Ongoing IBOs to be intensified under ‘Vision Azm-i-Istehkam’ rather than new military op: PM Shehbaz

Published June 25, 2024
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairs Federal Cabinet meeting in Islamabad on June 25.—Photo courtesy: PID
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairs Federal Cabinet meeting in Islamabad on June 25.—Photo courtesy: PID

Following full-throated criticism from opposition parties, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Tuesday clarified that the proposed counterterrorism campaign originally titled Operation Azm-i-Istehkam but rebranded as Vision Azm-i-Istehkam would entail intensifying ongoing intelligence-based operations (IBOs) rather than a “new and organised” military offensive.

The clarification comes after the PM’s Office (PMO) last night stated that the campaign would not be a kinetic large-scale military operation, nor would it entail the mass displacement of the local population.

“The prime minister took the cabinet members into confidence regarding the misunderstandings and speculations regarding ‘Vision Azm-i-Istehkam’,” PTV News quoted the PMO as saying during a meeting of the federal cabinet.

The statement quoted PM Shehbaz: “Azm-i-Istehkam is an overall national vision of a multifaceted cooperation of various security agencies and the entire state system.

“For this purpose, already ongoing IBOs will be intensified rather than [launching] a new and organised armed operation,” he added.

“A large-scaled armed operation that would require displacement — the initiation of such an operation under Vision Azm-i-Istehkam is merely a misunderstanding,” the premier was quoted as saying.

The aim of the campaign was to “decisively root out the remnants of terrorists, crime and terrorism nexus, and violent extremism from the country”, the prime minister emphasised.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif assured opposition parties that their reservations regarding the newly announced counterterrorism campaign would be addressed.

On Saturday, the government had announced plans for a reinvigorated and re-energised national counterterrorism campaign, which entailed augmenting the kinetic efforts of the armed forces with support from all law enforcement agencies, as well as effective legislation to address legal voids that hinder effective prosecution of terrorism-related cases.

The announcement had come after a meeting of the Central Apex Committee of National Action Plan (NAP), which was chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and attended by key federal ministers, provincial chief ministers, army and airforce chiefs, and top bureaucrats.

However, opposition parties — including the PTI, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam—Fazl (JUI-F) and the Awami National Party (ANP) — had opposed the plan, both inside parliament and outside, demanding that the Parliament be consulted on the matter first.

Following the PTI’s protests during Sunday’s National Assembly session, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ali Amin Gandapur on Monday even denied that any such thing was discussed with him during the apex committee meeting last week.

Meanwhile, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, alluding to the plan to conduct the operation, had said the apex committee’s decision would make the country “weak”. Similar concerns were expressed by the ANP, which said that they would not support the move unless their reservations were addressed.

In an apparent response to these misgivings, the PM’s Office (PMO) clarified late on Monday night that the campaign would not be a kinetic large-scale military operation, nor would it entail the mass displacement of the local population.

The PMO pointed out that “previous kinetic operations were conducted to physically dislodge terrorists from their known locations which [became] no-go areas and compromised the writ of the state. These operations required mass displacement of the local population and systematic clearance of affected areas”.

“As there are no such areas in the country any more and terrorists’ ability to carry out large-scale organised operations inside Pakistan had been “decisively degraded by earlier kinetic operations… no large-scale military operation is being contemplated where displacement of population will be required,” the statement said.

Opposition concerns to be addressed: Asif

 Defence Minister Khawaja Asif addresses a press conference in Lahore on June 25. — DawnNewsTV
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif addresses a press conference in Lahore on June 25. — DawnNewsTV

Addressing a press conference in Lahore today, Defence Minister Asif stated, “We will try to create consensus this time as well. We will definitely address the reservations expressed by the JUI-F, ANP and PTI.

“There are no political aims of this operation. We only want to challenge and end the rising wave of terrorism ongoing since the past few months,” he asserted.

The minister urged all government components, the judiciary, security forces, the Parliament and the media to support the operation. “This is a national crisis, addressing which is not just the army’s responsibility but all institutions’.”

Asif added that CM Gandapur had not objected to the plan but instead had “said in muted words that they will support it”.

He said that all parties, including those in the opposition as well as allies in the coalition government, would be given time to debate on the matter.

The minister also clarified that there would be no mass displacement as in previous large-scale operations and that the proposed campaign would involve intelligence-based operations.

Recalling the formation of the NAP after the 2014 Army Public School attack, the defence minister highlighted there was a “fundamental difference” between the situation back then and now.

Asif said there was a “sort of takeover” of the tribal areas of Fata at the time and they had become “no-go areas for day and night”. “Today, there is no such situation,” he added.

Noting that a few regions, such as Dera Ismail Khan and Balochistan at times witnessed activities of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), respectively, Asif asserted: “There is no such thing that Godforbid, the terrorists’ writ has been established on any territory.”

Terming the planned campaign a “continuation of the resolve made after 2016”, the minister said “certain quarters” were expressing concerns, adding that they were “incorrect”.

He stressed that the operation would be enforced once the required process had been completed, including its presentation before the federal cabinet today, after which it would be laid before the NA.

Asif said major Taliban leaders were “forgiven three years ago”, referring to the ex-premier Imran Khan’s plan to relocate thousands of TTP fighters to the country.

In response to a question, Asif said that the three parties were voicing their concerns to “capture their votebank” and urged them to “take a stand on the national level and not for votes”.

Azm-i-Istehkam is the latest in a series of counterterrorism operations launched by the Pakistan Army since the mid-2000s. More recent operations include Zarb-i-Azb, launched in 2014 by Gen Raheel Sharif to combat militants in North Waziristan, and Raddul Fasaad, initiated in 2017 under Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to eliminate what was then described as “residual terrorist threats” in the country.

While these operations achieved tactical successes, including the reduction of terrorist incidents and the elimination of high-value targets, they did not completely eradicate militancy from the country.

The decision also came right after a high-ranking Chinese official last week singled out security as the foremost challenge threatening the future of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

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