The South Asia Channel

Pakistan: Right War, Wrong Battlefield

Five months after Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, announced that the government was giving the failed talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) "another chance," the Pakistani Army launched an offensive "against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan," calling it Operation Zarb-e-Azb (meaning "sharp strike;" the operation was named after a sword used by Prophet Muhammad). Despite publicly attempting to negotiate with the militants, Pakistan continued to suffer tremendously from attacks mounted against it. With public opinion shifting in its favor, the Army was itching to take action, but Sharif, who has traditionally appeased the religious right and feared backlash in his urban stronghold of Punjab province, weighed the odds and hesitated to approve any such operation.

Perhaps, what finally dissolved any prospect of peace talks and forced the government to seriously consider a military operation was the brazen attack on the Karachi International Airport on June 8, which not only brought to the fore the international militant network, but also revealed the depths to which the militants had infiltrated urban centers far from their base in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Though successfully quelled by security forces, the militants' capabilities to conduct sophisticated, complex attacks that have the potential to generate mammoth casualties is a worrying sign for a country that, until the attack on the airport, was dithering in its decision on how to respond.

With aerial strikes launched on June 15 and a ground offensive mounted some two weeks later, the Directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) claims that more than 400 militants have been killed, with zero collateral damage; however, that information is difficult to verify in a region that is closed off to independent journalists and the only source for such data remains the military. North Waziristan has long been known as the hub of international militancy with fighters who trace links not only to the TTP, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network, but also those who belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, isolated Chechens, and Chinese Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, amongst others.

In a rare showing, Pakistan also announced that its offensive will target "terrorists of all hue and color," including the Haqqani Network -- a drastic shift from its policy of distinguishing between the ‘good Taliban,' i.e. those considered a strategic asset in Afghanistan and against India, and the ‘bad Taliban,' i.e. those who have turned against the Pakistani state. After gaining control of Miran Shah (the main town in North Waziristan), the Army is now entering Mir Ali. Yet, the failure of the peace talks, the delay in launching the operation, and the low resiliency that the troops have encountered has led many to believe that the insurgents had ample time to flee into neighboring Afghanistan or other parts of Pakistan.

This raises serious questions not only about the effectiveness of such an operation, but also whether the militants had been given an early warning. Militants have successfully infiltrated urban centers, such as Karachi, one-third of which is now controlled by the Taliban. Blending into the local population, recruiting fighters, and propagating their ideology, these groups pose an even more imminent threat to the state as they become more difficult to identify.

The real solution then is not fighting a war in North Waziristan, eliminating command and control centers, or banishing terrorists from the state. Pakistan's real war is more long-term and is on an entirely different battlefield.

While terrorists may be eliminated, their rigid ideology, which rejects Pakistan's Constitution and aims to establish an orthodox interpretation of Sharia law, will continue to flourish and find root in young, impressionable minds. The TTP has never measured its strength or success by the landmass it occupied, but rather by its high recruiting rate and penetrating ideology.

While the Pakistani Army has been fighting terrorism on the war front, the government has been criticized for not playing its part in coordinating intelligence and law-enforcement bodies, along with the paramilitary Rangers and the police force, in rooting out militants in urban centers and supporting the larger military offensive.

The state also seems to be forgetting that it has a far more important duty to fulfill: that of creating a clear, national narrative on militancy and terrorism. The ambitious National Internal Security Policy (NISP) aimed to do just that and more by reforming close to 23,000 madrassas and bringing the 26 intelligence agencies under one umbrella. Though its implementation was long anticipated, the NISP today remains dormant, and a clear counterterrorism policy is absent. The government's inability to make decisions on matters of national security and mobilize institutions before the launch of the operation to address security and humanitarian challenges has complicated the situation and endangered the military operation.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb, for all its success, is not going to prevent militants from re-grouping in the future -- whether in Pakistan or anywhere else -- and they will continue to rally their supporters. Both the state and the militants draw their legitimacy from the roots of religion, which is increasingly problematic in a country that is largely conservative and where religion has often been utilized for political manipulation. The extremist ideology depends wholly on exploiting religion to create a narrative of an ‘anti-Islamic' Pakistan, with militants justifying their actions as a response to ‘un-Islamic' attacks from the state.

Where the militant narrative has been clear and consistent, the state's narrative has been weak and confused, if not absent. While forming a counter-extremist narrative, the state cannot expect to solely provide the ‘right information;' it must also present that narrative in a way that is emotionally evocative and encourages citizens to adopt a worldview in contrast to the one that is presented by the extremists. So far, the state has failed to identify what it stands for, what it wants, and -- in light of the terrorism mounting against it -- it has failed to create a clear dichotomy between ‘Us' and ‘Them' by promoting values of pluralism and democracy to counter the glorification of violence and terrorism.

In order to do this, the state must first develop a sense of self. The absence of such clarity has presented ready fodder in the form of youthful citizens who have been recruited by the Taliban or supporters of political leaders, such as Imran Khan, who adopt a softer stance on militant activities and stronger rhetoric against U.S. drone strikes. By rationalizing terrorism incidents, politicians have given the impression that counterterrorism and any associated narrative fall within the military's domain. Ambiguous or, at times, Taliban-apologetic public statements issued by civilian leaders have had a devastating effect on forming a national counterterrorism narrative. The militant's narrative is strategically calculated and has emerged dominant. They have gained further legitimacy through appearances in the Pakistani media, which has clamored for exclusive interviews, not realizing the long-term harm these interviews propagate.

If a liberal narrative exists, it is largely presented in English, a language that few are fluent in, and is limited to social media, a phenomenon that even fewer are able to access. A national counterterrorism narrative has to be composed in the dominant language of Pakistan - Urdu -- or other regional languages, and must be disseminated through traditional media tools to be inclusive and effective.

Much has also been made about a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that showed that close to 66 percent of Pakistanis are concerned about Islamic extremism and 59 percent view the Taliban unfavorably (compared to 56 percent in a 2013 survey). The survey also showed that 8 percent viewed the Taliban favorably, while 33 percent declined to offer an opinion. Public perception polls are often unable to gauge the readiness of honest responses and must be examined for their access, representation, and selection of a target sample. In the absence of state policies, an 8 percent favorable attitude towards the Taliban is deeply unsettling for there is no way for the state to identify and reverse a Taliban sympathetic mindset. Furthermore, an indifferent 33 percent is critically important to the security of Pakistan, and they could sway either way -- depending on the narrative.

So far, the Pakistani state has exposed its weaknesses and remains confused in its narrative against extremist ideology. Until the state is able to reform its education system, involve civil society, and create a national consensus on its counterterrorism narrative, it will continue to be defeated by the menace of extremism. Though this operation might be successful, Pakistan's real war will inevitably be lost.

Arsla Jawaid is a journalist based in Karachi. She holds a degree in International Relations from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter: @arslajawaid.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images