Beyond Zarb-i-Azb

Published June 17, 2015
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE battle for North Waziristan may not be over yet, but Zarb-i-Azb has proved the sceptics wrong. It has blown away the myth about the invincibility of territory and the graveyard of the forces.

Few political leaders were willing to publicly extend support to the offensive. While some of them were openly Taliban apologists, others were merely driven by fear and political expediency. Many had even warned of the operation further inflaming violence and dividing the country.

One year down the line, the security forces have achieved many of their objectives, thanks to the immense sacrifices of our soldiers. The higher number of casualties of the security personnel indicates the intensity of resistance in this most difficult battlefield. Surely, this battle in the tribal areas is the most critical in which our security forces have ever been engaged.

It is not the first time a military operation is being conducted in the agency that has been described as a ‘witches brew’ — ridden with all kinds of local and international terrorist groups making it their safe haven. The prolonged indecisiveness of our national leadership and a sense of denial had made the battle to reclaim the territory even more difficult.

Many of the areas are now believed to have been cleared of insurgents. Yet it is still a long way to go before the territory can be fully secured. The terrorist network that threatened national as well as regional security has surely been disrupted but not fully destroyed. There are still strong pockets of resistance and the militants are holding on to some of their bases and many are taking refuge along and across the Afghan border.

Perhaps the most difficult battle is yet to come in Shawal valley, which boasts some of the most forbidding terrain. The densely forested and high-altitude region makes it extremely difficult to track down militants taking sanctuary in the natural hideouts dotting the mountainous region. The valley runs through both South and North Waziristan making it much easier for insurgents moving around both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.

While the air force jets have been constantly bombing the suspected militant hideouts in the valley, it is not clear, however, whether the troops are ready to launch the ground offensive soon during the window before the advent of winter. One serious concern is the expected troop casualties. It will certainly be a very critical, if not the most critical, phase of the operation.

A flaw in our approach towards terrorism is that we have focused entirely on military action.

What is most significant, however, is that the military offensive in North Waziristan has brought down the level of militant violence in the country indicating a direct link between the various terrorist groups to the agency. Though sectarian and religious violence has continued unabated, the capacity of the militant groups to launch major terrorist attacks has certainly been curtailed. One major reason is said to be the intelligence-based crackdown by the security and intelligence agencies in the mainland.

The North Waziristan operation is, however, only one dimension of the protracted battle against militancy and extremism in the country. Zarb-i-Azb may have received wider public support than expected, but there is still no coherent strategy to deal with the problems of terrorism and militancy in the long run. The danger is that the gains that have been made by the military in North Waziristan and in other tribal agencies could be wasted. We need to learn lessons from past operations. Militants returned to almost all the areas after the claims of having cleared them out, not once but many times.

A major flaw in our approach is that we have placed the entire focus on military action. There has hardly been any thinking on improving the lot of the tribal people. At the moment there is hardly any proper system of administration even in those agencies which have been cleared of insurgents.

Unfortunately, the IDPs have been completely forgotten by the government. That has fuelled discontent and widened their alienation. It has been more than five years since the operation in South Waziristan but a large number of the displaced population has still not been able to return home.

A major challenge for the civil and military leadership will be the rehabilitation of approximately 1.2 million IDPs. It is not enough to drive out the Taliban; it is also important to bring the agencies into the mainstream and give them economic and political rights just as any other area of the country.

True, the process could be incremental, but there is a need to begin from somewhere. The fighting has devastated the region making it hard for people to start a new life. The intense bombing has reduced the agency headquarters Miramshah and Mir Ali into rubble and it will take years to rebuild them and restore economic life there.

Over the longer term, military action alone does not offer a solution to the complex problems of the tribal areas. Pakistan needs to take urgent measures to end alienation and backwardness of the tribal population and the ongoing military operation provides an opportunity to push for the long-delayed integration of the region into Pakistan and end its semi-autonomous status. An alienated population gives space to insurgents.

The oppressive, outdated administrative system must be scrapped, and the people of the region must be accorded full protection of the nation’s legal system. Massive investments in human and physical infrastructure are needed. A modern road network, for example, would help end the tribal areas’ economic isolation and link them with the rest of Pakistan, and Afghanistan too. In other words, in this crucial, strife-torn region, more war is not the answer.

There is an urgent need for serious thinking on these issues right now as we laud the gains made by the security forces in the North Waziristan operation. We must not let the blood of our soldiers be wasted.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2015

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