military’s real target is. It seems to be going after only the Pakistani Taliban and Uzbek and other foreign militants, but it has vowed to “eliminate” all terrorist groups holed up in the area “regardless of hue and color along with their sanctuaries.” Sounds good. But only time will tell whether the military will make good on its promise or pick and choose once again.