Pakistan’s War on Terror

Focus

Creeping Talibanisation, radical extremism, political turmoil, internal instability, a floundering economy and weak institutions make for an explosive mix. Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but the situation that it is confronted with could rapidly degenerate into unfettered disaster. All institutions of the state must stand together for the nation to survive its gravest challenge. The Pakistan army and the ISI must concentrate on fighting the enemy within, rather than frittering away energy and resources on destabilising neighbouring countries, insists Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal

In an act of unprecedented depravity, seven Jihadi extremists sent by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 132 innocent school children and 17 adults at the Army Public School, Peshawar, on December 16, 2014. According to Muhammad Umar Khorasani, the TTP spokesman, the killings were meant to avenge the deaths of innocent people in indiscriminate air strikes and artillery bombing during the on-going military operation Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting) launched by the Pakistan army in North Waziristan in June 2014. He said, “The government is targeting our families and females… we want them to feel the pain.”

The dastardly attack united the political and army leadership as well as civil society and created a groundswell of support for counter-terrorism operations. While terrorist groups like the LeT tried to blame India for the attack, there were no takers for such accusations. The government lifted the ban on the execution of convicted terrorists who were on death row for acts of terrorism. Approximately 3,000 convicts are reported to have been given death sentences. A moratorium on executions was in place since 2008, except for a brief period in August 2013.

Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-u-Dawa (JuD, a front for LeT) and the Haqqani Network are among 12 organisations suspected of acts of terrorism that have been banned. The government also constituted military courts to expeditiously try those who are suspected of participation in terrorist strikes. This amounts to ceding of authority of the civilian government to the military and will prove detrimental to the growth of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, but no one is worrying for now except some human rights organisations.

Deteriorating Internal Security Situation

The deteriorating internal security environment has gradually morphed into Pakistan’s foremost national security threat. Karachi remains a tinderbox that is ready to explode. The al Qaeda is quietly making inroads into Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HuJI), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The TTP has consolidated its position in North Waziristan and is capable of breaking out of its stronghold into neighbouring areas. Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan and the restive Gilgit-Baltistan Northern Areas are a perpetual security nightmare.

Despite facing the grave danger of a possible collapse of the state, the Pakistan government’s counter-insurgency policy lacked cohesion until recently. The commencement of a peace dialogue with the TTP after Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) came back into power, despite the abject failure of several such efforts in the past, allowed the terrorist organisation to re-arm, recruit and train fresh fighters. It also gave the TTP leadership the opportunity to cross the border into Afghanistan. In March 2014, the TTP offered a month-long cease-fire. The army honoured the ceasefire and refrained from active operations, but some TTP factions fought on. On April 16, 2014, the TTP withdrew its pledge and blamed the government for failing to make any new offers.

In the face of mounting public and army pressure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reluctantly agreed to approve military strikes. He was apprehensive that General Raheel Sharif, the COAS, may unilaterally decide to launch an all-out offensive. The army had recommended to the government that firm military action was necessary to deal with the menace of home grown terrorism. The PM is now backing the army fully and has said that he will not allow Pakistan to become a ‘sanctuary of terrorists’ and that the military operation will continue till all militants are eliminated. He has also said that no distinction will be made between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. The so-called ‘good Taliban’ are considered strategic assets and have been employed to destabilise India and Afghanistan.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan

Realisation about the gravity of the internal security situation took some time to dawn on the Pakistan army. Over the last decade, the army has deployed more than 150,000 soldiers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA areas. It has suffered over 15,700 casualties, including about 5,000 dead since 2008. The total casualties, including civilian, number almost 50,000 since 2001.

Hurt by a series of Taliban successes in ‘liberating’ tribal areas and under pressure from the Americans to deliver in the ‘war on terror’, the Pakistan army, in the initial stages, employed massive firepower to stem the rot – as was visible on television screens worldwide when operations were launched to liberate the Swat Valley (Operation Rah-e-Rast in May-Jun 2009) and South Waziristan (Operation Rah-e-Nijat in Oct-Nov 2009). Fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery were freely used to destroy suspected terrorist hideouts, irrespective of civilian casualties. This heavy-handed, firepower-based approach without simultaneous infantry operations on the ground failed to dislodge militants, but caused large scale collateral damage and alienated the tribal population even further.

Counter-insurgency operations against the TTP in South Waziristan drove most of the fighters to North Waziristan, but for long the army was reluctant to extend its operations to this province. North Waziristan has rugged mountainous terrain that enables TTP militants to operate like guerrillas and launch hit-and-run raids against security forces. When cornered, the militants find it easy to slip across the Durand Line and find safe sanctuaries in Khost and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos, has written: “Not only does North Waziristan house Pakistani and Afghan Taliban; it is also a training ground for al-Qaeda, which attracts Central Asians, Uighurs from China, Chechens from the Caucasus and a flow of militant Muslim converts from Europe.” The Pakistan army realised that it would be a long-drawn operation and that it would undoubtedly suffer a large number of casualties. Hence, it took its time to prepare for the operation.

On June 15, 2014, the Pakistan army and air force launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, their much delayed offensive against the TTP. The operation began with air strikes and was subsequently followed up with offensive counter-insurgency operations on the ground. Approximately 30,000 regular soldiers of the Pakistan army were employed for the operation. The Pakistani air operations were assisted by US drone strikes, which resumed after six months and caused extensive damage. As a result of the operation, one million civilians left their villages and became refugees. The army claims to have killed 1,500 militants so far, most of them foreign terrorists. Many others had escaped across the border into Afghanistan as they had prior knowledge of impending military operations.

Though the Army Chief said that Operation Zarb-e-Azb was aimed at eliminating ‘all terrorists and their sanctuaries’ in North Waziristan, it is not yet clear whether strikes are being launched against the so-called ‘good’ Taliban. These include the Haqqani network and two other militant groups based in North Waziristan. These groups have been primarily targeting the NATO/ ISAF forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA). Of these, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group has hosted the Haqqani network and the TTP in North Waziristan and the Mullah Nazir group is in control of the Wana region of South Waziristan. These three groups are part of the so-called good Taliban and are likely to be employed to influence events in Afghanistan after the NATO/ ISAF draw down has been completed. The Haqqani network has also been employed to target Indian assets in Afghanistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, well-known Pakistani nuclear physicist, essayist and defence analyst, said in an interview on July 3, 2014, “Pakistan’s biggest problem is that religious extremism and intolerance have penetrated deep into the bones of society. North Waziristan is a magnet for jihadists from across the world. Earlier their terrorism was directed internationally and hence tolerated. But now their full fury is frontally directed at Pakistan: the people, state, and military... This military operation will certainly not eliminate terrorism. But unless radical militants are contained using force, they will soon overrun Pakistan. Recent events in Iraq and Syria should open our eyes to that terrible possibility...”

There can never be a purely military or a purely political solution to an insurgency. A successful counter-insurgency strategy is a dynamic but balanced mixture of aggressive offensive operations conducted with a humane touch and socio-economic development. Political negotiations to address the core issues of alienation of the population and other political demands must also be conducted with the local leadership simultaneously. The tribal culture prevailing in the NWFP and FATA, with its fierce ethnic loyalties and its diffused leadership, makes the task of the army and the government more difficult.

Impact on Regional Security

What do these developments portend for the region? Regional instability always has a negative impact on economic development and trade. Creeping Talibanisation and radical extremism are threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty. If the Pakistan army fails to conclusively eliminate this scourge in the north-west, it will soon reach Punjab, which has been relatively free of major incidents of violence. After that, it will only be a matter of time before terrorist organisations manage to push the extremists across the Radcliffe Line into India – first ideologically and then physically. It is in India’s interest for the Pakistan government to succeed in its fight against radical extremism, or else India will have to fight the Taliban at the Attari-Wagah border.

Similarly, it is in Afghanistan’s interest as well to join hands with Pakistan rather than to take advantage of Pakistan’s predicament by providing succour to the TTP on its territory. Early indications are that the two countries are likely to move in that direction. Sartaj Aziz, the foreign policy and national security adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has said that the forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan will conduct coordinated operations on both sides of the border. He said, “They will supplement each other’s operations by blocking the border during operations from one side so that anyone trying to escape could be arrested.”

A Turning Point?

The Peshawar attack sparked large scale outrage across Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called it a national tragedy and promised to fight till the ‘last terrorist is eliminated.’ Army Chief Raheel Sharif echoed the same sentiments. There is, however, no evidence as yet to suggest that the attack will actually be a turning point in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy. Sartaj Aziz said recently that terrorists who do not threaten Pakistan’s security should not be targeted.

The precarious situation in Pakistan is headed towards a dangerous denouement. The likelihood of a military coup is being openly discussed again. Pakistan cannot survive as a coherent nation state unless the army gives up its agenda of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan, attempts to destabilise India through its proxy war and stops meddling in politics. The army must pull itself up by the bootstraps and substantively enhance its capacity to conduct effective counter-insurgency operations. The Pakistan army has let down Pakistan and must make amends. In the national interest, the army must give up being a state within a state and accept civilian control, even if it does so with bad grace.

At present, the Pakistan army is a long way away from becoming truly combat worthy for the nature of sub-conventional warfare that circumstances have forced it to wage in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (erstwhile NWFP) and FATA. However, all hope is not lost. The Pakistan army’s senior leadership has carefully identified the shortfalls in its performance in counter-insurgency operations and has initiated remedial training measures. In operation Zarb-e-Azb, it is gaining valuable experience, even though it is at the cost of a very high casualty rate. The acid test of the army’s present state of training and preparedness for counter-insurgency operations will come when it finally defeats the TTP in North Waziristan – an area that it had so far shied away from addressing.

Political turmoil, internal instability, a floundering economy and weak institutions make for an explosive mix. Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but the situation that it is confronted with could rapidly degenerate into unfettered disaster. All institutions of the state must stand together for the nation to survive its gravest challenge. The Pakistan army and the ISI must concentrate on fighting the enemy within, rather than frittering away energy and resources on destabilising neighbouring countries.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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