The Fight in North Waziristan

There’s a war going on between Islamist militants and a key US ally with support from American drones, but it isn’t occurring in Syria. This conflict comes on the heels of long-term Western military operations and nation-building that have yielded questionable results despite years of political, military, and economic support, but it isn’t in Iraq. The militants deploy ruthless tactics: intimidating civilians, attacking young girls, and governing in accordance with a radically conservative strain of Islam, but they are not affiliated with the Islamic State (at least not yet). This is Pakistan’s long-delayed military operation against militants operating in its North Waziristan Tribal Agency, code-named Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and while it would appear Pakistan’s military leaders are finally unified in their desire to end the era of Islamic militancy it has so often attempted to direct to its favor, goals and allegiances are complex and ever shifting. American policy makers always seem to be a step behind.

North Waziristan is one of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a geographically isolated and economically depressed portion of northwestern Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan’s other provinces, the FATA are governed by Pakistan’s federal government under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901, which the Pakistanis inherited from the British following independence in 1947. In essence, the FCR are a set of laws which place virtually all judicial and executive authority in the hands of a senior bureaucrat, and allow for the demolition of villages, the forced removal of individuals and families, the limiting of judicial appeals and due process, and, until 2011, the prohibition of political parties. The FATA has also been used, since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as a key region for the training of Mujahideen forces, which have since evolved into the complex network of militant outfits we have today.

While not the first military operation conducted by Pakistan in the FATA, the current drive to combat militants in North Waziristan is significant for several reasons. First, after negotiations with the fractious insurgent umbrella group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP), culminated in the execution of 23 Pakistani soldiers and a brazen attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, rhetoric within the Pakistani media and from government and military sources shifted drastically from the accommodation of the peace process to a seemingly newfound determination to root out “all terrorists and their sanctuaries” in North Waziristan and beyond according to Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif.

This would, according to statements by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, include outfits like the Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whom Pakistani military intelligence have long been accused of using as proxy forces to pursue their strategic goals in Afghanistan, principally to limit Indian influence. Should this prove true, it would be a major development in ending state support for militancy in the FATA and Afghanistan, and could be a significant step toward lasting regional stability. Thus far, however, there are reasons for a dose of realism.

All Is Not As It Seems

Importantly, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has received next to no media attention in the West, in large part because journalists are barred from reporting from within the area. The military’s refusal to grant journalists access to areas in which they are operating is one serious problem that makes the realities of the operation extremely difficult to verify. The military’s information wing has been the only direct source of information regarding the ongoing operations, and it has issued regular reports that hundreds of militants have been killed by air strikes and ground offensives with virtually no mention of civilian casualties. These statements conflict with reports from villagers fleeing conflict zones, who insist that many of those killed were non-combatants. Previous military operations in the FATA resulted in high rates of civilian deaths and displacement, which were followed by pledges from military leaders to “reduce civilian casualties, since we are operating inside our own territory against our own people.” These tactical shifts may in fact be reducing civilian deaths, but without reliable data, it is simply impossible to tell. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of information on civilian casualties prevents analysts and citizens from questioning whether supposed tactical gains are worth the loss of life and continued alienation of the FATA from the rest of Pakistan.

There are further troubling signs that Pakistan’s military is not following through on its pledge to eliminate all militant groups operating out of North Waziristan and the other tribal agencies. Reports from various sources indicate that most high-level militants, including leaders of the Haqqani Network, moved out of North Waziristan and into neighboring tribal areas, or over the border to Afghanistan ahead of the military offensive. Most concerning are claims that border guards left certain crossings near Afghanistan’s Khost Province unmanned to allow militants to cross freely. This would, of course, be very much in line with Pakistan’s strategy of channeling militancy toward its own goals of weakening an Afghan government it has long feared of being much too close to arch-rival India as NATO continues to scale down its operations.

Finally, the splintering of the always-fractious TTP into groups that are either in direct conflict with the government, led primarily by Maulana Fazlullah (the Swat-based militant responsible for the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai), and those who have been notably silent on the current military operations, including Khan Said Sajna, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and the Mullah Nazir Group, is of particular concern. The latter groups have largely steered clear of the current wave of attacks, having come to a reported understanding with the Government of Pakistan to focus their attention on Afghanistan. This, once again, would suggest that analysts who cited a shift in the security doctrine of Pakistan’s military leaders against the use of militant proxies may have spoken too soon, and that the trend of separating the “good” from the “bad” Taliban continues.

The Way Forward

Indeed, most indications point to the further use of Pakistan’s Mujahideen outfits by its military intelligence wing, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as short-term pragmatism and fears of “strategic encirclement” by India continue to outweigh concerns of the long-term social, political, and economic damage Islamic militancy will inflict on the region. Given the historical and political complexities that have driven Pakistan’s military leaders to view at least some militant outfits as tools of the State, revising this flawed strategy and reducing militancy will require long-term domestic political reforms, as well as a reevaluation of Pakistan’s relationship with its largest neighbor, India.

In the medium to long term, Pakistan must continue to integrate the FATA into the country’s larger political system and phase out governance under the FCR. As studies have indicated, much of the resentment felt in the region towards the Government of Pakistan is a result of the remarkably ineffective, corrupt, and weak governance provided to the tribal agencies. The extension of political parties into the FATA by the Zardari administration was an important first step, but progress must continue and ought to be based on a long-term dialogue between representative institutions within the tribal agencies and Parliament.

Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using militants is primarily fueled by the military’s outlook toward India as the country’s primary threat, although civilian governments have certainly played a role as well. Close relations between Indian and Afghan governments over the past decades have sowed fears of encirclement, and led the Pakistanis to attempt to use militants over whom they believe they can exercise some authority to promote their goals in Afghanistan. Thus, a change in strategic outlook is only likely to come with a shift in how Pakistan views its relationship with India. India’s continued rise, highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States, has the potential to be a boon for Pakistan’s struggling economy if political and trade relations can be improved, particularly if proposed gas and oil pipelines become a reality. Unfortunately, renewed optimism regarding improved relations between the two countries following the recent elections of Modi and Nawaz Sharif, respectively, have yet to materialize. Real progress may prove elusive as long as Pakistan’s military, which has built itself on defending the country from its massive former brother, retains its virtual stranglehold over foreign relations.

Pakistan’s latest war is yet another chapter in a long story of shifting alliances and grand strategies where not everything is quite as it appears. The question is, are we paying attention?

Photo by Faizannehal/ CC BY-SA 4.0

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