The South Asia Channel

Operation Waziristan: Can Pakistan’s Military Root out Taliban Sanctuaries?

The bane of Pakistan's counterterrorism policy has been denial, delay, and as some would argue, deception. This approach not only earned widespread insecurity; the country also paid heavily in terms of tens of thousands of innocent lives Thousands of soldiers and policemen courageously laid down their lives fighting terrorist outfits, but the confused state policy -- partly a product of directionless public opinion-- did little to protect their sacrifices. The latest military campaign, named Zarb e Azb (meaning sharp and cutting strike),  geared towards targeting all and sundry among the terrorists in the North Waziristan tribal agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) promises a new beginning. Indeed, it is better late than never.

Even though mistakes committed in the conflict in the tribal belt can haunt Pakistan for a while, the real question now is whether Pakistani public opinion can sustain support of the new campaign in the long haul and if the apparent civil-military cooperation in the matter can also survive. In the face of the almost certain Pakistani Taliban backlash in urban areas, national resilience will be critical.

I spent the last few days in Iraq and, while shuttling between the cities of Najaf and Baghdad, I observed many military convoys heading north. Civilians traveling on the highway showed tremendous support for them. In Najaf, I was staying in near the residence of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Seestani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq. There was a constant flow of large groups of Iraqi tribes visiting him (and other 3 grand Ayatollahs) to complain that Iraqi army was not registering them for fighting against ISIS terrorists. Seestani had encouraged his followers to join the Iraqi military in a major fatwa earlier.  While witnessing this history unfold in Iraq, I could only pray for similar leadership from Pakistan's religious parties. Unfortunately, it turned out to be only Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam -- the two leading religious political parties in the country -- who refused to support the military campaign.

A comprehensive military action in North Waziristan was seen as unlikely for many years because the so-called ‘good Taliban,' like the Haqqani network, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and the Maulvi Nazir group (and lately the Khan Said Sajna) were also operating in this specific zone. None of these factions were believed to be involved in terrorist activity in Pakistan. Only recently, Pakistan's security ‘wizards' have started realizing that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (the really ‘bad Taliban') benefits in many ways from logistics, infrastructure and even funding sources of ‘good Taliban.'

What Pakistan still avoids to fully acknowledge is that TTP today is a far more dangerous group than it was when it emerged in late 2007.  Now, its tentacles are reaching deep into Pakistan and it has close links with the remnants of al Qaeda as well as organized crime. It is diverse in its human resource outlook, drawing on Uzbeks, Chinese and non-Pushtun (especially Punjabi) militants. It raises funds from Karachi (through bank robberies and kidnapping for ransom) and hundreds of its foot soldiers have landed in the Syrian conflict areas learning new techniques and acquiring new weapons. A TTP-ISIS alliance is only a matter of time. A joint communiqué from them should not come as a surprise; security analysts both in Pakistan and the U.S. are behind the curve in this regard.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left no stone unturned in an effort to reach a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban but in the end it seems that the TTP fooled the government by engaging in 'talks' and gained time to move their assets to safer locations. The new military leadership under General Raheel Sharif and his two top advisors, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ashfaq, Chief of General Staff, and Maj. Gen. Aamir Riaz, Director General Military Operations, acting as army's core strategist group, appears to be clearer in their thinking in comparison to political leadership. They made the case for a decisive military action to disrupt the TTP's onslaught.  

Still, Pakistan will not be able to defeat, dismantle, and discredit the TTP through military means alone in FATA. It should be ready to deal with them through civilian law enforcement methods inside the mainstream Pakistan, especially Punjab and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province. Pakistan's recent security policy brief shows little indication that it has any plans to invest in reform and modernization of its police and broader criminal justice system. Change in this arena will be the most potent sign of real shift in Pakistan's counterterrorism policy. President Obama's policy adjustment as regards its drawdown schedule in Afghanistan gives Pakistan some more time for a corresponding shift in its approach -- which in Pakistan's case will be through establishing its writ in its FATA and incorporating it in mainstream Pakistan. Last but not least, religious political parties in Pakistan whose misdirected enthusiasm has played a critical role in Pakistan's overall drift must also be convinced to do some rethinking. Degradation of religious education and discourse remains a very important factor in this matrix. The military has finally taken a solid step forward in its fight against terrorism. It will only succeed if other sectors of the state and society do their part. Stabilizing Pakistan will take time but it is certainly achievable.

Hassan Abbas, an academic based in Washington, D.C. is the author of the recently published book, The Taliban Revival.

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