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After Zarb-e-Azb: Now What?

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Image: UK Department for International Development/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Stimson Center on 14 August, 2015.

Pakistan’s ongoing military operation in North Waziristan, a stronghold of Al Qai’da and Islamist militants, is nearing its end. However, as the Pakistan Army races towards declaring this mission complete, a number of issues of immediate consequence to Pakistan, the region, and the United States remain unaddressed. To succeed in the long run, the mission needs to be part of a larger counter-insurgency campaign that must address political and social considerations, as well as the regional and global exigencies.

On 14 June, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif announced that Operation Zarb-e-Azb [Strike of Muhammad’s Sword] had entered its “final phase.” The long awaited military operation began in June 2014 and is aimed at “foreign and local terrorists” residing in North Waziristan. A year into the operation, Pakistan’s military claimed 2763 terrorists killed, 837 hideouts destroyed, 253 tons explosive recovered and zero noncombatants killed. However, the veracity of these figures and the identities of those killed have not been independently confirmed and various sources have decried loss of civilian life and property. Nevertheless, as another measure of success, analysts cite the considerable decline in the incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks in Pakistan since the beginning of the operation. The effectiveness of the overall counter-terrorism campaign will become clearer in the coming years.

Pakistan now faces numerous political, administrative and logistical challenges as part of the larger counter-insurgency effort in North Waziristan. The repatriation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reconstruction of towns and infrastructure remain unresolved. Some 700,000 individuals are said to have been displaced by the campaign. In January, the United States declined to commit funds for the repatriation of IDPs and reconstruction at the third Donors’ Conference, leading Pakistan to fall well short of its $753 million target. It still remains unclear how the Pakistani state will now finance the effort.

The issue of political reforms in Federally Administered Tribal Areas and repealing the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) are also not seen on any agenda. Political considerations being central to counter-insurgency, Zarb-e-Azb will not be able to sustain its achievements unless the space occupied by militant groups and tribal militias is not filled by accountable and successful political institutions. Successive military operations in the tribal areas since 2001 have meant a steady erosion of the little civilian administration and institutions that did exist in the region. Zarb-e-Azb provides a critical opportunity for political reform and integration of the tribal areas.

Indications that militants previously contained in North Waziristan have now also dispersed into urban centers within Pakistan, suggest that Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaign is set to take on an increasingly urban face. While a remote and sparsely populated North Waziristan was more conducive to a heavy military approach, Pakistan’s police forces are massively ill-prepared and under-resourced to takeover this role. The paramilitary Pakistan Rangers have been conducting a parallel operation in Karachi for years, but the goals and aims of that operation appear to be more political and controversial.

The region as a whole faces fallout from the operation in the shape of both fleeing refugees as well as militants. Afghan sources report that up to 100,000 refugees from North Waziristan fled to Afghanistan in the wake of the operation. Militant sources claimed that “up to 80%” of Taliban militants had made their way across the porous border with Afghanistan to escape Zarb-e-Azb even before it began. Weeks into the operation, Army sources confirmed that the Taliban senior leadership had managed to escape. Other reports indicated that Uzbek and other foreign fighters as well as members of the notorious Haqqani network had relocated to Afghanistan with Taliban help. This creates massive cause for concern in Afghanistan while also posing questions over how long the recent respite from terrorism will last for Pakistan. Indeed, recent reports suggest that many Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions had regrouped under the original banner and efforts were being made to reach out to other militant groups as well.

The US and its NATO allies are naturally concerned about the stability of the region as well as threats posed by terrorist groups to Western interests and homelands. Targeting and dismantling the Haqqani network and Al Qa’ida in FATA has long been a top priority for the United States. Doubts had been expressed over whether Zarb-e-Azb would target these groups at all, despite Pakistan’s insistence that no groups would be spared. Reports that these groups have relocated to Afghanistan do not bode well for US goals in Afghanistan nor do they provide assurance that their ability to target the United States or Europe in the future has been eliminated. Moreover, increased movement of militants across the Durand line will negatively affect confidence in the fragile Pak-Afghan relationship.

It seems that the Pakistani government views Operation Zarb-e-Azb as a one-time military action that will rid it of the terrorist menace forever. What this approach betrays is an inability (or unwillingness) to recognize the complex non-kinetic dimensions that counterinsurgency demands. The anger and frustration of locals at their wholesale displacement, the lack of a coherent reconstruction strategy and the inability to back up military action with forward-thinking political changes are evidence of this. At the same time, the reliance on heavy firepower (airstrikes, artillery, tanks, etc.) provided time and space for militants to escape and blend into population centers, a tactic straight from the guerilla textbook. The lack of complementary and targeted intelligence-based police action means their resurgence is a distinct possibility, albeit where remains a question. Finally, if assertions that Al Qai’da and the Haqqani organizations have not been permanently degraded or have been spared, the Afghan and US expectations of the operation may not be realized.

The Pakistan Army’s efforts to reclaim the state’s sovereign territory must be commended but here success means more than clearing the area of militants. It requires retaining the reclaimed area and initiating a process of constituting effective local civilian authorities which can eventually take over the administration of the region.


Sachchal Ahmad is an intern at the Stimson Center.

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