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North Waziristan operation

May 31, 2011

WILL the American and Pakistani establishments ever learn? The declaration by Adm Mike Mullen, in interviews with American news channels no less, that Pakistan is about to launch an offensive in the North Waziristan Agency is yet another example of domestic exigencies trumping common sense. With Pakistani 'ownership' of the war on terror under so much question and the public at large unable or unwilling to comprehend why the fight against militancy is something that is critical to the well-being of the state, it is astonishing that an American official sitting in the US would take it upon himself to announce to his domestic audience plans for a Pakistani-run military operation in Fata. If nothing else, with drone strikes and the raid to take out Osama bin Laden drawing so much criticism here for 'violations' of Pakistan's sovereignty, it would have made sense for the US to allow Pakistan to announce on its own terms an impending military operation in the tribal agency.

On NWA, there has long been a consensus that a military operation of some kind is inevitable. US frustrations over the Haqqani network aside, Pakistani analysts have consistently flagged the threats that radiate from NWA into Pakistan proper. South Punjab militants, the TTP, the Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir networks, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and of course the Haqqani network — NWA has become a stamping ground for militants of every conceivable hue and affiliation. Denying sanctuary to militants there is therefore a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for moving forward in the fight against militancy. While the US is most concerned about the Haqqani network and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the area, for Pakistan the problem is even more complex. Leave aside the doubts about Pakistan's intentions for a minute. Before going into NWA, the security and intelligence apparatus will have to seriously ramp up its activities in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Karachi to try and mitigate the terrorist blowback that is almost sure to follow. Right now, is the state any closer to achieving that? And if it isn't, would cities and towns being convulsed by violence further the fight against militancy or retard it?

So, for the US the message ought to be twofold. One, stop looking like it may be bullying Pakistan into undertaking military operations on Pakistan soil — the Pakistani state needs to tell its own people first about such operations. Two, US impatience over NWA may trigger an operation prematurely, with an under-prepared state unable to handle the blowback. That cure may be worse than the sickness.