Operation Zarb e Azb: Will it end terrorism from Pakistan?


“Pakistan’s policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has been proven wrong and the country now needs to focus all its strength on dealing with the militants”- Hillary Clinton

The Pakistani armed forces launched a military offensive christened ‘Zarb-e Azb’ (sharp and cutting strike), against the Pakistani Taliban and local and foreign militants based in North Waziristan on 15 June 2014. Pre-dawn airstrikes were launched by the armed forces in which 105 terrorists were alleged to have been killed. North Waziristan is one of the tribal agencies in Pakistan which borders Afghanistan and was seen as the most important sanctuary for Al Qaeda, Pakistani and Afghan insurgents. The operation was launched in the backdrop of the daring attack on the busiest international airport of Pakistan, the Jinnah International Airport at Karachi. Ten militants of TTP and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) attacked the airport on 8 June 2014, killing 36 people.

The Americans and the Afghan government had been calling upon the Pakistan government to launch an operation in this area for long as this area was considered the epicenter from which militants launched operations against the ISAF and Afghan forces.  Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’ China, had also expressed concern over the sanctuaries of the East Turkestan Movement in the area. Pakistan though was reluctant to carry out any military offensive in North Waziristan since this was the base of the ‘good’ or the pro-Pakistan Taliban like the Haqqanis’ who were being used to further Pakistan’s geo-strategic interests in the region. The government of Nawaz Sharif in March had sought to engage the Taliban in peace talks which collapsed with the brazen attack on Karachi airport.

Describing the operation, the military spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, characterized the operation as the ‘beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan’. He further added that the military would not discriminate between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban and that ‘for military, there is no discrimination among different Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) groups or the Haqqani Network’. ‘Army will crush them all.’

Several questions however remain in the eyes of skeptics. Firstly, will this operation achieve its objective of eliminating terrorism from Pakistan? Secondly, has the Pakistan state really debunked its desire for strategic depth in Afghanistan and ceased to use terrorist groups as an instrument of state to achieve its geo-strategic objectives in the region? Thirdly, does the operation have unstinting support of the general populous and how long will this support last? My blog post is an assessment and answers to these three questions.

1. Will Zarb-e-Azb end terrorism in Pakistan?

According to this author the answer is an emphatic no. The Pakistani state lacks a strategic vision and strategy to deal with the issue of terrorism confronting it. Its counter terrorism instruments and institutions are either weak or dysfunctional and the country lacks consensus amongst its politico- military leadership on the most effective methodology to tackle terrorism.  The state thus adopts ‘tactical’ rather than ‘strategic’ approach to tackle terrorism.

Owning the operation

In any war it is not only the armed forces but the ‘nation’ that goes to war. To succeed, every instrument of state i.e. the government, political parties, civil society, media etc have to be on the same page and endorse the strategy adopted. It seems however that consensus still eludes the nation on the question if force should be used against the militants based in North Waziristan. Though the military in its press release claimed that it was acting on the direction of the government and had ‘launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan’, subsequent statements revealed that not all political leadership/parties were on board or fully briefed. The provincial governments of Sind and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) complained that they had not informed before the launch of the operation.  Shabbir Ahmed Khan, the provincial Secretary-General of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), a part of the ruling coalition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said ‘The Federal government did not take the provincial government into confidence.’ Similarly, Senator Farhatullah Babur of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) stated that the Sind government of PPP had received no prior intimation about the operation. While Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf has lent grudging support to the operation, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) has opposed it. The Chief of JI and Finance minister of KPK, Shiraj ul Haq lashed out at the Federal government for not finding a way to avoid the operation.

The Federal cabinet also seems divided on the issue. While Khwaja Asif, the Defence Minister is said to be in support of this operation, Chaudhary Nisar, the Interior Minister is opposed to it. This lack of consensus amongst political parties and government ministers, who serve as important builders and mediators of public opinion, may seriously compromise the achievement of objective as set out by the operation.

Weak/dysfunctional counter terrorism institutions

In February 2014, the Nawaz Sharif Government brought out the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) which envisaged developing multi pronged strategies to meet the challenges of terrorism. However, there are reports that NISP was prepared without the participation of an important stakeholder; the armed forces of Pakistan. So far not much work has happened on the provisions of the NISP.

The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Act was passed in March 2013,but as Ansar Abbasi wrote (The News,  June 18, 2014) ‘not a single meeting of the authority’s high-powered board of governors, headed by the prime minister and comprising all the key government players including spymasters has been held as yet. This board has a key role in implementing the NISP which promises capacity building of criminal justice system, police, civil armed forces and other law enforcing agencies for border management besides setting up of a key institution to be called the Directorate of Internal Security (DIS), which would be established under the NACTA to coordinate intelligence and operational work of all the civilian and military agencies to effectively counter terrorism.’

International experience in fighting terrorism shows that professional and motivated police forces supported by effective intelligence agencies are the best instruments in fighting terrorism. However in Pakistan police are hardly in ‘the lead’ in fighting terrorism as this role has been ‘usurped’ by the military. Though they make some perfunctory noises from time to time, this author believes that the Pakistan army has a vested interest in checking the growth of an effective police force as it compromises its image of being the ‘sole’ provider of security in the country. An Asia Society report (edited by Hassan Abbas) on Police reforms in Pakistan stated, ‘Pakistan’s police system suffers severe deficiencies in a number of areas, including equipment, technology, personnel, training, and intelligence capability. Moreover, the political will needed to address these issues is largely missing. Besides a poor public image, both the police leadership and the rank and file appear to lack a sense of accountability to the public they are meant to serve. Moreover, the system simply is not structured to reward good behaviour, as merit-based opportunities for professional advancement are scarce, low pay is the norm, and a lack of support and resources compels even many well-intentioned officers to misuse their authority in order to survive.’

Another weakness noticed in the police force is Pakistan is the lack of women police officers. In a report prepared by the Institute of Inclusive Security (March 2014) it was stated, ‘Policewomen improve the operational effectiveness of these forces by building trust with local commu­nities, more effectively de-escalating violence, and collecting vital intelligence that men could not. Due to prohibitive norms, only women in the police can serve as first responders to care for female victims of terrorist attacks. Additionally, female civilians are more likely to report cases of gender-based violence to women officers. These roles help cultivate a more collabo­rative relationship between the police and citizens, who otherwise typically see the country’s police forces as corrupt and inefficient.’ Statistics released by the National Police Bureau of Pakistan in 2011 revealed that out of 453,901 members of the police forces, only 4,027 were women. This repre­sented only 0.89 per cent of the total police strength of Pakistan. Most of them served in lower ranks, from constable to inspector level. Only 85 of these policewomen served in higher ranks, and the majority were from Punjab.

Similarly, the convictions of captured terrorists remain low. While the conviction rates in countries like the United States is close to 95 per cent, in Pakistan it remains a dismal five per cent. In a report titled ‘Anti Terror Laws, Policing and the Criminal Justice System: A Case Study of Anti Terrorist Efforts in Punjab’ it was stated that out of 1,015 cases pending before the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATC) in Punjab, only 506 were adjudicated with 136 convictions only. The report calls for a holistic reform of the criminal judicial system in Punjab.

2. Has the notion of strategic depth/terror as an instrument of foreign policy been debunked?

It is no secret that Pakistan has created, nurtured and supported many of these terrorist and sectarian groups to achieve its perceived geo-strategic interests in the region. Groups like the Haqqani Network, based in North Waziristan were supported with a view to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan while anti-India groups were supported to wage a proxy war against its eastern neighbor. With the launch of Zabr-e-Azb, has Pakistani state ended support to these groups and are all terrorist groups being targeted by the Pakistan armed forces? The reports emanating from the field do not give much hope to such assertions.

Distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists

Reports emanating from North Waziristan suggest that most of the ‘good’ Taliban had already left the area before the launch of the operation and moved into Afghanistan. This included the Haqqanis and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. A BBC news report (M. Ilyas Khan, 30 June 2014) read, ‘Recent evidence suggests that most of these groups have already left the regions around Miranshah and the other main town in North Waziristan, Mir Ali. The most prominent among these are the Uzbek fighters allied to the TTP who claimed the 7 June assault on Karachi airport, and are believed by many to be one of the two major targets of the current operation, along with the TTP.  They are mostly believed to have slipped into Afghanistan’s Khost province after Pakistani troops left a section of the border unmanned for a couple of weeks prior to the operation.’ This fact was also corroborated by Saifullah Mehsud of the FATA Research Centre speaking to Ejaz Haider on his programme “Beylaag” on Capital TV on 1 July 2014. It seems to be a redux of the earlier operation in South Waziristan of 2009, Rah-e-Nijaat, where the leadership of the terrorists groups had managed or were allowed to escape before the launch of the operation. Analysts believe that Pakistan militarily still believes that it would need the support of these ‘good’ Taliban post the withdrawal of ISAF forces in 2014 to counter its arch-rival India in Afghanistan. So much for the burial of the concept of strategic depth!

Punjabi and Karachi Taliban

The militants based in North Waziristan have developed organic linkages with other terrorist and sectarian groups based in other regions of Pakistan especially in Punjab and Karachi. In his seminal work ‘Punjabi Taliban’, Mujahid Hussain (page 38) writes, ‘Today the greatest number of organisations and groups indulging in extremism, sectarian and jihadi activities in the region are located in the different cities and towns of Punjab. Except for certain militant groups that are active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Tribal Belt, the centre of all jihadist and sectarian outfits are situated in Punjab. It is also worth mentioning here that the greatest supply of cannon fodder of the militants to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Tribal areas comes from Punjab. According to a conservative estimate, more than fifty percent of the militants active in these areas, hail from Punjab. After the US invasion in Afghanistan the majority of terrorsits of Al-Qaeda and Taliban have taken refuge in Punjab. The prominent operatives of Al-Qaeda like Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, Abu-Zubaida and Abu Khalifan were all arrested from big urban centres of Punjab and Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Gujarat whereas hundreds of other terrorists were captured from different cities of province.’ Is it any surprise then that Osama bin Laden was living in Abottabad?

Karachi has an ethnic Pashtun population of around four million which provides a ‘safety net’ to the militants of FATA. These linkages go back to the 1990’s when Taliban had established its first office in the areas of Sohrab Goth and Pashtunabad areas in late 1994 which were only closed down when Pakistan recognised the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1996.  Zahid Hussain in his book ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’ writes (page 5), ‘The port city of Karachi, a teeming metropolis of 18 million people in the Arabian Sea, has become a main hub of radicalism, offering the militants sanctuary as well as funding and a steady flow of new recruits from the thousands of madrassas spread across the city. It was in Karachi that Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square bomber) made contact with those who helped him make his way to the tribal territory of Waziristan for training in bomb making.’

Karachi has also emerged as the ‘purse’ of militancy in Pakistan with militants engaging in extortions, kidnappings for ransom and also bank robberies. As per police estimates nearly 65 per cent of bank robberies in the city can be traced back to various Islamist groups, particularly the TTP. A large number of sleeper cells of various militant outfits exist in Karachi. During the period 2010-2012, nearly 300 TTP activists/financers have been arrested from the city. (Imtiaz Gul, ‘Pakistan before and after Osama, page 144-5).

Unless action is taken against all militant groups in all parts of the country, chances of a terrorism free Pakistan will remain a chimera. So far the state has shown no inclination of desire to curb the activities of these terrorists groups. I have not mentioned the sectarian outfits here for have already written about them in my previous blog post here.

3. Public support for the operation?

For any operation to succeed, unstinting public support to the armed forces is a prerequisite. It is more so from the people of the region who suffer the most. Right now going by reports it seems that the Pakistani population in general supports the operation (barring the extreme right-wingers). However, whether  this support will last if the operation drags on and there are blow backs in the form of increased instances of terrorism and suicide bombings in the heartlands of Pakistan is any body’s guess. Taliban have threatened increased acts of terrorism in Pakistan. Sahidullah Shahid, the spokesman of TTP stated ‘we want to make it clear to the rulers of Pakistan that you are killing tribal children, and, by God, we will soon shake your palaces in Islamabad and Lahore and burn those to ashes. We are eyeing victory with the help of God, and you will become a joke for the world.’ There are reports that in order to meet the challenge of the expected blowback, government is mulling invoking Article 245 of the Constitution to summon the army to all major cities in the country to guard and protect important public installations.

Taliban spokesman further warned that ‘Foreign investors, airlines, and multinational companies should cut off business with Pakistan immediately and leave the country or else they will be responsible for their damage themselves.’ Heeding  the call, Cathay Pacific announced the suspension of its Pakistan operations from 29 June 2014. If more multinationals decide to exit Pakistan, the already teetering economy may take another hit leading to higher inflation and unemployment. The cries then for ‘talks’ with Taliban rather than ‘operation’ could gain momentum.

For the residents of the tribal areas, the experience of both Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijaat suggests increased hardships. Since the Pakistani army uses aerial bombings, heavy artillery and other area weapons in its counter terrorism operations, not only do they become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the economy of the area is also destroyed. Bombings destroy the agricultural economy of the area and blown up bridges and roads affect  transportation and communication. Latest reports in the newspapers suggest that  about seventy five thousand IDPs are facing hardships in the relief camps set up by the government.

Paradoxically while the operation has been launched with the expressed objective of ending terrorism in Pakistan, it may instead be achieving  the exact opposite. Ayesha Siddiqa, writing in Tribune (Spilling the Beans, July 3, 2014) states ‘Latest reports from Bannu suggest that militant and religious outfits like the JuD, the JI and the JeM dominate welfare activities in the area. The services provided thus, will pave the way for recruitment of more jihadis from amongst the IDPs or build greater sympathy for these outfits amongst the displaced people. This is not an ethnic issue — the IDPs are physically, psychologically and emotionally vulnerable, which makes them easy targets for exploitation. Intriguingly, non-religious NGOs are finding it comparatively difficult to set up base. This pattern certainly does not indicate a reversal of the ‘strategic depth’ policy.’

In conclusion it can be said that the final outcome of the operation Zarb-e-Azb may be no different from the earlier operations Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijaat. The operations may lead to the army establishing its presence in the area and some writ of the state being enforced; the top leadership of the militant outfits will, however not be eliminated. The state does not seem inclined to launch counter terrorism operations against the Punjabi Taliban or clamp down on sources of finance of the extremist groups who continue to gain strength. The doctrinal overhang of ‘strategic depth’ and ‘terror as an instrument of state policy’ though muted survives. All in all, the objective of the operation is more ‘tactical’ than ‘strategic’.




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