On 15 June, Pakistan’s military launched its most ambitious offensive on terrorists living and/or operating from the country’s territory. The sharply-worded press statement marked a stark difference in Pakistan’s otherwise soft adjectives for insurgents. Codenamed Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the release stated that the “armed forces have been tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and colour, along with their sanctuaries,” and emphasised their disinterest towards distinguishing between “foreign and local terrorists.” This week, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions Abdul Qadir Baloch stated that “we don't want any terrorist, Haqqani or not Haqqani, on Pakistani soil.”
While there are several aspects of this issue on which deductions can be made; the immediate priority lies in understanding the nature of expected blowbacks.
Immediate Security Priorities
First, although this indispensable offensive by the Pakistani military is welcome, the timing of launching the Zarb-e-Azb might not have been most apt. Winter is gone, and it is easier for the terrorists to escape into safe havens via mountain routes. In the backdrop of this much-delayed operation, the highest priority must now be given to securing the civilians, national assets, and critical infrastructure of the country. North Waziristan may be facing military action, but that is not the only region terrorists operate from. Today, vast swathes of the country have well-established networks of terrorist outfits and sympathisers. It is unlikely that the insurgents will put up a substantial fight in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The terrorists in the FATA, realising their current inadequate capacity, will lie low for a while, and/or escape to Afghanistan or slip into mainland Pakistan, and bounce back after a few months.
Any immediate significant blowback to the country’s civil society, military, government or security apparatus will originate from deep within the country – likely from Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces. The recent consecutive attacks on Karachi’s International Airport demonstrate the hold and reach of the terrorist networks in urban areas.
Although the Operation is making serious headway, a sizeable number of terrorists have already spilled over into Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces; and in a seemingly coming of a full circle, thousands of displaced residents of North Waziristan have fled to Afghanistan’s Khost province seeking refuge. The numerous Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in the country will be used as an excellent camouflage by the terrorists who will likely spread deeper into the country to carry out retaliatory attacks. The allies, affiliates and sleeper cells will soon enter the fray unless the Pakistani military comprehensively deals with threats in the rest of the country. Such a scenario will automatically result in heavy human losses, thus spiralling into further chaos.
This Operation should not be meant for North Waziristan alone; it has to be a large-scale effort. There is hence a need for flawless coordination between the military, the police force and other security wings – since a Zarb-e-Azb-style operation in urban areas is not feasible.
Troops have already been sent to Punjab, and the establishment of a joint operation and coordination centre is a step in this direction; but so far such an initiative has been launched only for Punjab, and especially only in the southern Punjab areas of Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, and Sahiwal.
In Pakistan, Punjab faces the highest threat, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and all major cities will be vulnerable for various reasons. While the ongoing operation is likely to bring sizeable results, the only way eliminate the terrorists altogether would be conduct joint operations with Kabul, thereby sandwiching the terrorists and then eliminating them – which the two governments have recently agreed to work together upon.
The border areas of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will have to be zealously guarded to prevent the outflow of terrorists into other areas of the country. The military must take on all terrorists as it claims – including upholding Abdul Qadir Baloch’s stance on the Haqqani Network – to ensure that gains made are sustainable. Furthermore, despite being far-fetched, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group being in talks with the TTP cannot be ruled out. Although the army has stated that troops have been deployed at all ‘sensitive locations’, in the cities, the country’s police force is inadequate to handle high-level crises. In comparison to the terrorists’ sophistication in terms of ammunition, planning and tactics, Pakistan’s police forces are underequipped to tackle insurgency-like situations. The key lies in securing those areas that do not fall in the ‘sensitive locations’ list, for this is where the terrorists will begin their retaliatory attacks from.
There is hence a need for constant monitoring of the IDPs; and it is imperative that new IDP camps be established in secure areas outside settled urban centres as a preventive measure.
More importantly, it is necessary that there is an understanding that the success of this operation will not immediately end terrorism in Pakistan. In that context, the Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014 passed by the parliament on 2 July seems hurried – especially given the powers it grants the security forces. The military’s success will mean a strong blow to the terrorist networks, but unless there is comprehensive and simultaneous action undertaken across the country, the likelihood of long-lasting peace is bleak.