North Waziristan operation: too little, too late?

The Karachi airport attack was supposedly the last straw. The security forces did not budge when their own headquarters came under brazen attack or the civilians in mosques, imambargahs, churches and bazaars were blown to bits

After dragging its feet for over a decade, the Pakistan army has finally launched an operation in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), the hapless region that the country’s security planners had virtually ceded to local, cross-border and global terrorists. Half a million Pashtun civilians, forced to vacate their homes, are at the mercy of nature’s elements. They need emergency logistical assistance — not just government handouts — to avert a humanitarian disaster. The army has deflected international pressure at least since 2010 to act decisively against the terrorists in NWA. The former army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, had stubbornly refused to carry out the operation while analysts echoing the establishment’s thinking described the terrorists as assets that “would protect the country’s western flank”. The devastating domestic blowback, with thousands killed in the slew of suicide bombings, almost each one traced back to NWA, could not convince the ex-Chief of Army Staff (COAS) to act. Does one thank the stars that the stalling has ended or is the offensive, christened Zarb-e-Azb, which many news outlets spelled and transliterated incorrectly, too little and too late? 
The operation has to run the full gamut for one to say anything conclusive but what seems certain is that the timing and scope is of the army’s choosing, as General Kayani had stated, for example, in August 2012: “We might, if necessary, undertake operations in NWA, in the timeframe of our choosing and determined only by our political and military requirements. It will never be a result of any outside pressure.” There is nothing wrong with striking the enemy on one’s own terms but what about the loss of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of Pashtun internally displaced persons (IDPs) and a ravaged economy thanks to this procrastination? Better late than never to begin indeed, but what about the thousands of families ruined as a direct consequence of this disastrous delay? No, they did not delay the operation out of respect for democracy. Those who never asked the politicians before letting the jihadists in wanted civilian permission to flush them out — really? The proponents of the operation have now been vindicated and the naysayers are rather mum in deference to the army. The damage to the families and individuals targeted by the jihadists, however, is irreparable. Their only solace would be if the policy planners did actually learn a lesson and mended their ways. Operation Zarb-e-Azb could theoretically be a turning point where the security establishment cuts the umbilical cord to its jihadist brood. 
Sadly, how the offensive is playing out and the establishment’s domestic and transnational shenanigans indicate that it is another tactical manoeuvre, not a policy shift. Just like the 2009 Operation Rah-e-Nijaat in the South Waziristan Agency was announced a good six months in advance, the current one has been in the pipeline for quite some time. The Karachi airport attack was supposedly the last straw but there have been umpteen such attacks, many of which were arguably more lethal and more high profile. The security forces did not budge when their own headquarters came under brazen attack or the civilians in mosques, imambargahs, churches and bazaars were blown to bits. We have argued in this column for years that the Pakistani plan for handling the hornet’s nest it had allowed NWA to become is to neutralise a few so-called ‘bad’ Taliban and offload the ‘good’ pliable ones into Afghanistan. If the objective were for this operation to be as broad spectrum as the armed forces communiqués claim, the military logic would have been a hammer and anvil assault when a panoply of international forces were ready to partner from the western side of the Durand Line. But the US and Afghan desire to apply such a squeeze was rejected off the bat. The jihadist groups and religious parties were let loose to raise a ruckus against the highly effective drone strikes. How is it that the same groups and their chief cheerleader Imran Khan did not let out even a peep when the US drones carried out repeated strikes in NWA this time around? 
The Pakistani calculus has always been that the US will leave behind a power vacuum in which the ‘good’ Taliban, like the Haqqani Network (HQN), would lead the charge. Indications are that the HQN ringleaders, including its head honcho, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and midlevel operatives have already evacuated NWA. Scores of Taliban cadres of all shades have reportedly been moving out to the Lower Kurram Agency, Orakzai Agency and the Tirah Valley straddling the Kurram and Khyber agencies. The claims of the dozens of Taliban killed on a daily basis in fighting are not verifiable, as outside journalists are not allowed into NWA. One Mehsud journalist told a foreign radio service that in an area where the authorities claimed killing over 55 Uzbek terrorists, the locals saw only a dead pigeon. The Taliban, like any guerilla force, never stay back to fight en masse. They leave behind small bands of fighters and booby-trapped buildings to engage the government forces while the bulk of the terrorists melt away into the region. Mullah Omar’s Taliban did it in 2001 and those of Mullah Fazlullah repeated it in 2009. 
A significant number of Taliban are said to be escaping unscathed this time too. However, regaining the territory will certainly be a welcome development that could deny the jihadists their primary sanctuary and logistics hub from which attacks have been conducted as far out as Kabul and Karachi. The Taliban have almost always taken some time to regroup after suffering such losses. Bracing for the retaliation is absolutely imperative but it is relatively unlikely that the Taliban can project power in a sustained manner inside Pakistan and they certainly cannot do so without the massive logistical support from the sprawling seminary and religio-political groups network. 
And therein lies the rub. Is the Pakistani security establishment ready to cut the Punjab-based jihadists loose too? Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. The India-oriented jihadists are living large in the Pakistani heartland. In fact, they have the audacity to actually endorse the operation in NWA. The jihadist groups are still being used to neutralise the nationalists in Balochistan and yet others have ostensibly been facilitated to stoke the fires in the Middle East. It is only a matter of time before these ‘good’ jihadists turn on their mentors. One operation in one tribal Agency is certainly too little if not too late. The good/bad jihadist distinction is untenable and will have to be nixed for Pakistan to come out of this quagmire of its own making.

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