News from North Waziristan, when there is any, tends to underscore the problem with much of the information from the region — there is too little of it; it is difficult to independently verify; and both government and the military spokesperson tend to offer the barest of details.
On Friday, the ISPR issued the following statement: “In precise aerial strikes 15 terrorists including some foreigners were killed last night in area ahead of Datta Khel in North Waziristan Agency.” Who were these foreigners? How was the military able to identify the victims so quickly? What, overall, is the status of Operation Zarb-i-Azb?
Yesterday, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid claimed that the operation will continue till the elimination of the last terrorist in the region. How many terrorists are there left then? Time and again, all that officials pronouncements and claims do is raise more questions than provide real answers.
To be sure, there is some understanding that Zarb-i-Azb has already impacted the ability of militants to act with impunity, caused many of them to scatter and, with the likely Shawal phase of the operation, will go a long way to recover what had effectively become an agency where the state had ceded control to the militants. But territorial control — clearing and holding in counter-insurgency parlance used by the military — is only the first step. What comes next?
In the other agencies, military operations have been successful in reclaiming territory from militants, but then three things have subsequently become apparent. One, the militants resurfaced in other parts of Fata. Two, without a long-term presence of the military in the areas cleared of militants, there is no hope of normal life resuming for the resettled populations. Three, the menace of IEDs and other indirect attacks spikes.
In the case of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, and following on from the separate Operation Khyber-II, there is the additional question mark of what happens if all of Fata is cleared when the border with Afghanistan remains incredibly porous. Better border management is a priority of the military, but can border management really become effective without a fundamental re-alignment with the Afghan state?
So, in addition to the absence of anything but the scantest of operational details from North Waziristan, there remains the bigger issue of how Operation Zarb-i-Azb fits into the overall counter-insurgency and counterterrorism policy of the state.
A militarised strategy without significant and capable civilian support is unlikely to do more than cause the arc of violence to be reduced over the short and medium terms. Neither the military nor the government appears to be doing much thinking about the structural and governance changes needed in Fata.
The tribal areas should not be allowed to return to their pre-insurgency status, a land disconnected from much of the rest of Pakistan and maintained as a buffer from Afghanistan.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2015