Dateline Islamabad

Zarb-e-Azb: The Decisive Strike

14 Jul, 2014    ·   4559

Salma Malik traces the challenges, opportunities and the way ahead for Pakistan vis-a-vis the Zarb-e-Azb operation launched against terrorists

Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched against militants in North Waziristan by the Pakistani military on 15 June is now entering the second phase of clearing and reclaiming lost spaces. A few days ago, Miranshah, an important city, was 80% reclaimed and for the first time since the launch of the operation, the press corps was allowed a guided tour of the place. The Operation was on the cards for a very long time and a recent interview of the previous military spokesperson in which he hinted an intentional delay by the previous military chief, has added to the list of controversies as to why this decision took so long to be set into motion. The public sentiment was unanimously against the militants and terrorists and heavily in favour of a Sri Lanka type operation that brought down the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam, without realising the pros and cons of the problem. Simultaneously, a faction comprising the clergy, their supporters and empathisers as well as political parties pitched dialogue with the angry and disgruntled brethren as a means to appease and bring them back in the mainstream.

Though the collateral part couldn’t more be accurate, since the 1980s Afghan war, Pakistan has undergone a drastic transformation, which has affected the entire socio-political, economic and cultural fabric of the society. The decision-makers of the Cold War days, judging the geopolitical developments, made critical but misinformed decisions which served well in short term but proved disastrous in the long term. Resultantly, two generations have paid a heavy price for the militancy and terrorism that haunts their daily lives. Therefore, the argument that this is not our war is as far from the truth as the US’ initial claims of innocence over state failure in Afghanistan.

The elected leadership initially favoured and opted for an almost unconditional dialogue with the Tehrik–i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating in the concerned area alone, against stiff public uproar and opposition from political parties and concerned quarters. In one sense, the offer and opening a channel for dialogue was a good tactical measure; but it had two severe consequences: the military lost precious time and the militants gained advantage and crossed over to safer areas across border or any other place of choice, with their men and firepower. The militants, as they gained time, took the inaction and a general lack of consensus in the political ranks as a sign of weakness and inflicted heavy damages which included the mass killing of 26 captured security personnel, and mounted attacks on Karachi Airport.

Any harboured illusions have since been laid to rest and since mid-June, the Pakistani armed forces are engaged in the military operation. With 30,000 troops committed to clear militant sanctuaries, strongholds and hideouts from the two main areas of Miranshah and Mirali, the task at hand has been enormous. The timing was bad, given that summer could not be more unsuitable for the troops, compounded by the beginning of the Islamic month of Ramzan within a fortnight of the operation.

The herculean task of evacuation and safe passage to the local population, whose numbers according to the available data was around 500,000 but by now the authorities have a registered a figure around 833, 274 people. Furthermore, Pakistani authorities, after repeated requests, managed to secure the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul’s cooperation in sealing the border – especially in Nuristan and Kunar provinces, and also disallow sanctuaries to fleeing militants on Afghan soil; but this arrangement now appears in jeopardy after a fatal strike from the Afghan side on a Pakistani military patrol, claiming several lives.

The resolve with which the military is dealing this decisive blow is evident to all, but not without skeptics and criticism. The prime criticism is that the military strike occurred too late in the day, allowing an easy and timely escape to the main culprits. Yet, the zero tolerance policy towards the TTP and its local or foreign affiliates is what was long needed. In the absence of an embedded media, the only narrative available is the military’s. In response, the military provided a guided tour of the 80% cleared town of Miranshah to the media. Will the military operation be sufficient in flushing out the militants and the larger issue of terrorism? Definitely not. This is just one aspect of the larger nationwide effort, which needs to tackle militant strongholds and nurseries in other parts of the country; check the inflow of money and support these actors receive from all quarters; maintain a zero tolerance approach, and strengthen governance, law and order as well as judicial protocols in handling such issues. This won’t be easy, given how despite a public demand for stiffer security measures, the Protection of Pakistan ordinance (POPO) has met with enormous criticism. To date, the authorities remain indecisive over the placement of the National Counter-terrorism Authority.

At the moment, the greater challenge is the assistance and finally rehabilitation and resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons, supplemented by developing infrastructure and self-sustaining institutional mechanisms for the affected population. It is high time the government breaks old great game buffer myths, abolish the British made FCR, and accord full provincial status to the seven agencies. The success of the Operation will carry positive dividends for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a need to stand united for a sustained, stable and peaceful future that can help assure prosperity and better regional relations.