The start of Zarb-e-Azb, a major military operation against foreign and local terrorists and their bases in North Waziristan, is a significant development giving rise to a number of questions. Why now and not earlier? How will the operation fare? Will Afghanistan, the militants’ rearbase, cooperate? What else needs to be done to tackle terrorism in the rest of the country?
The armed forces have been steadily clearing the areas where terrorists had established major footholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) spanning a major portion of the difficult, 2,560-kilometre porous border with Afghanistan, and from Swat nearby. North Waziristan increasingly became the hub of foreign, Arab and Central Asian, terrorists; many of whom had stayed behind after the Soviet Union was compelled to leave Afghanistan, forming the nucleus of local Taliban.
Where the military regained control, the presence and capacity of the government, to provide delivery of basic services in Fata, already the least developed area in Pakistan, remained inadequate. Public sentiment mainly opposed to the American/Western occupation of Afghanistan, and fatigued with the unending spate of terrorist attacks and casualties, wavered between a desire for a hardline response which would provoke more terrorist attacks; and the siren call for negotiations with the terrorists for a peaceful resolution. For the military, without public backing and a political consensus a major operation in North Waziristan supported by action throughout Pakistan, was not sustainable.
The PML(N) government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, backed by a political consensus, opted to give talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - the main faction - a chance, with resort to force if they failed, as occurred. The delay faced criticism as terrorist attacks continued, targeting civilians, the military, and the infrastructure at Karachi airport. However the obduracy of the TTP led to a new political consensus, supported by all parties but for a few small extreme right-wing ones, that the time for action had come.
Given that Pakistan’s Armed Forces are amongst the best trained and counterinsurgency hardened in the world, the outcome of the operation is in no doubt. North Waziristan will return to the state’s control, and foreign and local terrorists be captured or killed, unless some escape seeking refuge in the contiguous Afghan province of Khost.
The consequences of the operation will be that attacks and IEDs against the Army and Civil Armed Forces in North Waziristan and surrounding areas will abate, and despite a blowback, the long-term capacity of terrorists to strike elsewhere in Pakistan be disrupted.
That is only part of the picture. After the 2009 military action to clear Swat, some terrorists accompanied by their leader Fazlullah, subsequent head of the TTP, fled to Afghanistan finding willing shelter provided by the Afghan Intelligence Agency, which Pakistan suspects has close ties with its Indian counterpart. From these bases these Taliban have been mounting attacks into Pakistan.
To avert a replay Pakistan initiated high level contacts with Afghanistan. PM Nawaz Sharif phoned President Karzai to brief him as the operation began. A special envoy, veteran politician Mahmood Khan Achakzai, accompanied by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, visited Kabul to meet Karzai. Army Chief Raheel Sharif met the Afghan ambassador. The message conveyed was that after a monumental effort to achieve a political consensus, now that an all-out campaign against terrorists had commenced, both countries must work together for this common objective. The Afghans were reassured that the military’s directive was to act against all foreign and local terrorists without any distinction. It was requested that the Afghan National Army and Border Police seal the border on their side to facilitate elimination of terrorists attempting to escape, and initiate immediate measures to eliminate TTP terrorists and their sanctuaries in neighbouring Kunar, Nuristan, and other areas of Afghanistan, as they constituted a distraction from the focus that had to be maintained. Karzai in turn telephoned Nawaz Sharif to assure all cooperation.
Afghanistan’s incoming government and India’s new government will have to decide if harassing Pakistan and its stepped-up counterterrorism campaign is in their long term interest. Given deeply ingrained security establishment mindsets the outcome is not predictable, but will colour Pakistan’s perceptions of both countries whatever transpires. On the other hand Pakistan will be given unequivocal support by the United States, its Western allies, and China. Apart from looking after the displaced, once control is regained in North Waziristan governance has to be improved throughout Fata, to provide health facilities plus educational and job opportunities.
Within Pakistan the situation remains complex. Terrorism, in the shape of ideological adherents has metastasised in a number of mainly urban, and some limited regional, locations. Some foreign and local terrorists from Fata have melted into the cities.
Locating and disrupting their activities requires a major overhaul of Pakistan’s intelligence coordination and security structures. A new National Internal Security Policy (NISP) has workable policy prescriptions to meet the ideological challenge and to set up new coordinative mechanisms to analyse threats, share intelligence, and set up rapid response forces. A separate Border Security Policy will tighten up the border with Afghanistan. Implementation is crucial.
For Pakistan, apart from external circumstances over which it has no influence, the fundamental issue in confronting terrorism, which has extracted a terrible price in terms of loss of lives and the economy, has been to achieve a joint public, political and military will to mount an all-out, full spectrum attack thereon. The significance of the North Waziristan operation is that a turning point has been reached and represents the determined start of a process. As Pakistan rises to the challenge it will emerge stronger and receive more respect as commensurate for a large and proud country; a nuclear power with a resilient, hardworking population.
Ambassador Tariq Osman Hyder, a retired Pakistani diplomat is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defence University.