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North Waziristan issue

June 05, 2011

THE Pakistani and international media have been reporting an imminent military operation in North Waziristan. The Peshawar corps commander has since come out and denied this. As always, speculation and conspiracy theories are rife.

This is hardly surprising given that yet again, there is complete lack of transparency on just what the US and Pakistan have agreed to in the flurry of diplomacy since the Osama bin Laden episode.

On North Waziristan, nothing seems to add up.

In a nutshell, reports pointing to the imminence of the operation provided the following information: after meetings with US officials, the Pakistan military has agreed to launch an operation in North Waziristan; aid agencies have been tipped to prepare for a 350,000-strong displacement; the operation being planned is a limited one unlike the one in South Waziristan and is likely to be focused on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and 'foreign fighters', minus the Haqqani network.

Piecing these together, one comes up with more questions than answers.

First, what is the Pakistani decision based on? The Pakistan military has maintained for months that it is already overstretched and thus cannot afford to open up another major active front. So what has changed? How is the capacity factor being accounted for now?

One plausible response could be that while the capacity remains a concern, the US pressure to act simply became too strong to resist after the Abbottabad episode. If so, then one also has to acknowledge that this would evoke a tremendous emotional backlash from the nationalist elements who are already charged up on the sovereignty issue.

And thus the next question: why would the military itself continue whipping up the sovereignty issue, as it has done consistently since Bin Laden's killing, when it is certain to haunt it as soon as it goes into North Waziristan. Certainly, the military has nothing to gain from being seen as having buckled under US pressure again.

Next, what does one make of the reports that the operation will principally target the TTP? One conspiracy theory of sorts could be that these are planted stories to offset the backlash mentioned above, i.e. the military wants to argue that even though the US pressure did send us in, we chose to act only against Pakistan's enemies, the TTP.

First of all, the average Pakistani is not so naïve. But more importantly, why would the US agree to anything like this? What is Washington's interest in seeing an operation in North Waziristan that leaves the Haqqani network untouched? At least in Washington, the optimism associated with this operation flows only from the belief that sanctuaries of Afghan militant groups will be targeted.

Also, if it really is a 'limited' operation, why are aid agencies being asked to prepare for the displacement of nearly the entire population of the agency? To put it simply, the notion of a limited operation against TTP does not gel.

Let us take the other side of the argument and try to construct a logical case. Perhaps there never was any capacity issue and the excuse simply used to blunt the international pressure regarding the sanctuaries. The real reason then would have been the strategic benefit of maintaining leverage with the various Taliban factions. If so, why has that connection become unimportant overnight? What happened to the argument that targeting these groups so close to the reconciliation phase would be a major mistake?

An ever wilder proposition: has Pakistan decided to alter its strategic calculus? Why would it? Nothing has changed on the India front and Pakistan's fear of a hostile government in Afghanistan remains intact. To presume that its fears have vanished would be nothing short of absurd.

But what if the US has assured Pakistan of a seat on the table in the Afghan reconciliation and promised that its concerns would be assuaged as long as it acts against the Afghan Taliban factions on its territory.

This can't fly for two reasons: first, the mistrust between Pakistanis and Americans who make decisions behind closed doors is so immense that Pakistani officials would never accept such an offer on face value; and second, as the situation stands now, Pakistan has already ensured for itself a ringside seat in the negotiations. Why then, fall for an offer that doesn't add much?

Finally, what about Pakistan military's long-standing fear that targeting the Afghan groups may push them to put their weight behind the TTP as they look to up the ante? It seems unlikely that the military would overlook this aspect given how concerned it has been about it in the past. And if it hasn't overlooked it, how does it plan to absorb the internal backlash? Or why does it now think it will be better able to now?

OK, if a military offensive in North Waziristan does not seem to fit the puzzle, might it be true that the press reports about the imminence of the operation were indeed 'hype' and the offensive will not take place after all.

In this case, the reverse question becomes pertinent: what did the US walk away with after putting pressure on Pakistan? It is hard to imagine that it extracted nothing from Pakistan's moment of weakness post Bin Laden. Its number one interest is targeting the militant sanctuaries; why would it back off, especially when there is very little patience left with Pakistan and when the prevalent view in Washington is that Pakistan's inaction in North Waziristan is a strategic choice, not a compulsion? And even if it did back off, what did it settle for as a quid pro quo?

There are too many questions and too few answers. The problem of lack of transparency is all too apparent yet again. And as always, it is certain to backfire.

Should an operation be launched without taking the public into confidence, the contradictions highlighted above will inevitably raise suspicions; people are less likely to support the campaign. And even if no operation is coming, there is still a need to explain just what has been agreed upon between Pakistan and the US post Bin Laden. Else, conspiracy theorists are set to have a busy time in the coming days.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, DC.