Back to the battlefield

Published June 25, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN the midst of a budget debate, the government also held a meeting on security and made some big decisions — decisions perhaps far weightier than taxing the salaried class, which comes as easy to all governments as claiming their success in fixing Pakistan’s economy.

But to return to the weighty matter of security, the government called an apex committee meeting on Saturday and announced a new ‘operation’ against terrorism. The prime minister approved a “reinvigorated and re-energised national counterterrorism [CT] campaign through the launching of Operation Azm-i-Istehkam, with the consensus of all stakeholders including the provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kas­hmir, symbolising the national resolve to eradica­­­te extremism and terrorism from the country”.

It seems extremism and terrorism are now being seen as twin problems. The press release mentioned a reinvigorated CT strategy, the use of kinetic force, effective legislation and socioeconomic measures. The National Action Plan was also brought in.

It is worth pointing out that this announcement comes a little over a year after a similar announcement. In April 2023, the PDM government called a National Security Committee meeting, after which it was reported that “The meeting approved launching of an all-out comprehensive operation with the [help] of the entire nation and the government”.

The environment in 2008 was very different when large-scale operations were launched.

One news story added that the government had formed a committee to prepare a report within weeks about the “limitations and implementation” of the operation. It seems this committee proved as effective as the many committees formed to suggest ‘austerity measures’, because little is known about the fate of the report. Perhaps one can venture to say it didn’t prove all that successful because the government has now announced another operation. And this time around, the resolve is stronger — the new operation has been given a name, unlike the un-christened one announced in 2023.

Or perhaps it should be taken more seriously because of the public request made by the Chinese for better security.

But even if the government resolve and seriousness is accepted as gospel truth, it is hard to quell questions. The problem with pesky souls is that, despite being told about the utmost importance of security, they grapple with doubts, which lead to questions, especially as the press release, while lengthy, appeared short on detail.

It is hard to tell if this new operation will focus on intelligence-based operations (as in the recent past) rather than full-scale operations, as we saw in the noughties. The government has not clarified this. While the press release speaks of a CT campaign, the government did not respond to the uproar created by the PTI in parliament by simply saying that there would not be full-scale military operations as in the past. Instead, the focus was on criticising the PTI for its lack of support.

This does indicate, circumstantially, that large-scale operations are part of the plan.

However, this raises more questions than it answers. The environment in 2008 was very different when large-scale operations were launched. Back then, the TTP was in control of territory and the operations were launched, along with mass displacement of people, to dislodge the militants and impose the ‘writ of the state’. So far, from the little that appears in the press, the TTP is not controlling territory in the same way.

Second, the last time around, it appeared the operations were partly based on assumptions that once the TTP fighters tried to escape the military operations by crossing the border, they would be confronted by Afghan and Nato forces. In fact, in those days, there was constant communication between the two sides and efforts at cooperation as well as complaints about the lack of assistance. However, this time around, the border and Afghanistan will make operations more difficult, as the regime in Kabul is already providing havens to the TTP.

Third, the large-scale operations earlier enjoyed widespread public support; the latter didn’t just come from the urban centres and the mainstream areas of the country but also political parties based in KP. This included the ANP and PPP which dominated the province, headed the government and were present in the legislatures.

However, this time around, this support will not be easy to ensure because the people are openly hostile to operations.

The mass-scale displacement of people due to the operations, the challenges of living in refugee camps, and then their return to homes and livelihoods destroyed by war and delayed compensations, has made the Pakhtun population wary. This has been brought home by the mass protests that were held in many areas when the TTP reappeared in 2022. The large gatherings in a number of areas, including Swat, were not simply against the TTP but also against military action; such is the public mood that all parties took a stand against them.

It is noteworthy that the PTM, which enjoys widespread support, is also critical of military operations; in fact, its emergence and street politics was aimed at raising awareness about the sufferings of the Pakhtun population due to militancy and the state’s actions to eradicate it.

This distrust of the state and its institutions will not make it easy to create public support for widespread use of state force, as in the past.

Last, but not least, there is also the issue of expense. The extensive military operations in the past took place at a time when aid from the US in the form of coalition support funds was still making its way to Pakistan. At present, with no such aid and the cash crunch the country is dealing with, any planning for military operations will also have to consider how they will be financed.

So far, there have been few answers to these concerns in the press release or the debate in parliament. Perhaps once the government is free from budget worries, some of the details will be thrashed out and made public, ensuring that we don’t need another such meeting and announcement a year on.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2024

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