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Zarb-i-Azb — Bad news for 'Good' Taliban?

Updated June 19, 2014

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The operation puts a question mark over the future of several militant groups — File photo
The operation puts a question mark over the future of several militant groups — File photo

The North Waziristan military offensive is on.

As we all hope, it will change the militant landscape of the country besides having a far-reaching impact on the political and strategic dynamics of conflict in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

So far, militants in North Waziristan were the ones least challenged by the state’s counter-terrorism efforts. The tribal agency is (or was) considered the last resort of militants, which is why a comprehensive military campaign was required to establish the writ of the government.

But when news of the offensive first broke, one thing many Pakistanis found themselves submerged in was questions:

  • How long, how large will this operation be?

  • What happens to the 'good Taliban', to those who reportedly wanted peace?

  • Will a successful operation mean an end to terrorism?

Below, I've sketched a picture of the security scenario which the ongoing operation might create. It may answer the questions above to some extent.


Comprehensive and all-out


It is an inbuilt compulsion in the North Waziristan operation that Pakistan should go after the militants comprehensively and objectively. It will make Pakistan’s position difficult both on international and domestic fronts if militants continue using the tribal territories for hiding and launching operations both in Afghanistan and Pakistan or elsewhere.

The airstrikes going on in North Waziristan are mainly targeting foreign militants but boots will be on the ground soon in the second phase of the operation.


Good and Bad now hard to distinguish


The operation will eventually lead to termination of all the peace treaties made by the government with some of the militant groups in the past and distinction between the good and bad Taliban will become blurred.

Most importantly, it will become harder for Haqqani militants to stay in the tribal agency as their argument of having sought shelter in uncontrolled territories will no longer be valid.

Even during the operation, distinguishing between the good and bad militants would be difficult.

Just a day before the launch of the military operation, the government was trying to resolve some issues with a so-called good Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who heads local Taliban’s council, Shura Mujahideen.

He had signed a peace agreement with the government in 2006.

Bahadur was not happy about military’s surgical strikes, before the launch of operation, and warned the government of revoking the peace agreement. A tribal jirga mediated and tried to convince Gul Bahadur to clear the region of foreign militants.


Also read: 'Analysis: Why Bahadur is so vexed'


Perhaps Gul Bahadur was among the few who were certain that the military was going to launch an operation in North Waziristan. He had asked the residents to leave North Waziristan before June 20. His announcement, which asked people to move towards the Afghan border instead of going to relief camps in Bannu, expressed his anger over pre-operation military strikes, which he declared a violation of the peace treaty.

Though considered a “good Taliban” commander, Bahadur is known to have provided sanctuaries to foreign militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Al Qaeda. His friendly attitude towards anti-Pakistan militant groups and special affiliation with the ETIM was frustrating for the security establishment.


Sajna's future hangs in the balance


Apart from Gul Bahadaur, the future of Said Khan Sajna has also become uncertain.

Sajna was recently trying to emerge as a new good Taliban commander. He was planning to organize a new Taliban alliance to replace Mullah Nazir group, which is currently headed by Bahawal Khan. In 2007, Mullah Nazir successfully threw out Uzbeks from South Waziristan; Uzbeks militants again started pouring in after Nazir’s death in a drone strike in January 2013.

Though Sajna is trying his best to be bracketed with the good ones, his group’s network in Karachi has become a matter of trouble for him. His faction is involved in criminal and terrorist activities in Karachi.

The Gul Bahadur episode reflected that the government considers it important to make the anti-state militant groups including the TTP weak enough before 2015 so that the Afghan Taliban would not be able to use them as a bargaining lever and should continue to look towards Pakistan for political support.


Lots to decide for the Army


Eventually it is the military leadership that will have to decide the fate of the militant groups based in North Waziristan during the recently launched offensive.

On the face of it, it appears as if the security establishment has decided to eliminate or push the militant infrastructure towards the other side of the Pak-Afghan border.


Also see: 'Operation Zarb-i-Azb: Interactive map'


Now, when the operation has been launched, past peace deals with the militants have no legal and moral grounds. At the same time, allowing Haqqanis to live in and operate from Pakistan’s tribal belt will not be strategically suitable as it will raise questions about the ability of Pakistani troops to hold its own areas after clearing them of the militants.


TTP elimination not guaranteed


The military operation in itself is not a difficult task. Pakistan army has capabilities to reclaim and hold the area in a minimum time-frame.

The post-operation situation seems hazy and subject to different scenarios. For example, a full-scale operation in North Waziristan cannot guarantee the TTP’s elimination.

There are two reasons for that:

First, the TTP and its local and international affiliates have expanded their networks in other parts of the country, and the number of terrorist sleeper cells is increasing.

Secondly, the North Waziristan militants can relocate to Afghanistan like Fazlullah did after Swat operation. Some media reports suggest that the foreign and local militants from North Waziristan had already started fleeing to neighbouring Khost province of Afghanistan, even before the launch of the operation.

It is not yet certain if the North Waziristan operation entails a strategic shift in the government's approach. Questions abound plenty, and we'll need more time for more answers.