The South Asia Channel

A Military Operation in North Waziristan? Not Likely.

Pakistan continues to baffle the world with its stance towards the Pakistani Taliban, more formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, with the government formally launching direct talks with the proscribed group, despite the fact that terrorist attacks attributable to various Taliban chapters have continued and that the history of talks with the TTP has been nothing but a tale of persistent failures.  

The alternative, which most outside observers have been hoping to see in play for some time now, is a large-scale military operation in the North Waziristan agency in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This is the center of gravity for the TTP and also happens to be the principal sanctuary of the Haqqani network, a rival militant organization.  

Unlike a couple of years ago, when the United States was pushing hard for an operation against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan and the Pakistanis were resisting turning against the outfit, the current discussion in Pakistan is purely about the TTP. The Haqqanis are still going to be spared -- this decision has been made, and I believe irreversibly so -- but there isn't any sense in the Pakistani military that their presence precludes a military operation against the TTP.

On the face of it, this should make the operation more likely. Pakistani officials in the know freely acknowledge that much of the anti-Pakistan terrorism is directly or indirectly linked to the TTP in North Waziristan. And yet, having recently spent considerable time in Pakistan investigating the government's strategy and meeting with senior civilian and military officials, it is amply clear to me that the military operation is not about to happen.

Two factors are responsible for this.

First, it's the cast of individuals who matter most. A group of conservatives who have Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's ear on this matter believe that talks with the TTP can deliver. Some of them have even managed to become part of the government's negotiating team, while others happen to be in Sharif's family circle. The prime minister himself seems sympathetic to this view. He has said many a time privately that the Taliban are misguided, but reconcilable.

Yes, this is naïve and dangerous. History tells us this and so does South Asia's experience writ large. The prototype of religiously-motivated insurgents that the TTP fits simply will not concede ground unless it is on the verge of defeat. And this is certainly not how the TTP sees its current position. Still, I see no signs of a rethink among the Sharif's confidants who are adamant that the talks should run their course without setting any timelines.

Second, the military operation won't deliver any permanent respite either. Even the strongest proponents of the operation don't deny that the militant backlash from the operation may be immense.

Pakistan's problem has long been an overbearing military combined with a woefully incapable civilian law enforcement and criminal justice apparatus. But any sustainable solution requires a comprehensive and simultaneous effort on the political, military, policing, legal, and financial fronts if it is to stem the militant tide.

The use of military force alone may give temporary respite, but it can also go horribly wrong if the militant enclave sees an existential threat and retaliates with all its might, thereby creating a massive backlash in key population centers.

Policy pundits often talk about this scenario in hypotheticals, but it is a clear and present danger for those who will have to face the brunt of the violence. Indeed, if the Punjab-based Taliban fighters choose to up the ante, the situation may become untenable and the state may quickly find itself forced to compromise under public pressure --a position of considerable weakness. Sharif's politics will also be upended in this scenario given that Punjab is his stronghold.

When Sharif has looked to his concerned military and civilian principals to assure him about the utility of an operation, more often than not, he has received non-committal responses. But the military has told him clearly that the operation won't solve but a minor portion of the terrorist problem. The civilian apparatus must take on the broader challenges and this, everyone knows, is not about to happen any time soon.

A naïve view of the Taliban coupled with a question mark on the outcome of the operation have so far led Sharif to procrastinate and hope that all will somehow work itself out. He is unlikely to move -- perhaps not until the TTP have disavowed talks after having maximized gains from the strategic pause, euphemistically termed "cease fire;" the violence gets even worse; or the army decides to take matters into its own hands.

This is bad news all round. Not only are the Haqqanis going to be left alone, but even the TTP seems set to continue finding breathing space in their North Waziristan safe havens. The irony is that if the military operation comes after a prolonged delay, it will have an even lesser chance of success than it has now.

Moeed Yusuf is the Director of South Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is the editor of the recently released books, Pakistan's Counterterrorism Challenge (Georgetown University Press) and Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens (U.S. Institute of Peace Press).

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images