A Pakistani soldier sets his sights on a target during a military operation against militants in Pakistan’s Khurram tribal region. Air force jets have also bombed hideouts in the country’s northwest. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: The ghostly echoes of war drums in troubled Waziristan have already begun to resonate across Pakistan.

As always at the brink of a new offensive, the threat of reprisal attacks also looms large this time around. But the difference at this point is that the government seems to be prepared to face the repercussions. Last week it announced a counter-terrorism policy that will entail the formation of a rapid response force among other intelligence supported measures to deter and respond to terror attacks.

As of now the government’s categorical denial that the current spate of airstrikes against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the tribal areas, specifically North and South Waziristan, are not preliminary measures before the launch of a ground offensive has not ended speculation.

The perception is that these intelligence driven precision strikes targeting militant strongholds are an integral part of the groundwork before the start of the operation — this was the same operational strategy used in other parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas during previous operations.

Security sources Gulf News spoke to in this context have also backed Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ahmad Khan’s statement. The source told Gulf News, “These airstrikes cannot be called preliminary or a prelude to the military operation. These are just targeted strikes based on intelligence. The Interior Minister has also said that we will target those who attack the state, every attack of the terrorists will be met with a strong response. This is in line with the government policy and it has nothing to do with the offensive being discussed.”

But what is also true is that weakening the Taliban by targeting key commanders and their headquarters will help once the operation starts. An operation targeting North Waziristan, however, will not be a small scale one and will require large scale movement of forces and logistical preparations. But given the army’s presence in neighbouring settled areas and South Waziristan it may be a smoother process than earlier anti-militant offensives.

Fearing the impact of the impending operation, thousands of people have already left North Waziristan. The United Nations has said that they are ready to help the internally displaced persons (IDP) from the agency — at the time of writing the IDP’s were over 20,000, mostly women and children. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has also begun preparations for hosting the North Waziristan IDPs.

Meanwhile, government officials continue to advocate dialogue to end the standoff. It may seem contradictory, but given the TTP’s reneging on an agreement that it will refrain from any attack during talks, there was little choice but to respond.

More significant is the shift that has come about in the government’s policy for dealing with the TTP threat — the decision to meet any terrorist attack in the country with a responsive attack on their strongholds.

If this does not convince the militants that the dynamics have changed then little else will. The question is if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is willing to take this to the end and not succumb to political pressure from some parties and religious blocs that oppose such offensives.

What Sharif has inherited is a vastly different environment to when he was prime minister in his past two tenures. His objective to turn the economy around is being hindered by the security threat the Taliban and other indigenous militants pose.

But the trick is to maintain a balance between keeping open the communication channels and applying enough pressure, something Sharif’s government will now have to manage.

A Rs3.2 billion (Dh112 million) fund for the implementation of the security policy besides empowering the National Counter-terrorism Authority to coordinate operations within security, intelligence bodies and the federal and provincial governments are part of resurgent approach to dealing with the issue.

As for when the operation for North Waziristan may be launched, the military has already stated that it is ready to do so anytime the government decides.

The security source commenting on the recent statement by the Air Force Chief, which led to a perception that the ongoing airstrikes in the tribal areas were a prelude to the operation said, “The army has always maintained a readiness to face any challenge. The armed forces are always ready. So the statement by the Air Force Chief cannot be taken to mean that he is giving any hints of an operation. The launch of the military offensive in North Waziristan is something the government has to decide.”

One crucial factor Pakistan must forcefully take up with Afghanistan at this juncture is the issue of the cross border movement of the TTP militants in the course of the operation.

TTP Chief Mullah Fazlullah is said to be in Afghanistan and any operation will naturally induce further cross border movement and support from the Afghan militants as well as the TTP militants currently stationed there.

It is imperative that Kabul also extend Islamabad the same support it has been getting from the Pakistan military at the times of key operations in its southern and eastern border areas.

More importantly, now that a North Waziristan operation seems imminent, it is vital that both Kabul and Washington extend full support to Pakistan, for this is the very area, declared by both as the key to the Afghan insurgency hosting “safe havens” for Afghan insurgents as well.