The South Asia Channel

The Afghan Roots of Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb Operation

The Pakistani military is in the midst of an all-out offensive in North Waziristan, the roughly Delaware-sized region bordering Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces, which has become the stomping ground for dozens of militant outfits. The offensive comes on the heels of the collapse of peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) earlier this year. ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

The Pakistani military is in the midst of an all-out offensive in North Waziristan, the roughly Delaware-sized region bordering Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces, which has become the stomping ground for dozens of militant outfits.

The offensive comes on the heels of the collapse of peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) earlier this year. The failure of peace talks, and a series of attacks by the TTP in June, turned public sympathy against both the "good" and "bad" Taliban, providing the political space needed to carry out Operation Zarb-e-Azb ("sharp and cutting strike"). But there is another reason for the timing of the operation.

Pakistani officials, from the district level up to its military brass and civilian leadership, are hoping to clear militants from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) before American troops withdraw from Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, some worry Afghanistan’s military may not have the technical capability needed to secure the border. Others fear Afghanistan’s government might instead support militants fighting the Pakistani state, pointing to increasingly frequent cross-border raids by militants based there, and the continuing refusal of Afghanistan to turn over senior TTP leaders to Pakistan.

We hear the Afghans gave Mangal Bagh 10 army trucks, and he parades around in them," says Roshan Mehsud, one of the most senior government officials in Khyber agency, referring to the truck-stop-janitor-turned-cleric who leads Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), a local Islamist militant group seeking to impose sharia law in the region. The conflict in Khyber has killed more than 1,400 people in the last two years, according to the FATA Research Centre, an Islamabad-based think-tank tracking the fighting. Mehsud is at his wits-end trying to protect the road outside his office, a two-lane highway that connects Peshawar, Pakistan on the east with Jalalabad, Afghanistan on the west.

"They like to fire tracer bullets into the NATO containers, especially into the driver’s cabin, so everything catches fire," his assistant explains over a dinner of curried okra consumed on the floor of his heavily-guarded office. "A few days ago, the truck was full of plastic water bottles. They caught fire and there was so much smoke, it took us hours to put [it] out."

The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 gave birth to a war economy in the region, and competing groups of militants have set-up shop along the road outside Mehsud’s office, in hope of plundering containers destined for NATO soldiers, making off with everything from armored Humvees to cans of USAID cooking oil marked "not for sale." By 2008, the preeminent group of highway robbers was LI, led by Bagh.

LI fighters had occasionally fought Pakistani and Afghan Taliban militants for control of the Peshawar-Jalalabad road, meaning they were a nuisance to Pakistan, but not an immediate threat. In June 2008, LI threatened to bring its brand of sharia to the city of Peshawar, and Pakistan sent in troops, sparking a battle that continues today and has produced more casualties than any other conflict in FATA.

In April 2013, Pakistan launched airstrikes and air-lifted thousands of troops to retake the Tirah Valley, a remote mountainous region across the border from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province that had become a base for LI and the TTP. According to military and civilian officials I spoke to, LI’s leadership, including Bagh, have fled to Afghanistan, where they still operate from safe havens in the district of Nazyan. (Much of the 2,600 km-long Pakistan-Afghanistan border continues to be a subject of dispute between the neighbors.)

For more than a decade, American and Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe havens and logistical support to militant leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose fighters live and train in North Waziristan, but make regular trips into Afghanistan to participate in the insurgency. In 2009 though, a second retrograde flow of insurgents began to appear, and militants seeking to topple the Pakistani state began to find spaces to operate out of Afghanistan.

"For quite some time, Pakistan and its security organizations have been communicating with the American and Afghan political setup that somehow these people have linkages… [the] TTP has safe havens and sanctuaries across the border," says Athar Abbas, a retired Pakistan general who served as the military’s spokesman from 2009 to 2012.

He stated further: "Pakistan has been saying there is a problem in [North Waziristan, but] it’s not the real or complete problem of Afghanistan. The United States claims the entire problem of Afghanistan lies in… and originates in [North Waziristan]."

Abbas also notes that Pakistan has carried out ground operations to clear militants out of six agencies along the border, yet the insurgency continues on both sides of the boundary. Frustrated with the lack of security on the border, he says Pakistan repeatedly offered to put up a fence there, even to lay land mines, only to have the idea dismissed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Now, Pakistan’s complaints about Afghanistan’s unwillingness or inability to secure its side of the border are becoming difficult to ignore.

On Aug. 5, Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz asked Afghanistan to "hand over" Maulana Fazlullah, who now heads the TTP, and has operated out of Afghanistan’s Kunar province since fleeing a Pakistan offensive in his native Swat Valley in 2009.

Aziz’s remarks came after a series of particularly brazen cross-border raids by Fazlullah’s fighters. The skirmishes have prompted Pakistan to pursue militants into Afghanistan, sparking deadly clashes with Afghan border forces. Dozens of similar raids have taken place since 2012, killing 334 people, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, which issues annual reports on the border conflict.

Fazlullah’s career as a militant leader began in the town of Imam Dherai, in his native Swat Valley, more than 70 miles from the Afghanistan border. In 2009, after a deal to allow the limited enforcement of sharia law in Swat fell through, Pakistani troops moved into the scenic valley, briefly displacing 2.5 million civilians. Within a few weeks, the army had regained technical control of the valley, but Fazlullah and other militant leaders had escaped, making their way west across Pakistan’s Lower Dir and into Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Five years later, Mingora, the largest city in the Swat Valley, still feels like a city under occupation.

Most multi-story buildings and the surrounding hilltops are crowned by posts built from sandbags, draped in chicken wire. Convoys of troops patrol the streets, patting down locals at checkpoints sprinkled throughout the narrow streets. An entire Pakistani army division is still deployed there, and plans are in place to build a cantonment and expand a cadet college — the military is here for the long haul.

On a visit to Mingora in October 2013, I asked one of the most senior Pakistani army officials there why so many troops were still present. His answer was simple: "They [Fazlullah and other leaders] are sitting in Afghanistan waiting to come back."

Pakistan is not simply worried that the TTP will find a space to operate out of in Afghanistan. For years now, Pakistani officials have peddled the theory that groups like the TTP are being funded and supported by the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. Ironically, some of those claims appear to actually be coming true.

In October 2013, American special forces broke up a meeting between Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) agents and Latif Mehsud, the former second-in-command of the TTP, who has operated out of Afghanistan since 2010.

Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, told reporters the NDS had been working with Latif "for a long period of time." The meeting "was part of an NDS project like every other intelligence agency is doing," he explained, alluding to an apparent quid-pro-quo of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban.

Eight months earlier, in February 2013, the NDS announced it had captured one of the TTP’s founding members, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, during a raid near the Pakistani border in Nangarhar province. At the time, the capture was hailed as a sign of improving relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Muhammad commanded a battalion of 6,000 fighters, including some Afghans and Arabs, until 2009, when the Pakistani military flushed militants out of Bajaur. Yet Muhammad continues to remain in NDS custody — the Karzai administration is apparently holding on to him as long as Pakistan holds on to senior Afghan Taliban figures.

While Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be cooperating with Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, American forces have provided important technical and logistical assistance to the military in FATA. At least seven drone strikes have taken place in North Waziristan since the start of Zarb-e-Azb. And Pakistani officials have, uncharacteristically, admitted that they were jointly conducted. But that cooperation may be coming to an end. With the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the CIA, which operates the drones, has already shut down most of its operations near the Pakistani border.

"Now there is pressure on them [the TTP] through drone strikes," says Rehman Malik, who served as Pakistan’s interior minister between 2008 and 2013. "I don’t think the Afghan army or law enforcement have got that much capability [to conduct drone strikes.]"

"[Cooperation] was very much there in terms of intelligence," continues Malik, whose term included the height of the American drone campaign between 2009 and 2011. "If we had been given the technology along with the intelligence information, we could have performed the same functions."

Until Pakistan has the technology to operate a fleet of lethal drones of its own, former and current Pakistani officials know they need the United States to pursue men like Fazlullah and Bagh.

They are just hoping the Americans stick around a while longer, at least until Pakistan can get a handle on militants operating in FATA.

And so, after patiently answering my questions about his efforts to combat LI, Roshan Mehsud had a question for me. "You’re an American, what do you think. Will they just leave Afghanistan?"

Umar Farooq is a freelance journalist who has reported from Pakistan for Al Jazeera English, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, and the IRIN News agency. Read his work at umar-farooq.com and follow him on twitter: @UmarFarooq_

Umar Farooq is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, IRIN News, and the Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter: @UmarFarooq_.

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