BACKGROUND: Since the British colonial era, one-third of the border area between today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan has been self-governed with no regular military subordinate to a state. Today, the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are going through an unusual military takeover, with North Waziristan being the last in line. Like the other districts or agencies, North Waziristan is inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns. Bound by an identical Muslim school of thought (Deobandi), the tribes are divided by the border composed of the Durand Line.
After the Soviet invasion, Pakistan’s tribal areas were used as a launching pad for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet military. Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s financial backing, countless religious seminaries mushroomed across the 27,500 square-kilometer stretch, intended to brainwash the Afghan youth to become foot soldiers in the holy war (jihad) against the Soviet forces. In the early 1980s, various U.S. Congressmen including Charlie Wilson proudly visited the region, shaking hands with locals in front of cameras.
As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, local warlords fought for greater territorial control. Besides the western intelligence agencies, hardline but affluent Arabs started courting the Afghan groups. Taking advantage of the adverse Afghan reaction to the infighting, Benazir Bhutto’s government in Islamabad helped shape a ragtag militia commonly named Taliban – comprising mostly of Sunni Muslims who were educated in religious schools near the refugee camps in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The then interior minister – late Lt General Naseerullah Babar – hoped to end the chaos in Afghanistan by creating a Pakistan-friendly Afghan militia. The Taliban had established control over 95 percent of the country by 1998, two years after its creation. Besides Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also recognized the Taliban government in Kabul.
Washington had become wary of Afghanistan-based foreign militants after the deadly embassy bombings in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Its fruitless cruise missile attacks on eastern and southern Afghanistan led the foreign militants – al-Qaeda – to go underground before launching a set of deadly revenge attacks. However, until 2003 there was no on-ground change in the tribal regions. The foreign militants, who had married local women or brought their own families there, felt at home and roamed freely. As the Pakistani military rulers and their intelligence agencies came under foreign pressure to curb al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s clandestine activities, the extremists’ strategy changed immensely. With North Waziristan as its headquarters, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) started operating from all the seven tribal agencies, Peshawar and Quetta, executing deadly attacks in Pakistan.
Frustrated by Pakistan’s reluctance to launch an all-out operation in Waziristan, the U.S. began a campaign to target the al-Qaeda leadership through its fleet of Predator drones. Despite being on board, Islamabad publically criticized the U.S. for violating its sovereignty. Nonetheless, Washington was unconvinced that drone attacks could replace a full-scale ground operation.
IMPLICATIONS: The Obama administration has long been pressuring Pakistan’s political and military leadership to clear the area of militant safe havens, particularly the Haqqani group. Finally, Pakistan’s new army chief General Raheel Sharif took the long-awaited decision. So far, the operation has continued at a steady pace to reclaim and clear Pakistani territory of non-state armed groups.
The first and foremost consequence has been massive displacement of the local population. So far almost a million IDPs are camped mainly in the nearby Bannu district. A decade of conflict has left many dead and damaged their agriculture and trade. The population lived in a state of fear due to presence of heavily armed terrorist groups and continuous aerial assaults from U.S. drones as well as Pakistani fighter jets, resulting in a heavy civilian toll. However, the Zarb-e-Azb operation has routed the people from their houses, with a cold winter already upon them in the camps. So far, there has been no serious outrage against the operation as the IDPs hope to resume their normal lives upon return to Waziristan with no armed militia taking them hostage, physically or psychologically. The local support for the Pakistani military will be lost if the militias return to their bases after the operation is completed.
Secondly, the operation is being criticized for the military’s failure to arrest or kill top-notch Taliban leaders including Mulla Fazlullah and the Haqqanis. Due to a lack of intelligence or action, the elusive militants have made their way to eastern and southern Afghanistan, particularly the Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Some analysts criticize Pakistan for deliberately clearing its territory by letting the militant leaders relocate to volatile Afghanistan. Islamabad blames Kabul for not doing enough on its side to arrest the fleeing terrorists and failing to secure the border to curb militant attacks on the Pakistani military.
Thirdly, it is too early to declare victory as tough strategic battles are yet to take place. Though the army claims to have cleared 80 percent of North Waziristan, regions like Shawal with peaks reaching 20,000 feet and narrow valleys will pose a formidable challenge during the winter season. Like the U.S. drone strikes in tribal areas, Pakistan’s Air Force will not suffice in eliminating the terrorists regardless of its accuracy. Aware of the perplexing situation, the generals in Rawalpindi’s military headquarters are readying up the troops. General Sharif has been visiting the troops every now and then. To many, it seems that the army chief is directly commanding the military assault. The officers’ tactical skills and the soldiers’ morale and bravery will be tested in this unseen treacherous territory sooner rather than later.
The Pakistani military has also launched a parallel campaign in Khyber Agency, another district of the tribal areas. The “Khyber One” operation – aiming to purge the area of Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) militants present in Bara Tehsil and Tirah Valley – is conducted by infantry, artillery, tanks and fighter jets. Pakistan has momentum on its side but the militants have time on theirs. The longer the military campaigns, the greater the chances that the militants gain the upper hand.
CONCLUSIONS: Pakistan still has two more vital stages to pass before claiming victory. The current phase is characterized as “clear” while the equally challenging ones remaining are “hold” and “build or rebuild.” For the second phase, the civilian government and the military agree to set up a cantonment and an airbase in North Waziristan. There are discussions of other smaller cantonments in some of the seven tribal regions. However, for the “build” phase, the civilian government needs to generate a political consensus to grant equal rights to the citizens of FATA while abolishing the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations. Islamabad also needs to transform the administrative set-up of the FATA from their semi-autonomous status to a fully controlled province. Though there is in principle little disagreement amongst the political parties, the devil lies in the details. To uproot the seeds of extremism and militancy, Pakistan must ensure the provision of economic stimuli alongside an executive framework to the people of the tribal areas. Granting the tribal region provincial status, according to Pakistan’s current constitution, will give it economic autonomy in the form of control over resources and taxes. In this phase, the military will have to take a backseat and let the tribal elders and the parliament sort out the matters.
Things are looking optimistic for now as the Afghan president, chief executive and other cabinet members held cordial negotiations with the Pakistani army chief. General Sharif will be holding talks with the U.S. officials from November 16. With signs of revival of lost trust, both sides have much to deliberate upon during their first high-level engagement after the U.S. and Afghanistan signed the Bilateral Security Agreement allowing the former to establish a permanent presence in the region.
(Image Attribution: Pakistan Army)