One year after initiating Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan has made short-term victories against the Taliban, but more work is needed to ensure they stay out for good.
- By Daud KhattakDaud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
A year on, discussion of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban military operation in the North Waziristan tribal district near the Afghan border — the last Taliban stronghold — has focused on its short term achievements and impact on the overall security situation in the country and the region.
Codenamed Zarb-e-Azb, which means the “strike of Prophet Muhammad’s sword,” the operation is different from the preceding half dozen major maneuvers that Pakistani security forces conducted in different parts of the tribal areas.
For the first time in the past several years, Pakistani security forces attained the undisputed support of the civilian leadership, including the political parties — often seen earlier as the Taliban apologists — and the general public alike.
The launch of the operation also won praise from the international community as the world sees North Waziristan as the virtual headquarters of the Taliban and their local and international affiliates and franchises.
The new military leadership, unlike its predecessors, was eager to chase the militants from their stronghold despite the warnings of blowback on security situation in the cities. “These barbarians played football with the heads of our soldiers and that scene never went off my mind,” were the promising words of Pakistan’s new army chief, General Raheel Sharif, soon after the launch of the operation.
Stakes were high; and then suddenly came the Dec. 16, 2014 terrorist attack on a military-run school in Peshawar. As the shell-shocked relatives were carrying coffins of their school-going children, the whole country was seething with anger fueling the Taliban-dismantling expectations of Zarb-e-Azb.
According to the Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of Pakistan army, security forces have killed 2,763 militants, destroyed 837 hideouts, and recovered 253 tonnes of explosives since the start of the operation on June 15, 2014.
Apart from the impressive figures presented by the military spokesman, the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which monitors violence in the region, suggests that for the first time since 2007, civilian casualties in terrorist violence recorded a visible decrease in the first half of 2015.
According to a report by the Islamabad-based think tank, Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, militant attacks have dropped by 50 percent since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
This is beyond a doubt that for the first time in the past eight years, Pakistan has reached the security level where it stood in early 2007. (Taliban attacks suddenly increased in mid-2007 after military ruler Pervez Musharraf launched an operation on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.)
One of the main reasons is that the once dreaded Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was suffering from internal disputes soon after the killing of its chief Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013, was further weakened by the operation shattering its command and control structure.
In addition, the Pakistani troops have captured the key towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah from Taliban and their al-Qaeda, Uzbek, Chechen, and Uighur affiliates. However, it is still too early to call Zarb-e-Azb a success story.
Amidst several question marks over the much-hyped operation and its achievements, the one of key focus is the still intact Haqqani Network which has been a perpetual source of concern both for Afghanistan and the United States.
In its annual report on terrorism, the U.S. State Department said that significant parts of Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan continue to be safe havens for terrorists. “The military operations had a significant impact on TTP safe havens, but some terrorist organizations in the region continued to operate, primarily along with the border with Afghanistan.”
According to locals, key militants of the Haqqani Network have either melted into the neighboring tribal districts of Kurrm, Orakzai, and South Waziristan, or moved to the cities, where their leadership usually retreats whenever faced with serious threats.
Although reports being leaked to Pakistani media suggest that the Haqqani Network has been targeted in the ongoing operation, no prominent names of the network’s leadership, who had either been killed or captured during the operation, have been publicized. Similarly, the identities of the 2,763 militants, claimed to be killed by the security forces during their year-long operation, are not known.
So far, the top leadership of the once TTP alliance have re-emerged with their new identities and brand names. Shahidullah Shahid, Muhammad Saeed Khan, and four other leaders formed the Pakistani version of ISIS. Khalid Khorasani and others formed Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a TPP splinter group. That means that although TTP as an organization has been dismantled, its former leadership is still intact and continues to go back and forth across the porous AfPak border.
The next stage for the Pakistani security forces is to secure the mountainous Shawal and Datta Khel areas of North Waziristan, before the tides of popular support have fully turned against them.
Although many of the hardcore militants, particularly those belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, have been pushed across the border into Afghanistan, locals say a large number of local and foreign militants are still holding ground in Shawal and Datta Khel.
Any action in this region will be tougher than Miran Shah and Mir Ali because the mountain terrain and dense forests will provide refuge, even against air strikes. As such, Pakistani security forces are fixating on how difficult a ground offensive will be diverting their attention away from the possible success air strikes could have — successes that were seen in the 2009 operation in Swat, a region with similar terrain.
Thus, while the clearing of Miran Shah and Mir Ali took a year, the operation in Shawal and Datta Khel may likely take more time.
But in the city of Bannu, where most of the over one million people displaced from Waziristan live in tents, the clock is ticking. With each passing day the demand among the displaced people for a return to their homes is gaining momentum. Despite the government claiming that 80 percent of the area they come from is free of Taliban, the government still has not sent them back to their homes.
The anger was visible when inhabitants of a camp in Bannu city clashed with army troops on June 21. Two Waziristani tribesmen were killed and 10 injured as the security personnel opened fire at them. The incident triggered protests in Bannu and Peshawar, and tribesmen, who showered praise on the new army chief after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, were heard chanting “death to Raheel Sharif” in Peshawar on June 23.
Any further delay in resettling the displaced tribesmen in their areas may shift their sympathies once more towards the militants.
Lastly, to help put an end to the Taliban return in Waziristan, the Pakistani security establishment and the federal government need to end their vision of the tribal areas as a strategic space to train and recruit the “good” Taliban. Instead of keeping the over 10 million people in the tribal region under the colonial law of the Frontier Crimes Regulations with no access to information, the Pakistani authorities need to extend the full sphere of the constitution to the entirety of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan needs to treat tribesmen on a par with the people of Pakistan in terms of developmental activities, civil liberties, human rights, justice, and political freedom.
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