After years of uncertainty over how to handle its militant insurgency, Pakistan’s army finally launched an all-out military offensive on June 15 against the local and foreign militants based in North Waziristan agency, the second largest tribal region of Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas located along the Pakistani-Afghan border. The operation, named Zarb-e-Azb, (or the Strike of the Prophet Muhammad’s Sword) seems to be a crucial fight in Pakistan’s long war against terrorism and militancy, aimed at rooting out militant hideouts associated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
For more than a decade North Waziristan has remained a safe haven for regional and global terrorist organizations. A place from which to plan and execute deadly attacks on their main targets, most importantly coalition troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s public places and security installments. Considered by many as the epicenter of terrorism, North Waziristan is the territory that militants used as a headquarters for planning and coordinating most of the terror acts that reportedly took the lives of 50,000 Pakistanis, including more than 5,000 security personnel, and cost more than $1 billion in financial losses.
There has always been demand for action against militants. Despite popular support, the military’s insistence on launching an operation, and the international community’s calls to eliminate the sanctuaries of terrorists in North Waziristan, Pakistan’s confused political leadership could not make up its mind about how to tackle the issue. Since September last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s civilian government pursued elusive peace talks instead of handling the issue militarily, while the Taliban resorted to acts of terrorism, targeting civilians, minorities and security forces.
With the formidable attack on the country’s biggest and busiest international airport in Karachi on June 8, the army lost patience and decided to launch a full-scale military offensive against the militants. Since the peace dialogue had already failed, a military operation became inevitable, compelling the political leadership and even the biggest critics of the use of force to accept it.
The North Waziristan operation is significantly different from the Swat, Bajaur and South Waziristan operations conducted in the last decade in two ways. First, it enjoys the support of a majority of the people and almost all political parties endorse the operation. There also seems to be a consensus among the civilian and military leadership on this issue. Second, it seems that the military has abandoned the policy of keeping the “good” Taliban – those who undermine the interests of Pakistan’s adversaries on the directives of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (the military’ s premier spy agency) – and eliminating the “bad” Taliban – those that direct their guns at the Pakistani state – as it understands that the recalcitrant proxies often morph into enemies and make alliances with anti-state militants.
After realizing that the good and the bad Taliban are two sides of the same coin, the military has decided to “eliminate all terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.” In the first phase of the operation, it is successfully conducting air strikes on terrorist hideouts, destroying their infrastructure and killing hundreds of suspected foreign and local militants. Troops have cordoned off many areas of North Waziristan to prevent the relocation of militants to adjacent regions, and aerial strikes have been extended to those regions as well. To make the operation more successful, the military has boosted security near the Pakistani-Afghan border to stop militants from crossing over into Afghanistan, and requested the Afghan Army to strengthen security on its side to keep militants from fleeing to the neighboring province of Khost. Most recently, Islamabad and Kabul agreed to “to take action against all terrorists without making any discrimination among them and their hideouts on their respective sides.” As soon as the evacuation of civilians is completed in North Waziristan, the military plans to launch a ground offensive to wipe out the terrorists and establish order in the state.
There is a serious concern that the immediate reaction to the operation could be violent terrorist attacks across the country, mostly on places of worship, vital public buildings and security installments. To deal with the threat, the government has beefed up security in large cities and other sensitive areas, though perhaps not as much as it should. Law enforcement agencies have also conducted some raids on terrorist hideouts in Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and other major cities on the basis of intelligence information.
If the operation successfully concludes in the coming weeks – as some expect – it could significantly reduce terror incidents across the country. However, merely clearing North Waziristan will not be sufficient to root out terrorism. For a permanent solution, Pakistan needs to develop a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.
The most crucial part of fighting the militancy is to wage and win the battle of ideas. A forceful national narrative needs to be developed to counter the Taliban’s regressive and intolerant narrative, in order to win the ideological conflict and garner support for counter-terrorism operations
The government must try to increase the efficiency of and cooperation among its various intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in order to carry out counter-terrorism operations more effectively, and limit the activities of terrorist groups. There is also an urgent need to initiate a crackdown on the TTP and other terrorist outfits’ sleeper cells in major cities and towns across the country. It is equally important for the government to eliminate Sunni sectarian militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, and anti-Indian militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.
The operation in North Waziristan is the beginning of a decisive battle against militancy and terrorism. To survive as a nation state, it is a battle Pakistan must win.
Deedar Hussain Samejo is pursuing a Masters in Political Science at The University of Sindh, Jamshoro, Pakistan. His commentaries have appeared in Asia Times Online, Global Post, and Express Tribune.