Pakistan: Military launch offensive in North Waziristan

Half a million people flee the area

The Pakistani military finally launched its much awaited full scale military offensive in North Waziristan, the strong hold of Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked militants. This is a major development but has failed to get much attention from the international media because of the crisis in Iraq. The US and NATO have demanded such an offensive for a long time. The US considered this place to be the main sanctuary for the Taliban and a pad for them to attack NATO and US forces inside Afghanistan. But the gains made by the ISIS fighters in Iraq have been the main issue featured by the international media. The rugged terrain of North Waziristan is considered as one of the toughest battlegrounds in the world. Some valleys in this tribal area have no road access and some remote areas are totally inaccessible. The military authorities have imposed curfew in the area. Pakistani Air Force (PAF) jets and helicopters are carrying out air strikes against the militants. According to Defence Ministry sources more than 400 militants belonging to the different groups have so far been killed. Many militants have crossed over to Afghanistan before the beginning of the operation. It is believed that the leadership of these groups was already in Afghanistan to avoid the military offensive.

Half a million tribal people have already left the area and have moved to the relatively safer settled areas of KPK province. The government has set up camps outside Bannu city. The government is expecting two hundred thousand more people in these camps. But the very conservative and religious people from North Waziristan are not ready to go to these camps. They insist on privacy and isolation and they also have security concerns. These camps are not far away from the North Waziristan and people fear of possible militant attacks. These camps also lack basic facilities such as water, tents, toilets, medical care and sufficient food. The majority of the people who have arrived at these camps are women and children. The hot weather is also a problem for these people as they live and are accustomed to the moderate temperatures of the mountains. If the government fails to improve the situation in these camps immediately, there will be a worse humanitarian disaster. Here there are also class issues. The rich people are moving to the cities and renting houses because they can afford the rents. They also have money and resources to buy food and other utilities. But the poor people are completely dependent on government support. They have no money to rent houses and buy food. So they are suffering the most.

For some years now there has been talk of launching a military operation against the local and foreign militants well-entrenched in North Waziristan. However, it has until now been continualy delayed.

In fact, for quite some time, such an offensive was considered inevitable on account of the provocative terrorist attacks claimed by the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its foreign allies.

There has been limited military action in North Waziristan in the past. But a peace accord between the government and the Utmanzai tribes, including both the Wazirs and Dawars, and including the militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur was agreed in September 2006. Its subsequent renewal since then ensured that there would be no major military operation as long as this agreement remained in place.

Except in the early years, the government refrained from publicly defending the peace deal as it was signed from a position of weakness and gave away too much to the militants. The militants, on their part, often accused the government of violating the agreement and on occasions threatened to scrap it in protest against the occasional airstrikes conducted by the military in North Waziristan.

However, they didn’t act on these threats. Instead, they used the threat to end the accord to put pressure on the government. Had they ended the peace agreement it would have inevitably led to military action. As a result, as is now being witnessed, a sea of human suffering has resulted.

In recent years, the peace accord lost its meaning as local and foreign militants of all hue and colour made North Waziristan the hub of their activities. They used its territory to launch violent attacks not only in Pakistan but also in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who stayed away from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), despite being offered the position of its deputy head in 2007-2008, often appeared helpless and, on occasions, unwilling to take action against the militants who came from outside North Waziristan and set up their bases to challenge the state.

The US had been applying pressure on Pakistan for years to undertake military operations in North Waziristan. It has publicly criticised the September 2006 peace accord in North Waziristan. Ex-President General Pervez Musharraf was compelled on one occasion had to take along the accords architect, Lt Gen (retd) Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai, who was then the Governor of NWFP (later renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to the US to explain to President George W Bush the finer points of the agreement and its likely benefits.

The US remained unconvinced. Several American officials openly questioned and criticised such peace accords with the militants. It is of course, for them entirely different, that the US has been negotiating with the Afghan Taliban. They recently made a deal to swap five Taliban prisoners held for more than 12 years at the Guantanamo Bay prison to secure the release of an American soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

In 2012, the Pakistani military came close to moving into North Waziristan in a big way to undertake an operation against the militants. However, a premature statement by the US secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, announcing the imminent launching of the action seems to have prompted the army high command to abort the operation. Pakistan didn’t want to be seen to be undertaking military operations at the behest of the US in view of the strong anti-US sentiment in the country. Launching such an operation following its announcement by the US Secretary of Defence would also seem to play to the Taliban narrative that Islamabad was fighting America’s ‘war on terror’.

Though the blueprints of the plan for the military operation in North Waziristan appear to have been ready for a while, these were updated as the time went by. The brazen terrorist attack on the Karachi airport and the separate claims of responsibility by the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) forced the government’s hand to go for the kill. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s patience ran out and he had to abandon his policy to secure peace in the country through talks with the TTP.

The government was in such a hurry to launch the operation, codenamed “Zarb-e-Azb” after the name of a sword used by Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), that it didn’t even wait for the end of the 15-day deadline given by the Governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sardar Mehtab Ahmad Khan and Corps Commander Peshawar Lt Gen Khalid Rabbani, to a 64-member tribal Jirga from North Waziristan. The Jirga had been asked to expel foreign militants hiding in North Waziristan and ensure proper implementation of the old peace accord.

The Jirga members had advised the people not to leave their homes and villages as they expected a breakthrough in the talks with the government and the militants in the hope of averting the military operation. In fact, this delayed the evacuation of the people to safer places outside North Waziristan. Subsequently, a curfew was imposed, roadside security checkpoints were strengthened, supply of food items became scarce and airstrikes intensified.

The federal government didn’t call any all-party conference or take the parliament into its’ confidence before launching the offensive. Almost all the political parties, except the Jamaat-e-Islami, the JUI-F, and JUI-S, backed this decision. Imran Khan’s PTI also came on board after complaining that it wasn’t consulted. The apparent targets of the “Zarb-e-Azb” are the TTP, the IMU, and al-Qaeda because they have been waging war against Pakistan.

The airstrikes launched in the first phase of the operation have targeted the positions of militants affiliated to the three groups and the army has claimed to have killed more than 400 terrorists. As usual, the claims couldn’t be verified. The name of only one slain IMU commander, Abu Abdur Rahman al-Mani, was mentioned but he wasn’t a known figure. The IMU is presently headed by Usman Ghani, who had replaced Usman Adil, who was killed in a US drone strike. Usman Adil had replaced Tahir Yuldashev, the best known IMU leader who, too, was killed in a drone attack.

Reports from North Waziristan indicated that Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s men haven’t been attacked yet and that they have gathered in the Dattakhel sub-division near the border with Afghanistan. The Haqqani network, too, has been spared until now. This was the reason that the US resumed its drone strikes after a nearly six-month break. It then launched three attacks recently to target the suspected members of the Haqqani network.

The US and Pakistan have different priorities in North Waziristan. It seems the drone strikes weren’t coordinated as Islamabad would have liked the Americans to use the drones to target the TTP and IMU cadres. Finally, the Khan Said Sajna faction that broke away from the TTP recently and is apparently not involved in the recent wave of terrorist attacks isn’t a target yet in the “Zarb-e-Azb” operation. Its fighters seem to have moved out of North Waziristan.

The Sajna group could hold peace talks with the government in future in case the latter opts to do so again. It is not clear at the moment whether the military has abandoned its long time policy of a good Taliban and a bad Taliban. The most important question is whether the military will allow the Haqqani network to use this area in the future to launch attacks on Afghan forces. The situation is not clear at the moment.

There is hardly any body that has any doubt about the capability of the army to flush out the militants from North Waziristan. The real issue is if they have the capacity to check the blowback of the operation in the cities and towns of Pakistan. The answer is a definite no.

The most serious concern of the civilian leadership has been how they would be able to protect the life and property of people with the available resources, skills and capacity of the law enforcing and security agencies.

With the country’s counterterrorism capacity having been badly exposed many times in recent years, the Karachi airport attack being the latest example, the policy of dialogue has been pursued. It is said that despite clear warnings and repeated intelligence reports, if the incidents like the Karachi airport attack and DI Khan jailbreak could not be averted, how could people face the full-scale blowback of militants after the all-out military operation in North Waziristan.

Since the menace of militancy and extremism is everywhere, it is generally believed that even if the military operation in the NWA is 100 percent successful, it would not mean the elimination of terrorism and militancy in the country. During recent years, several military operations were launched in areas like Swat and in most of the tribal areas. Following these the militant extremist activities in those particular areas were checked to a great extent. However, the terrorist activities never stopped. Such activities instead gathered more pace and severity following the military intervention.

According to the Interior Ministry documents, there are 60 proscribed organisations, including hardened terrorist outfits operating in Pakistan. In many cases, they are interlinked and spread all over the country. Thinking every one of their members is in North Waziristan is nothing but self-deception.

As we know that religious extremist forces are not only waging an armed offensive but are also engaged in ideological war. The military might be able to defeat them militarily but it cannot fight the ideological propaganda war. The ruling classes including the army have shown so far that they are incapable of defeating them in ideological and political battle. As both these forces represent reactionary ideas and views and oppose progressive, secular and enlightened ideas. The working class is the only force in the country with the support of the radical layers of the middle class that can defeat the reactionary ideology of the religious extremist forces. But unfortunately the working class has yet not moved into political action and the radical middle class layers are also absent from the scene of active struggle.

There is a mass support for this military offensive amongst the masses. The working masses and poor people are sick tired of violence, bombings, suicide attacks and threats. The support for militant organizations is at its lowest levels. There are only three religious political parties opposing the military offensive. The rest of the main stream capitalist political parties are supporting this military action. The support for the military has also increased amongst the masses after the launch of this military offensive.

The military will come out of this action stronger and more popular. The military was already the most respected and popular state institution among the people. The Pakistani army lost much of its respect and support among the masses during the military rule of General Musharaf. It was forced to retreat and concede some of its powers to the civilian institutions of the state. The senior judiciary took advantage of the situation and gained more authority and power. But the military was and still is the most dominant power in Pakistan. In recent years it has won back its lost support and respect. It is very clear that it is taking back all the powers and authority which it concedes few years ago. The rising military power means more dominant role of the military in all spheres of life which will further weaken the civilian government. It seems that the military is not interested to oust the government and take direct control of the power in the short term but it wants to dictate terms to the present government which is trying to consolidate its position and wants to bring the military under the civilian control.

The Pakistani working class and poor is not only the victims of religious extremism and violence but also the victims of the capitalist and feudal system. The toiling masses have been exploited by the ruling classes to enrich themselves and left them in slave like conditions. The toiling masses are suffering and continue to suffer under this rotten, repressive and exploitative capitalist system. The urgent struggle is now to build support for a socialist alternative amongst the working masses and radical sections of the middle and upper middle class.

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June 2014