Pakistan is looking at a long-term disaster
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 02 Jul , 2014

On Sunday, 15 June 2014, a press release from Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relation (ISPR), announced the launch of “Operation Zarb-e-Azb”, to clear North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of militants belonging to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other groups such as the Haqqani network, who had made the dense mountainous terrain of that Agency into a sanctuary.1 The terrorist attack on Karachi airport a week earlier was the trigger that finally removed any ambivalence on the issue.

Over 10 people being killed every day denotes a phenomenal quantity of violence.

The operation was long in the offing. Three years earlier, General Petraeus, while leaving command of US-ISAF troops in Afghanistan, referred to Pakistan Army’s long-overdue operation in Kurram and the trans-border movement by Afghan militants and their TTP affiliates as ‘North Waziristan in reverse’.

The statement implied that the Pakistan military would also have to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries in NWA, more specifically the presence of an al Qaeda-inspired militant conglomerate, presumably protected by the Haqqani network. Pakistan understandably resisted US pressure, partly because it viewed the Haqqani network as its strategic assets, but also because of the sheer difficulties involved in pursuing an offensive line in the difficult and treacherous mountain terrain of NWA.

While the Pakistani establishment did attempt to deal with the surrounding regions of Kurram, Bajaur and Dir, NWA was left largely alone, though the areas around the mountains that separate North and South Waziristan, in the Shawal and Makeen valleys, where the TTP held sway saw limited activity. The TTP had moved into this region when the Pakistan army dislocated them from the Mehsud regions of Laddha, Makeen and Sararogha in October/November 2009.2

Though a national consensus exists on launching Zarb-e-Azb, the military operations are fraught with risks. NWA adjoins the entire greater Paktia region, home to the Haqqani’s Zadran tribe. An assault on the Haqqani’s and affiliates in NWA means stoking a beehive of all those who are already filled with a sense of betrayal by the erstwhile security institutions. A reaction can be expected in mainland Pakistan, wherein cities such as Peshawar, Mardan, some southern districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa such as DI Khan and Kohat, as well as Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi would remain on the terrorist’s radar as legitimate targets for attack. The blowback suffered in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation in 2007 is a pointer. The present operations could well herald a more brutal phase of terrorist reprisal attacks, leading to uncertainty and instability across the country. Needless to say, the peace accord, signed on February 17, 2008, stands nullified in NWA, with adverse consequences for the military.

In all probability, civilians are withstanding the worst of state brutality, and civilian deaths are being counted as terrorists killed in operations.

About 40,000 troops are taking part in the operation, which began with aerial strikes and artillery bombardment. This facet of the operation continues and the ground assault with tanks and infantry is yet to commence. An ISPR press release of June 27 however indicated that a ground offensive could commence shortly. The bombardment actually started on 23 May, a full three weeks before the ISPR named the operation as Zarb-e-Azb3.

The ISPR has claimed hundreds of terrorists killed in the bombardment, but such claims appear to be more a propaganda ploy to buttress internal support and maintain morale. High-speed fighter aircraft are unsuitable for taking on mobile groups of foot fighters and any casualties caused to the militants will at best be incidental. The same goes for artillery fire, which in the absence of direct observation against specific targets through forward observers is largely ineffective. In all probability, civilians are withstanding the worst of state brutality, and civilian deaths are being counted as terrorists killed in operations. Very few militants remain in the area, having moved to adjoining areas before the start of the operation as reported by the stream of refugees leaving North Waziristan to safer abodes in Bannu and other places. This movement started on May 22 when Pakistani F16 jets pounded suspected targets. The human tragedy is on an epic scale and would be hard to describe.

The population of North Waziristan as per the 1998 census data, extrapolated from the earlier census report, stood at 3,61,246. In the absence of census data, it could be presumed that the population has increased to five to six lakh people since then. Of this, about 450,000 have fled their homes4, leaving the area bereft of its population base. Only a small segment of the population remains, perhaps to guard what little is left of their home and hearths.

From a humanitarian perspective, the operation has severe consequences. The cost of looking after half a million internally displaced persons is colossal, even if a large number choose to live with relatives and friends. The social cost of displacement in terms of lack of access to healthcare and education added to the economic cost of displacement and conflict is worrisome. However, all this could perhaps be acceptable if there was reasonable prognosis of success in operations. That, in the present case, appears unlikely. An analogy with respect to India is pertinent.

FATA covers an area of 27,200 sq km. In comparison, the Kashmir division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir with an area of 15,948 sq km is just over half that size. In a broader sense, the insurgency affected areas of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, when insurgency was at its peak, could be considered as a rough equivalent of FATA.

Pakistan lacks the capacity to seal this border, even if it desires to do so.

The Indian Army’s operations in J&K were troop intensive, with the Army deployed in a grid pattern all across the disturbed areas of the state. The Indian Army was in for the long haul, with operations being conducted with minimum use of force. As a result, there was no displacement of the local population. In Pakistan, military operations follow the war model, with emphasis on the use of maximum force. This has its own drawbacks in terms of alienation of the population and flies against the very principle of restoring peace and tranquillity in an area. India had the capacity and the will to maintain a long-term deployment of troops in J&K, to ensure that the various terrorist outfits could not hold the state to ransom. Pakistan’s capacity in this respect if suspect.

A fundamental negative in Pakistan’s case is its inability to isolate the area of operations. The porous border permits free movement on either side of the Durand Line. Pakistan lacks the capacity to seal this border, even if it desires to do so. Militants thus have safe sanctuaries to retreat to when pressured by the Pakistan military and return when the pressure eases. Defeating the militants in such a scenario is extremely difficult. In addition, for Pakistan to maintain its hold over NWA and other parts of FATA, the area will have to be physically held. This poses a fresh set of challenges.

While the Pakistan military will be able to overrun NWA, holding on to the area is fraught with serious consequences. The terrain is extremely inhospitable and communication infrastructure is minimal. The mountains, as is well known, eat up troops and the Pakistan army perforce will have to concentrate on holding built up areas, covering their lines of communications and attempting to dominate the mountainside with patrols and aerial reconnaissance. This opens them to guerrilla action from militants, who will continue to hound the security forces through ambushes and improvised explosive devices. In the absence of a political settlement, the battle is unwinnable. The aerial bombardment has already alienated the locals who, even if they do return to their homes after the Pakistan army has ceased their operations, will be distrustful of the security forces. Lack of public support will further impinge on the ability of the state to neutralise the militants.

Lack of public support will further impinge on the ability of the state to neutralise the militants.

If these were the only challenges faced by Pakistan, then perhaps they could still manage to contain the situation. But the country is also beset with a raging ethnic insurgency in Baluchistan, inspired by a deep seated desire to secede from the state. Karachi, the financial capital of the state is seething with ethnic, sectarian and terrorist violence. Violence levels in Southern Punjab are increasing and even Rawalpindi and Islamabad face the threat of suicide attacks. In the one-year period from 5 June 2013 to 15 June 2014, 4113 persons including security force personnel have been killed in terrorist violence perpetrated by the TTP and its affiliates.5

Over 10 people being killed every day denotes a phenomenal quantity of violence. In addition, externally, Pakistan still views India as its primary threat and deploys a large number of troops on its Eastern border.

In such a scenario, Pakistan lacks the capacity for a sustained deployment of troops in NWA and other parts of FATA, which is essential to restore the credibility and will of the state. As defeating the TTP and other groups is unlikely and sustained deployment to maintain peace is not feasible, Pakistan will at some point have to go back to the peace table and hold talks with the militant outfits. What sort of arrangement that may emerge is to be seen, but the TTPs insistence on Sharia as the form of government in the areas they control will perhaps have to be acceded to. In a sense, this will effectively divide the state and lead to the creation of a larger Pashtun identity, on either side of the Durand Line. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year will only hasten this process.

India is not a player in the destiny of Pakistan and can do precious little to rein in the radical forces nurtured by Pakistan for over three decades through a virulent state sponsored education system. Pakistan is looking at a long-term socio-political disaster. The antidote for the conglomerate of religiously driven militants is a conclusive official campaign, free of fear or favour. But perhaps the tipping point has been reached and even such a campaign is unlikely to succeed. In a paraphrasing of the well-known nursery rhyme, “All the Kings Horses and all the Kings Men, could not put Pakistan together again”. Will that be the fate of Pakistan? Time will tell.


  1. 112909/pakistan-launches-zarb-e-azb-military-operation-in-n-wazir istan
  2. -will-have-to-go-into-north-waziristan.120368/  &nb sp;          &n bsp; 
  3. Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting), refers to the sword of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, used in the battle of Badr.
  4. rts-aid-handout-as-IDPs-frustration-mounts-269896.html
  5. spirit-of-Zarb-e-Azb
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

former Director of CLAWS and is currently the editor of SALUTE Magazine.

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