December Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

Five-and-a half months after the launch of the military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, against local and foreign militants in North Waziristan, the action taking place in the remote tribal region close to the border with Afghanistan is attracting far less attention in the country than it did in the early days.

The daily claims of battlefield successes by the military have become routine. The political developments in the country and its neighbourhood are deflecting attention from the military action in North Waziristan, as Pakistan is never a dull place in terms of headline-grabbing incidents. The politics of confrontation in the country, resulting from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan’s long-running dharna in Islamabad and his rigid position on political matters, is another reason for the falling interest in the military operation.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) from North Waziristan are complaining of the lack of attention by the federal and provincial governments to their plight, primarily due to their focus on Imran’s seemingly estranged ‘cousin’ Dr Tahirul Qadri, who, too, had attracted a disproportionately large share of the limelight before he suddenly and rather mysteriously called off his protest in Islamabad and headed for rest and recreation to his second home, Canada. He has now returned to Pakistan to revive his largely stagnant revolution by putting up a candidate of his Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) to contest the assembly by-election in Punjab’s Bhakkar district, after having earlier rubbished democracy and elections.

However, the people do realise that the military operation has been effective — the acts of terrorism have declined, the human and material losses in bombings have decreased and the militant groups are suffering from divisions in their ranks. But the terrorist threat hasn’t gone away and the conflict areas still remain unstable.

Zarb-e-Azb, named after a sword used by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), is neither the first military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) nor will it be the last. Such operations, even if on a smaller scale, will continue to be carried out in the future as well, because many of the militants were able to escape before the action began in North Waziristan on June 15. Similarly, during several previous military operations in other parts of FATA and Malakand division, they had fled the area and managed to minimise their losses.

The same tactics were adopted in late 2001 by the Afghan Taliban, when they retreated instead of fighting a conventional war against the invading US forces and their allies from the Northern Alliance to cut their losses and preserve their strength in the hope of fighting another day.

The military has been giving an update on the gains being made in the military action in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency almost on a daily basis, where the operation was extended in October to hunt down militants threatening the cities of Peshawar and Kohat and the strategic Khyber Pass Highway linking Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to military authorities, many militants had escaped the action in North Waziristan and sought refuge in Khyber Agency, particularly in its faraway Tirah valley where the government lacked control. However, Tirah valley, and even the Bara area located close to Peshawar in recent years, has been a stronghold of an array of militant groups ranging from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) and the pro-government lashkars such as the Tauheedul Islam (TI).

792949-GenRaheelSharifGenLloydAustinTampafloridaphotoAsimBajwa-1416259435-864-640x480There is no doubt that the security forces have advanced deep into North Waziristan after having expelled the militants from the two main towns, Miranshah and Mir Ali, as well as Degan and Boya, described by military commanders as the “Pentagon of the militants,” and are presently fighting in the relatively dangerous Dattakhel area. The troops are gearing up for the most crucial battle in the forested Shawal Valley, where targets have been hit by jet-fighters to soften the militants’ positions before launching the ground offensive.

The army is claiming to have cleared 90 per cent of North Waziristan of militants, destroyed more than 200 of their hideouts and seized their command and control centres, communication hubs and a large quantity of arms, ammunition and bomb-making material. By denying them space, the military has dealt a severe blow to the militants’ ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks. Though they were able to escape, it was not possible for them to take away all their assets and it will not be easy to set up their new bases at remote places such as Shawal on the same scale and without the kind of resources previously available to them in Miranshah, Mir Ali and Boya.

The military’s claims have prompted the tribal elders and the displaced persons to demand their repatriation to their villages. Tribal jirgas have been held, including joint ones by elders from both North Waziristan and South Waziristan, to highlight their demand for early repatriation to their hometowns. The North Waziristanis are concerned that they may face the same situation as the South Waziristan IDPs, since most of them are still displaced after getting uprooted from their homes in the Mehsud tribal territory as a result of the military operation undertaken in October 2009. The North Waziristan IDPs are getting restless and have held protests in Bannu and Peshawar to highlight their demands, including their early repatriation, better care and compensation, and adequate educational facilities for their children.

Some of the political parties have taken up the cause of the IDPs by convening jirgas to demand their repatriation to North Waziristan to areas cleared by the security forces. Two such jirgas were called by the Asfandyar Wali Khan-led Awami National Party (ANP), which is in the opposition after suffering a crushing defeat in the May 2013 general elections, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), which is an ally of the ruling PML-N in the centre and is in the opposition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both the jirgas also demanded a swift conclusion to the Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan.

Neither the ANP nor the JUI-F have done much to serve the IDPs, and the politicians invited to their jirgas were Pashtun; it was felt the issue concerned displaced Pashtuns. But, the jirgas managed to divert some attention to the issue of the IDPs and brought the federal and provincial governments under pressure to do more for the care of the displaced people. In particular, the PTI-led coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was criticised for the recent incident in Bannu in which the police fired at an unruly crowd of IDPs at a food distribution point and killed two of them. The incident was widely condemned and there was so much pressure on the government from all quarters that the detained protestors had to be released and the cases filed against them withdrawn.

The North Waziristan operation brought the military and the Nawaz Sharif government on the same page; earlier they seemed to have drifted apart due to the latter’s insistence on holding peace talks with the TTP. When the talks failed and the militants launched an audacious attack on the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi on June 8, the government was left with no choice but to give the military the go-ahead signal to go after the TTP and its allies in North Waziristan.

The prime minister and his cabinet subsequently made it a point to spare no opportunity to praise the armed forces for offering sacrifices in the war against terrorism. Nawaz Sharif repeatedly appreciated the leadership qualities of the army chief, General Raheel Sharif. The appreciation also needs to be seen in context of the aggressive campaign launched by Khan and Qadri against Nawaz Sharif and the widespread, and rather unsubstantiated, belief that certain elements in the military establishment were behind the efforts to dislodge the prime minister.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally paid a visit to North Waziristan on October 9 to meet the troops and thank them for their sacrifices in the fight against militancy. Though he undertook the trip three months after General Raheel Sharif’s visit, it nevertheless seemed to have gone down well with the military and the public.

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The decline in the number of terrorist attacks has convinced many that the operation in North Waziristan, has had its impact on the capacity of the terrorists to strike back. The Pakistan Army was finally also able to convince the still-skeptical US officials that the Zarb-e-Azb operation was being conducted against all militants gathered in North Waziristan. General Joseph Anderson, the US military commander in Afghanistan, publicly admitted that the military operation in North Waziristan had disrupted the Haqqani network and affected its ability to undertake attacks in Afghanistan. He even stated that the Haqqani network, which is considered by the US as its most dangerous enemy in the AfPak region, and the Afghan Taliban, were fractured now.

General Raheel Sharif, during his recent visit to the US, carried the same message and it appeared that the Americans listened to him carefully. He was awarded the US Legion of Merit medal in recognition of his brave leadership, sagacity, vision and efforts for peace in the region. The decision to award him the medal showed that his move to undertake the military operation in North Waziristan must have pleased the US, as it had been demanding such an action for several years. General Raheel Sharif’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had resisted Washington’s pressure to do so due to a host of reasons, including the fact that the Pakistani security forces had been busy carrying out one operation after another and were stretched.

Finding the Americans in a receptive mood, General Raheel Sharif raised the issue of the Indian violations at the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and the working boundary with Pakistan at Sialkot to point out that this could distract his forces fighting against the militants in North Waziristan. Though this was not reported, he may also have highlighted the lack of support from the Afghan government, despite Pakistan’s repeated requests to block its side of the Durand Line and prevent militants fleeing the military action in North Waziristan to escape to Afghanistan. The issue was discussed in General Raheel Sharif’s visit to Kabul before his US trip and again when the newly-installed Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani visited Islamabad on his first trip to Pakistan. It is possible that the US would try to play a more meaningful role in future to help resolve some of the disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both countries accuse each other of providing safe havens to their armed opponents and Ghani’s visit to Pakistan was widely seen as being helpful in bringing the two governments and armies closer by overcoming the distrust that has characterised their relations for years.

Despite the routine condemnation by Pakistan of the US drone strikes in North Waziristan and sometimes in South Waziristan, it seems there is now greater acceptance of such attacks, as these complement the Pakistan military’s efforts to eliminate those fighting the state. The US has become increasingly careful in the selection of its targets and is mostly launching drone strikes in areas where the Pakistani security forces haven’t yet undertaken the ground offensive. Their relations are on the mend largely due to the Pakistani military’s decision to undertake military operations in North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency and treat all armed groups in its area of operation as an enemy.

The Haqqani network was disrupted as was the local non-TTP Taliban group of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who was forced to decide whether he wanted to sue for peace or fight the state. As Gul Bahadur has chosen to fight the state, he too is now an enemy combatant and is no longer being spared. Though the intelligence agencies have continued to talk to militant factions such as the one led by Khan Said Sajna, who has shown willingness to make peace with the government, this is part of the classic ‘divide and rule’ policy to stop the militants from joining hands with each other and become a formidable force to fight the state.

Despite the successes achieved by the military in North Waziristan, there is still no timeframe for concluding this operation and repatriating the IDPs to their hometowns. This shows that the war against terrorism will be long and costly and its outcome will depend on both internal and external factors, including the
fate of the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.