Pakistani Army Operations in North Waziristan
North Waziristan (NW) is inhabited by a very large number of terror groups of all hues and colours. Most of the groups have got affiliated with TTP or Al Qaeda or the Haqqani network. All high profile terrorist attacks since 2010 have emanated from NW.
North Waziristan is inhabited by a very large number of terror groups of all hues and colours
NORTH WAZIRISTAN (NW) IS a part of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. FATA is a semi-autonomous tribal region in north-western Pakistan, bordering Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan to the east and south, and Afghanistan’s provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost and Paktika to the west and north. FATA comprise seven tribal agencies (districts) and six frontier regions, and are directly governed by Pakistan’s federal government through a special set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The geographical arrangement of the seven tribal areas in order from north to south is: Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The geographical arrangement of the six frontier Regions in order from north to south is: Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. The territory of FATA is almost exclusively inhabited by the Pashtuns, who also live in the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan.
The terrain of NW comprise high mountains, caves, and small pockets of urban centres. Hence it is considered ideal territory for waging insurgencies and guerilla warfare. The regular forces will find it more difficult to fight here as compared to other types of terrain unless they have been adequately trained in similar terrain earlier. Pakistan Army has operated in this area earlier and they have been carrying out specifically targeted operations, small raids and ambushes etc. But now the scale of operations involves much larger forces with heavy weaponry who are out to subdue the terrorists and the insurgents in the region with a heavy hand.
Terror Groups in NW
NW is inhabited by a very large number of terror groups of all hues and colours. These include, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), Punjabi Taliban, remnants of Al Qaeda, elements of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkare-Jhangvi, Khurasan group, Asian Tigers, Jaish-e-Muhammad, late Ilyas Kashmiri group, and Haqqani network and some others. Some say there are over 30 groups in NW. Most of the groups have got affiliated with TTP or Al Qaeda or the Haqqani network. All high profile terrorist attacks since 2010 have emanated from NW.
Ground Operations Follow Air Operations
The Pakistan military announced the operation on June 15 which involved to airstrikes while giving time to hundreds of thousands of people to pack up their belongings and leave to safer areas. Pakistan Army launched a ground offensive in NW against militant strongholds near the Afghan border on June 30, 2014, after evacuating nearly half a million people from the tribal region, the army said. The ground offensive is the second phase of a long awaited operation against militants in NW District.
Pakistani army claims that since the start of operation “Zarb e Azb” on June 15, 376 terrorists have been killed while 19 have surrendered to the security forces. They also claim to have destroyed 61 “terrorist hideouts”. Even if the claims are genuine, what is also obvious is that with the evacuation of half a million civilians from NW, what is the guarantee that most of the terrorists have not faded away according to a plan in order to concentrate at a time and place of their own choosing. And if this were to happen Pakistan should expect much more chaos and mayhem in the hinterland. Senior Pakistani officials have warned that the operation, named “Zarbe-Azb” after a sword used by the Prophet Muhammad, would lead to retaliatory attacks by militants in Pakistan’s main cities, where they have entrenched networks and sleeper cells.
Miranshah and the surrounding villages, especially the settlement of Danday Darpakhel, have been known as the headquarters of the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant group that the US has placed on its official list of terrorist organisations. The Haqqani network’s activities have been focused on Afghanistan. As a result, it was long regarded as a threat primarily by Kabul and Washington, not Islamabad. Many North Waziristan residents said Haqqani network members, based in the area since the 1970s, had slipped away before the offensive. Pakistan Army is known to be soft on Haqqani network as they have been considered as strategic assets and have never been targeted by them.
Earlier Operations in South Waziristan in 2009
The government in Islamabad had earlier come under criticism for not quickly following its 2009 operation against militants in adjacent South Waziristan with an offensive in North Waziristan. Athar Abbas, a retired Pakistani general who served as the military’s spokesman from 2008 to 2012, said the army had been preparing to launch a North Waziristan operation in 2011, but the then Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, decided against it, because Pakistan would be seen as moving into North Waziristan “at the behest of the US,” which had, at the time, intensified its operations in Afghanistan. General Kayani was also worried about the impact of terrorist retaliation against Pakistan. Abbas described it as “a case of analysis and analysis leading to paralysis”.
Radicalisation of Pakistan Military
Pakistan is slowly but surely sliding into a culdesac. Brig (Retd) Arif Haroon Raja, a war veteran in his article “North Waziristan Require Thorough Preparations,” in September 2012 had written: “I have a hunch that after NW; another venue would be propped up for a military operation. Already reports are in circulation that Punjabi Taliban feeling neglected in NW have started shifting to Multan and it is speculated that Multan region will be the next battleground. We also must not forget that once the ISAF departs, bulk of the weight of terrorism will fall upon Pakistan. I therefore do not foresee war on terror coming to an end in the foreseeable future.”
Today the state of Pakistan is not in control of fairly large swathes of territory. The jihadi terror groups pay no heed to any instructions passed by the government. They are a law unto themselves and find support among the local population. The youth of Pakistan have been radicalised to a large extent. Quite a few are offering their services to various terror groups fighting in Syria, Sudan and Iraq. Pakistan military has also been radicalized. May 2011, attack against the Karachi Naval base which saw six Taliban militants hold off security
forces for more than 16 hours and kill a dozen naval personnel, had caused particular alarm. One naval officer said that the attackers knew the base “inside out” and were likely to have received intelligence on the US-supplied aircraft and the presence of US and Chinese technicians.
The US has long worried that Pakistan’s 5,00,000-strong army has become radicalised and is unable to shake off the allegiances with extremist militant groups that it forged over the last three decades in its efforts to destabilise Afghanistan and India. A trail of US diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks, reflects the reasons for the unease.
One former parliamentarian says the Pakistan Army’s traditions have become so entwined with religious dogma and obeisance over the last 30 years that they are almost indistinguishable from those of the militants. “Today it is not enough to die for one’s country. Rather a soldier has to achieve martyrdom for Islam,” says the parliamentarian.
It is generally felt that in Pakistan publicly expressing these fears is dangerous. Syed Saleem Shahzad, a journalist, got inadvertently involved in a controversy by writing that Taliban and Al Qaeda militants had taken a strategic decision to destabilise the army and had deeply infiltrated its ranks. He was murdered in May 2011.
It has been reported by James Lamont that in the days that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces, one of the most urgent tasks for General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan military, was to address restive garrisons in Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Kharian. There he was confronted by officers outraged not at the discovery of the Al Qaeda leader in the country but at the audacity of the US in trampling Pakistan’s sovereignty.
It is in light of the above facts that seem to have deterred Pakistan from launching operations against North Waziristan in 2011 despite US pressures. Therefore it remains to be seen as to what are the reactions within the Pakistan military of the operations launched in June 2014 against North Waziristan.
The North Waziristan-based Taliban have threatened to launch a counter-offensive in retaliation to the military operations which commenced on June 15, 2014. The Taliban shura after a meeting have decided to launch a war for self-defense against the government in North Waziristan. Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a spokesman for the North Waziristan Taliban commanded by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, told the media on phone from an undisclosed location that the shura had advised their fighters to retaliate against the use of force by the government in North Waziristan. In response to the military operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, the Taliban announced Zarb-e-Momin, which means the strike of the true Muslim. He said they had no affiliation with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Maulana Fazlullah, who has taken refuge in Afghanistan.
The Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led Taliban, who until now were considered pro-government, had signed a peace accord with the Pakistan Government in 2006 and renewed it in 2007. Both sides under the agreement had promised not to attack each other.
The future has to be considered in the larger context of the geopolitical situation prevailing in the Afghanistan – Pakistan region and the attitude adopted by all Taliban factions after the withdrawal of US and ISAF troops from Afghanistan. Would the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and other terror groups in Pakistan join hands to launch operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan or would they concentrate on Afghanistan alone in the first instance? If Pakistan were to be destabilised how would that impact India? These issues need deliberations by both Pakistan and India and perhaps this is an important enough reason to shed past inhibitions and strategize together!
A vintage photo of South Waziristan’s mountains