Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Pak Army Ops in North Waziristan is a Tough Challenge

Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, 
Visiting Fellow, VIF

The Pakistan army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb(sharp and cutting), its much delayed ground offensive against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan, on June 15, 2014. Since then, the army claims to have killed 386 TTP and Uzbek terrorists, including the mastermind of the twin terrorist attacks on Karachi airport on June 9th and 10th, while 20 soldiers have lost their lives. Approximately 600,000 civilian inhabitants have had to leave their homes and join the swelling numbers of IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Pakistan. North Waziristan is the last bastion of anti-Pakistan terrorists who have killed over 50,000 civilians and army personnel in ten years.

According to the Karachi Airport Security Force, 29 people died in the suicide attack on the airport, including all ten terrorists, while 24 were injured. On the same day, in the latest manifestation of continuing sectarian violence, Sunni extremists killed 23 Shia pilgrims travelling by bus in Balochistan. Later, on June 24th, a PIA flight was fired upon while landing at Peshawar airport; one woman inside the aircraft suffered fatal gun-shot wounds. Earlier, on June 4th, two officers of the rank of Lt Col and three other personnel had been killed by the TTP in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi. These attacks are clearly indicative of the ability of Pakistan’s terrorist organisations to strike at will and underline the helplessness of the security forces in taking effective preventive action.

Despite facing the grave danger of a possible collapse of the state, the Pakistan government's counter-insurgency policy had until now lacked cohesion. The commencement of a peace dialogue with the TTP in February 2014, despite the abject failure of several such efforts in the past, allowed the terrorist organisation to re-arm, recruit, train fresh fighters and plan new operations. In March 2014, the TTP offered a month-long cease-fire. The army honoured the cease-fire and refrained from undertaking active operations, but several TTP factions disregarded the diktat of the leadership and fought on. On April 16th, the TTP reneged on its ceasefire pledge and blamed the government for failing to make any new offers.

In the face of mounting public and army pressure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reluctantly agreed to approve military strikes. He was apprehensive that General Raheel Sharif, the COAS, may unilaterally decide to launch an all-out offensive. The army had been recommending to the government for quite some time that firm military action was necessary to deal with the menace of home grown terrorism. The PM is now backing the army fully and has said that he will not allow Pakistan to become a “sanctuary of terrorists” and that the military operation will continue till all the militants are eliminated.

The deteriorating internal security environment has gradually morphed into Pakistan’s foremost national security threat. Karachi remains a tinderbox that is ready to explode. The Al Qaeda is quietly making inroads into Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HuJI), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has consolidated its position in North Waziristan and could have broken out of its stronghold into neighbouring areas. Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan and the restive Gilgit-Baltistan Northern Areas are a perpetual security nightmare.

Realisation about the gravity of the internal security situation has dawned on the Pakistan army as well. Two successive army Chiefs have declared publicly that internal instability is the number one national security threat. However, unlike the Indian Army that has been embroiled in low intensity conflict since the 1950s, the Pakistan army is relatively inexperienced in counter-insurgency operations. The then Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani had declared 2009 as ‘Military Training Year’ to re-orientate the army to internal security duties. Before becoming COAS, General Raheel Sharif had developed the training manuals for counter-insurgency. Over the last decade, the Pakistan army has deployed more than 150,000 soldiers in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA areas. It has suffered over 15,700 casualties, including about 5,000 dead since 2008. The total casualties, including civilian, number almost 50,000 since 2001.

Hurt by a series of Taliban successes in “liberating” tribal areas and under pressure from the Americans to deliver in the “war on terror”, in the initial stages the Pakistan army employed massive firepower to stem the rot – as was visible on television screens worldwide when operations were launched to liberate the Swat Valley (Operation Rah-e-Rast, May-Jun 2009) and South Waziristan (Operation Rah-e-Nijat, Oct-Nov 2009). Fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery were freely used to destroy suspected terrorist hideouts, irrespective of civilian casualties. This heavy-handed, firepower-based approach without simultaneous infantry operations on the ground failed to dislodge the militants, but caused large-scale collateral damage and alienated the tribal population even further.

Counter-insurgency operations against the TTP in South Waziristan drove most of the fighters to North Waziristan, but till now the army had been reluctant to extend its operations to this province. North Waziristan has rugged mountainous terrain that enables TTP militants to operate like guerrillas and launch hit-and-run raids against the security forces. When cornered, the militants find it easy to slip across the Durand Line and find safe sanctuaries in Khost and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan. A large number of militants are known to have escaped into neighbouring provinces in the month preceding the ground offensive.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, well-known physicist, said in an interview on July 3rd, “Pakistan's biggest problem is that religious extremism and intolerance have penetrated deep into the bones of society.North Waziristan is a magnet for jihadists from across the world. Earlier their terrorism was directed internationally and hence tolerated. But now their full fury is frontally directed at Pakistan: the people, state, and military... This military operation will certainly not eliminate terrorism. But unless radical militants are contained using force, they will soon overrun Pakistan. Recent events in Iraq and Syria should open our eyes to that terrible possibility... Forced into a war that is not of its own choice, the Army is seeking a way out.Today the Pakistan Army is genuinely at war against a fanatical, religiously charged enemy. It should not be dismissed as "noorakushti"…I suspect that, like the Lal Masjid operation, Zarb-e-Azb will turn out to be a kind of watershed. It has seriously disturbed the relations between the Army and its former allies, and will deepen the split within the Army as well. The traditionally pro-military Jamaat-e-Islami is furiously condemning the military action and demanding talks instead.”

Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos, has written: “Not only does North Waziristan house Pakistani and Afghan Taliban; it is also a training ground for al-Qaeda, which attracts Central Asians, Uighurs from China, Chechens from the Caucasus and a flow of militant Muslim converts from Europe.” Quite clearly, the Pakistan army is in for the long haul and will undoubtedly suffer a large number of casualties.

Though the Army Chief has said that the present operation is aimed at eliminating “all terrorists and their sanctuaries” in North Waziristan, it is not yet clear whether strikes are being launched against the Haqqani network and two other militant groups that are based in North Waziristan. These groups have been primarily targeting the NATO/ ISAF forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA). Of these, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group has hosted the Haqqani network and the TTP in North Waziristan and the Mullah Nazir group is in control of the Wana region of South Waziristan. These three groups are called the “good Taliban” by the Pakistan army and the ISI and are looked upon as “strategic assets” to influence events in Afghanistan after the NATO/ ISAF draw down has been completed. The Haqqani network has also been employed to target Indian assets in Afghanistan.

What do these developments portend for India? Regional instability always has a negative impact on economic development and trade. Creeping Talibanisation and radical extremism are threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty. If the Pakistan army fails to conclusively eliminate the scourge in the north-west, it will soon reach Punjab, which has been relatively free of major incidents of violence. After that, it will only be a matter of time before the terrorist organisations manage to push the extremists across the Radcliffe Line into India. It is in India’s interest for the Pakistan government to succeed in its fight against radical extremism.

Political turmoil, internal instability, a floundering economy and weak institutions make for an explosive mix. Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but the situation that it is confronted with could rapidly degenerate into unfettered disaster. All institutions of the state must stand together for the nation to survive its gravest challenge. The Pakistan army and the ISI must concentrate on fighting the enemy within, rather than frittering away energy and resources on destabilising neighbouring countries.

Published Date: 23rd July 2014, Image source: http://cache.pakistantoday.com.pk

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