This will indeed be the most critical battle in Pakistan’s long war against militant insurgency. Ending its prolonged dithering, the government has finally ordered a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan rightly described as the centre of gravity of terrorism. Thousands of ground troops backed by air force jets have moved into action after the announcement of the offensive to reclaim control over the strategically placed territory.
No doubt, the decision to eliminate the terrorist den was imminent after the collapse of peace talks with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, but the bloody siege of the international airport in Karachi last week proved to be the proverbial last straw. The Sharif government was left with no choice but to declare an all-out war against those responsible for the brazen assault on the state. The incident shook the country and the demand for action became ever louder.
There was certainly no other option but to face the challenge head on. A lot of time has already been wasted because of indecisiveness on the part of our national leadership. The endless talk about talks delivering peace had exposed the weakness of the state. Despite the decision, however, the prime minister still appears unwilling to take charge and has left it to the military to run the show.
While immensely critical, the latest campaign is much more complex than any other undertaken by the security forces so far in its decade-long war in this treacherous mountainous territory. Despite the fact that the military is now much more experienced in fighting insurgency and battle-hardened, this asymmetric war was never easy. One thing is certain — it is going to be a long haul.
This will not be the first time the Pakistan Army is carrying out an operation in North Waziristan. The earlier expedition, launched in 2004, ended in a peace deal with the tribal militants after two years of fierce fighting. The truce allowed the militants to not only regroup, but also strengthen their positions. It will be even more difficult to dislodge them now.
The biggest of the seven tribal agencies North Waziristan is a haven for a lethal mix of foreign and local militants presenting an existential threat to the country. Many of the terrorist attacks in other countries also have roots in the region. The number of foreign fighters in the territory is roughly estimated by the intelligence agencies to be around 8,000. More than half of them — some 4,800 — are reportedly Uzbek. They have not only been involved in the Karachi airport attack, they have also participated in other high-profile attacks — Bannu jail, Mehran and Kamra air bases.
Apart from the Uzbeks there are other foreign militant groups such as networks of isolated Chechens, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Chinese Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Reportedly, the majority of Arab militants have either been killed by US drone strikes or left the region. Thousands of Punjabi militants also moved to North Waziristan over the years, and established training camps in the restive border region.
The battle for control over this lawless region has assumed much greater gravity with the approach of the endgame in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-linked groups present a worrying, long-term security threat for Pakistan, in fact, for the entire region.
A major concern for Pakistani security forces pertains to terrorists crossing over to Afghanistan as has happened in the past, and the use of the sanctuaries for cross-border attacks. The Pakistan military has requested the Afghan security forces to seal the border on their side to facilitate the elimination of terrorists who attempt to flee across the border. But that may not work given the tension between the two neighbors.
There is certainly a greater need for cooperation and a joint strategy between Kabul and Islamabad to fight militancy. The security of the two countries has never been so intertwined as now. The militants’ sanctuaries on either side of the border will have serious consequences for the region, particularly, after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Surely a major objective of the offensive is to secure the control of the lawless territory. But military action alone does not offer a long-term solution to an extremely complex problem. The government needs to take urgent measures to end the alienation and backwardness of the tribal region as well. The ongoing military operation provides a great opportunity to push for the long-delayed integration of the region with the rest of the country in order to end its ambiguous semi-autonomous status.
The military operation in North Waziristan is only one dimension of the wider battle against militancy and violent extremism in the country. The militant groups have strong networks across the country. For a long-term solution, the government needs to develop a coherent and overarching counterterrorism strategy in order to strengthen the capacity of the civilian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. There is also need for closer coordination among the various intelligence agencies and strict enforcement of rule of law.
What is most positive is the evolution of a wider political consensus on the war against terrorism. Almost all political parties with the exception of some right-wing Islamic groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami are united in their support of the military campaign. But that unity can only be sustained by developing a strong internal security narrative.
One must learn from past military operations in other tribal regions. A major flaw in the approach was that after clearing the areas, no effort was made to establish a proper administrative system. As a result, the state’s control over those areas remained tentative.
Swat and South Waziristan present glaring examples of battles not fully won. The presence of the military does not provide permanent solutions. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a formal civilian system along with the military operation. Without that, the objectives of the operation will never be fully achieved.
The writer is an author and journalist from Pakistan. The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org