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

Pakistan Fights Back

Behind the Operation in North Waziristan

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.

And there is, as yet, no indication that the government plans to deal with other terrorist groups with known ties to the Pakistani Taliban, such as the Afghan Taliban, and the Sunni sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba (reincarnated as the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat-ASWJ) and its off-shoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which have carried out a countrywide pogrom against Shia Muslims. There is also complete silence on India-focused jihadi groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Hizbul Mujahideen, and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Civilian officials claim that their hands are tied because some of these groups enjoy military backing.

And herein lies the big question: Does the offensive signal a decisive shift from the military’s traditional use of “good” jihadists as a tool of foreign policy? Probably not. The military has sworn off its jihadi proxies in the past only to revert to business as usual. In 2001, Pervez Musharraf, president at the time, took a famous U-turn when he decided that Pakistan would side with the United States to topple the Taliban regime in Kabul only to provide its leadership sanctuary in Quetta. Under Indian military and diplomatic pressure after Lashkar-e-Taiba’s December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, Musharraf proscribed the organization and its brethren. However, these groups simply resurfaced under different names and were allowed to operate freely in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba ultimately planned and executed the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, can still hold rallies to mobilize support for jihad against India in Kashmir, and is a vocal supporter of the Pakistani army on Twitter and TV talk shows. In fact, he is one of the main cheerleaders for the latest military offensive.

Terrorism has already imposed significant financial and human costs on the Pakistani state and society, including over 50,000 deaths and more than $1 billion in financial losses. And then there is the international opprobrium and notoriety that the country has earned as the world’s leading terrorist safe haven, not to mention the threat that “good” terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, pose to regional security. Yet there is no indication that the generals are going to abandon the jihadi enterprise anytime soon, or that they have stopped distinguishing between friendly and unfriendly militants. In his speech before parliament, Sharif claimed that terrorists would no longer be permitted to use Pakistan as a safe haven. The generals would second that, although who is -- and is not -- a terrorist ultimately remains subject to their interpretation.

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