The South Asia Channel

What We Still Need to Know About the North Waziristan Operation

It has been two months since the Pakistani military launched the long-awaited security operation that military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said was aimed at eliminating "all militants [...] whether they are local or foreign, Haqqani network or Uzbeks." But while the country's armed forces are claiming victory in parts of North Waziristan, widespread skepticism exists about the army's intentions, since action against North Waziristan-based militant groups, such as the so-called ‘good' Taliban, (i.e. the Haqqani Network, and their local host, Hafiz Gul Bahadar), has been delayed for almost a decade.

So what has changed now?

A Pakistani parliamentarian told me that the military is more serious now, particularly after recent attacks in China and the ensuing Chinese pressure on Pakistan for decisive action, and the June 7 attack on Karachi's Jinnah International Airport.

However, the official added that there is still no chance of the military taking action against the Haqqanis or the affiliated ‘good' Taliban. "The time is critical and the army does not want to lose the assets -- the ‘good' Taliban," he explained to me.

North Waziristan is one of the last strongholds of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its local and international franchises. Almost all of the major attacks launched in Pakistan or Afghanistan over the past few years have been planned in this border terrain, which is inhabited by the Wazir and Mehsud tribes. Members of both tribes are associated with the TTP and their extended families live across the border in Afghanistan's Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces.

The reported removal of security personnel from a section of the border near Khost province prior to the launch of the operation likely helped the Waziristan-based militants, particularly the Haqqani Network, move to their hideouts across the border.

Sailab Mehsud, a Waziristan-based journalist who, days ahead of the launch of the operation, slipped into the village of Datta Khel -- where several militants have been targeted by CIA-operated drone strikes in recent years -- said that, compared to past visits, he did not see any signs of militants in the area. All of them had either fled across the border or gone underground. 

In North Waziristan, Bahadar acts as the key leader of the ‘good' Taliban, and hosts the Haqqani Network, as well as some members of the TTP and foreign militants.

Certain militant groups considered to be the ‘good' Taliban, such as the Maulvi Nazeer group (which has been led by Bahawal Khan since Nazeer was killed in a drone strike in January 2013), and Khan Said Sajna's group, which parted ways with the TTP over a leadership issue, have adopted a meaningful silence since the launch of Zarb-e-Azb. They are believed to have moved to safer locations in the neighboring Kurram tribal district or across the border to the southeast portions of Afghanistan. 

But many believe that instead of these groups, the key targets of the operation are the TTP, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the remnants of al Qaeda -- many of which have been involved in all the major attacks carried out in Pakistan in recent years.

Another key question about the operation concerns the dubious casualty figures of militants. It is hard to get independent information on the ground in North Waziristan, and it is equally hard for the local and international media to subscribe to the numbers shared by the Pakistani army's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). 

As per the ISPR, in addition to raiding dozens of militant sanctuaries, discovering several arms factories and training facilities, and finding a tunnel in Miram Shah, over 500 militants have been killed in the operation. Yet the identities of most militants remain unknown and many wonder where the bodies are. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, for example, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "One really doesn't know what is happening [...] The army says it has killed hundreds of people, including Uzbeks. But who, exactly, are they?"

With anywhere from 545,000 to over 900,000 people now displaced, (the number varies according to initial unofficial estimates and recently released official ones), and living with friends and family in other cities, many are wondering whether all this effort -- and destruction of commercial and residential buildings -- is worth it.

Each displaced person has his or her own tale of misery and suffering. Sixty-five-year-old Zahir Shah is but one example. Shah told the Pashto-language news station Radio Mashaal that he had to leave behind his two sick children as Pakistani jets started bombing the area where he lived in Miran Shah. "I handed them over to the Scouts [security personnel] requesting them to bury my children should they die," said Shah, who relocated to Bannu and has had no news about the children he left behind.

The timing of the operation, while international forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan and key political and security changes are taking place, is also crucial for Pakistan. Pakistan has already conducted similar operations in South Waziristan, Bajaur, Khyber, and Swat, where the areas have been declared clear of Taliban fighters. However, militancy has not ended in these areas.

For instance, the May 2009 Operation Rah-e-Raast in the Swat Valley is considered the most successful of Pakistan's military operations. But, although the militants were successfully rooted out of the valley, their re-entry has never been blocked permanently. And the Swati Taliban are still carrying out targeted attacks in the valley, despite the presence of thousands of army troops; one significant example is the attack on Malala Yousufzai in October 2012.

As recently as July 27, leaflets purported to be from the TTP, were distributed in a Swat market warning women not to visit the bazaars . Women were mostly banned from markets by Fazlullah-led Taliban in Swat in 2009.

Writing in Pakistan's Urdu-language newspaper Jang, columnist Salif Safi rightly warned the Pakistani government and the country's security establishment that, if not handled with care, the recent Waziristan operation may turn hundreds of thousands of displaced people into potential jihadists. Such operations have already been conducted in Swat (May 2009), in Bajaur tribal district (August 2008), in South Waziristan (October 2009) and in Khyber tribal district (June 2006 through 2008), without the militants ever having been fully rooted out. They just move from the area and then return once the operation is ended. Now that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, their houses destroyed, and their businesses ruined, the widespread anger among the population if the current operation fails would prove disastrous in terms of people's trust in the state and its security institutions.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.