THE long-promised military operation in North Waziristan seems to be in the offing now. Although the exact time frame is yet to be decided, preparations are already under way for a multi-phased military campaign against militant sanctuaries.
Indeed, there are very powerful arguments in support of military action in a region often described as the most dangerous place on earth. But there are also questions about the rationale of engaging an already over-stretched army in yet another seemingly unending bloody conflict in extremely treacherous terrain.
Most importantly, can a politically fractured country with an economy in deep trouble bear the fallout of protracted fighting? Not only would the military operation lead to the displacement of almost the entire population of the area, it could also expose the rest of the country to retaliatory terrorist attacks.
This would not be the first time the Pakistan Army will be carrying out an operation in North Waziristan. The earlier expedition, launched in 2004, ended in a peace deal with the tribal militants after two years of fierce fighting. The truce allowed the militants not only to regroup, but also to strengthen their positions. It will now be much more difficult to dislodge them.
North Waziristan has been in the eye of the storm as the lawless territory has become home to a lethal brew of Al Qaeda, Pakistani militants and Afghan Taliban, presenting serious security challenges not just to Pakistan but also the Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Perched along the Afghan border, the inhospitable mountainous territory is also the base for the Haqqani network, perhaps the most powerful Afghan insurgent group fighting the US-led forces. Pakistan’s reluctance to crack down on the group has been a major source of tension between Washington and Islamabad. The issue has become more contentious after a series of spectacular attacks in Kabul and in eastern Afghanistan targeting American troops and installations which have been blamed on the network.
Meanwhile, the territory has become a safe haven and a training centre for all kinds of Pakistani militant groups, some with close associations with Al Qaeda. Fleeing the military operation in South Waziristan, the Pakistani Taliban led by Hakimullah Mehsud have also turned the area into their new base for launching terrorist attacks in other parts of the country. The source of almost all the recent militant attacks in Pakistan can be traced to North Waziristan. The daring raid by the Taliban on Bannu jail which freed a hard-core militant condemned to his death cell as well as scores of other prisoners highlighted the grave security challenges posed by the area.
Pakistani security officials admit that the territory has become a place of rest and recreation for Al Qaeda operatives and insurgents from across the border. They also concede that it is not possible to root out militant violence in the country without destroying terrorist dens located in North Waziristan.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful cleric who is closely associated with Al Qaeda, leads one of the most influential local militant groups. The most enigmatic of the militant commanders, he has strengthened his position by making alliances in the area. Gul Bahadur signed a series of peace deals with the Pakistani government, which agreed to end military operations against him in exchange for his expulsion of foreign fighters from the territory he controlled. But he has never delivered on those promises, using those accords instead to create an umbrella of protection for Al Qaeda.
His fighters often battle with the government forces just to maintain their sphere of influence. They have also been involved in cross-border attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan. Gul Bahadur has recently hit newspaper headlines for orchestrating a campaign against polio vaccination in the tribal areas.
The battle for control over the lawless region has assumed much greater gravity with the approach of the endgame in Afghanistan. But there are many problems that have to be addressed before an operation can be launched.
Despite some improvement in relations between Washington and Islamabad after the reopening of the Nato supply routes, many key issues have remained unresolved. Top among them are the CIA drone attacks which Pakistani military officials feel make it more difficult for them to mobilise public support for the operation. North Waziristan is most affected by the recent surge in the covert US drone war, fuelling widespread indignation. There is no indication, however, that the US will cede to Pakistan’s demand for the complete halt to the strikes.
Then there is also the contentious issue of cross-border sanctuaries of the Pakistani Taliban in the Afghanistan province of Kunar which is being used to launch attacks on Pakistani security forces in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. Pakistan has called on the coalition forces many times to remove those safe havens, which could allow Pakistan to move some of its troops from Bajaur and Dir to North Waziristan.
Another important matter is related to the deployment of coalition forces on the Afghanistan side to prevent insurgents fleeing the operation from finding sanctuary across the border. But with the drawing down of the US forces, there seems to be little possibility of Nato troops being shifted from southern Afghanistan. There is huge apprehension that in the absence of an anvil on the other side, the operation will not be effective.
More importantly, though, there is a need for building political consensus within the country for such a critical military campaign. Without public support and agreement among the major political forces in the country, the 2009 operations in Swat and South Waziristan would not have been possible.
There is then the big question: is the same sort of unanimity possible in the current atmosphere of political chaos in Pakistan and the prevailing state of uncertainty?