The South Asia Channel

Prepare for the Long Haul with Operation Zarb-e-Azb

Amidst the frenzy of Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations during my visit to Pakistan earlier this month, it was easy to forget that the country is at war -- a welcome respite given the fact that terrorism has claimed nearly 50,000 lives there since 2001. Yet with a major military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, underway to avowedly flush out terrorists in Pakistan's tribal belt and subsequently its cities, reality swiftly intrudes. From exhortations during Eid prayers and cricket fundraisers to provide for the nearly million people displaced by Zarb-e-Azb to television commercials showing fallen soldiers, the operation's human dimensions, however, appear in sharper focus than its strategy and sustainability which require close attention to ensure success.

Zarb-e-Azb is an important, if ambiguous, first step in Pakistan's thus far selective efforts to combat militancy. In the wake of a series of major terrorist attacks, including the June 8 attack on Karachi's Jinnah International Airport, the army launched a ground offensive on June 30 in the North Waziristan Agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). "This is the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan," declared Pakistan's military spokesperson on June 26, noting that, "[e]very terrorist attack in the cities was traced to North Waziristan in recent years." The operation is eventually and ambitiously meant to extend beyond FATA to targeted operations in urban areas where terrorist groups have burrowed and ‘fundraised,' sometimes through kidnappings for ransom. Media access, however, is so circumscribed that, as one Lahore resident quipped, it is easier to find information on Israel's operation in Gaza than the one currently underway in North Waziristan.

In spite of the information gap, a limited debate is underway in Pakistan on the contours and implications of the operation. Some analysts have optimistically posited that Zarb-e-Azb represents a sweeping change in Pakistan's internal and external security doctrine, spelling the end of selective targeting of militant groups and the often cited notion of Pakistan seeking "strategic depth" in Afghanistan by leveraging groups such as the Haqqani Network as proxies. Others have expressed caution on whether "Zarb-e-Azb is going to remain a military exercise or does it signal a new phase in Pakistan's long encounter with terrorism," and flagged key elements that must be put in place to ensure long-term success beyond North Waziristan -- from building and leveraging civilian law enforcement authorities to cutting off terrorist financing.

Navigating these challenges and threats requires focus and consensus that is hard enough to achieve under ordinary circumstances; it will be even more so now with a so-called "tsumani" looming that may upend the political order. Citing the alleged rigging of the 2013 elections, Imran Khan, the leader of a major opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), has announced a million-man march on Islamabad on August 14  (Pakistan's Independence Day)  with a potential push for early elections to topple the current government. Adding fuel to the fire, the federal government has called in the army under Article 245 of Pakistan's Constitution to secure Islamabad for a three-month period starting this month. Critics view the move as an attempt to use the army to blunt the opposition's march and a giant leap backwards for an already lopsided civilian-military balance while the government has countered with the necessity to guard against reprisal attacks in light of Zarb-e-Azb. Pakistan's perennial political churn thus continues at a sensitive juncture.

Even as talks to head off the march falter, they must include an agreement to maintain as united a front as possible on the operation. Daunting challenges lie ahead. For example, reprisal attacks will inevitably occur. How to preempt them, particularly "lone wolf" attacks, is a subject of acute concern to the authorities. Given some militants have fled North Waziristan using fake identity cards, the authorities are screening the IDP population that is largely based in Bannu. When militants slip through the net and conduct attacks, it will impact public and political support for the operation. Pakistan's political class must gird itself and the public for this.

Even if the operation is a kinetic success, the thorny question of how to integrate the tribal areas into the rest of Pakistan will remain. A governance strategy must be formulated and can only be done through a dialogue between PTI that governs the province adjoining FATA and the federal government that directly administers FATA, even as they square off on electoral issues.

While Islamabad must take the long view on the operation, Washington needs to take a broader view beyond its immediate equities in permanently dismantling the Haqqani Network. Although the Pakistan Army's spokesperson has stated that the Haqqani Network will be targeted, reports suggest that its members have already slipped away. Washington must continue to press this count; however, it must not lose sight of the broader dimensions of the operation, which ostensibly seeks to take the fight beyond the tribal areas to wherever militancy may take root in Pakistan. Washington must hold Pakistan's civilian and military leaders to this avowed scope and demonstrate solidarity, particularly as reprisal attacks occur, to show that the United States is committed to the well-being and security of Pakistan - not just its more immediate interests.  

For Pakistan to turn the chapter on its troubles once and for all, Islamabad -- with Washington's support -- must see Zarb-e-Azb through to the very end.

Ziad Haider is the Asia Director of the Truman National Security Project. Follow: @Asia_Hand.

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