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2014: The iron hand

January 03, 2015

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 As the military operaton went about its business of decimating the will of the terrorists, the physical infrastructure became an early casualty in areas like Miramshah. — AFP
As the military operaton went about its business of decimating the will of the terrorists, the physical infrastructure became an early casualty in areas like Miramshah. — AFP

It has been more than six months now since the army launched operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan, also described as terrorism’s centre of gravity. But the fight to regain control of the tribal region is far from over as the winter sets in. The militants are scattered in small bands, engaging the troops in hit-and-run encounters as Air Force jets continue to bomb suspected militant hideouts.

Intense air bombing and heavy artillery fires have reduced Miramshah, the Agency’s headquarters, and Mir Ali, another major town, to mere rubble. Although the towns and the surrounding villages are now under full control of the Army, small bands of militants are still lurking around in the hills. With almost the entire population having been evacuated, the region gives a deserted look; only the soldiers are seen guarding their posts on the hilltops.

Although administration appeared optimistic about the tribesmen returning to their homes soon in the districts cleared of the militants, but it will take years for complete rehabilitation of the region that has been devastated by the fighting. It is certainly going to be much longer for the military to take complete control of the region. It is indeed an extremely difficult battle the Pakistani security forces have been fighting in the strategically critical territory.

While immensely critical, the latest campaign is much more complex than any other undertaken by the security forces so far in its decade-long war in this treacherous mountainous territory. Despite the fact that the military is now much more experienced in fighting insurgency and battle-hardened, this asymmetric war was never easy. One thing is certain – it is going to be a long haul.

This is not the first time the Pakistan Army is 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 to not only regroup, but also strengthen their positions.

The battle for control over this lawless region has assumed much greater gravity with the approach of the endgame in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-linked groups present a worrying, long-term security threat for not just Pakistan, but for the entire region.

The second largest of the seven tribal agencies North Waziristan had become a haven for a lethal mix of foreign and local militants presenting an existential threat to the country. Many of the terrorist attacks in other countries also have roots in the region The region had also been the home of Haqqani network, one of the most powerful and fierce faction of the Afghan Taliban movement.

The role of the Haqqani Network in turning North Waziristan into a centre of international militancy was far greater than was realised. Having been protected for long by the security agencies, the network has effectively been the main patron of almost all militant groups, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating from the agency.

The footprints of the Haqqanis are visible all over Miramshah. Though most of its fighters are said to have left the area, the troops have clear orders not to spare anyone coming in the way.

Apart from the Uzbeks, there were other foreign militant groups such as networks of isolated Chechens, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Chinese Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Reportedly, the majority of Arab militants have either been killed by US drone strikes or have left the region. Thousands of Punjabi militants also moved to North Waziristan over the years, and established training camps in the restive border region.One of the largest groups operating from the agency consisted of the militants belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has been blamed for carrying out terrorist attacks in China’s Xinjiang province.

What happened to those thousands of local and foreign jihadi fighters?

Many of them have been killed, while others are still holding on in the mountains. Some of them are believed to have moved to Shawal valley that boasts one of most treacherous terrains. The thick forests and natural hideouts in the several caves that dot the mountains make tracking down the insurgents near impossible.

The Zarb-i-Azb operation is unique in many ways. The role of intelligence has contributed hugely to the targeting with precision of militant sanctuaries. The intelligence-based crackdown on the terrorist network across the country before the start of the Army operation in the agency has also helped contain the blowback in other parts of the country.

Surely a major objective of the offensive is to secure the control of the lawless territory. But military action alone does not offer a long-term solution to an extremely complex problem. The government needs to take urgent measures to end the alienation and backwardness of the tribal region as well. The ongoing military operation provides a great opportunity to push for the long-delayed integration of the region with the rest of the country in order to end its ambiguous semi-autonomous status.

The military operation in North Waziristan is only one dimension of the wider battle against militancy and violent extremism in the country. The militant groups have strong networks across the country. For a long-term solution, the government needs to develop a coherent and overarching counterterrorism strategy in order to strengthen the capacity of the civilian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.There is also need for closer coordination among the various intelligence agencies and strict enforcement of rule of law.

One must learn from past military operations in other tribal regions. A major flaw in the approach was that after clearing the areas, no effort was made to establish a proper administrative system.

As a result, the state’s control over those areas remained tentative. The presence of the military does not provide permanent solutions. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a formal civilian system along with the military operation. Without that, the objectives of the operation will never be fully achieved.