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North Waziristan issue

August 13, 2012

THE rumour mill has been in overdrive since ISI chief Gen Zahirul Islam’s recent visit to the US: will there or won’t there be some kind of military action taken in North Waziristan by the Pakistan Army? Predictably, the Pakistani side first outright denied the leaks in the American media from US officials presumably in the know, and then introduced shades of grey. Some kind of coordination across the Pak-Afghan border against militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan is not the same as ‘joint operations’, army officials first insisted. Now, as reported yesterday, the script has moved forward some more: if any action is to be taken in North Waziristan, Pakistan will expect US and Afghan forces on the other side of the border to prevent targets in North Waziristan from fleeing into Afghanistan. The unnamed official spoke of ‘sealing the border’, though more likely it would be a variant of the hammer-and-anvil strategy that has over the years been touted as the only credible model for ensuring that militants squeezed on this side of the border don’t flee into Afghanistan and vice versa.

Is the drip-drip of leaks meant to prepare the country for a U-turn in policy on North Waziristan or is this just another game of cat and mouse with the US? On the ground, in North Waziristan itself, there is no sign of an imminent military operation. While the security forces in the agency number over 40,000 – two army divisions, a Frontier Corps force and sundry local security personnel – and the national and Fata disaster management agencies have long been told to prepare contingency plans for an outflow of IDPs, at the moment the reports from the area do not indicate any signs of a military operation about to be launched. Similarly, on the Afghan side, where Khost, Paktia and Paktika are the obvious destinations for militants fleeing from North Waziristan, there is no sign yet that American or Afghan forces are gearing up for a battle with militants who may soon arrive.

In trying to determine the likelihood of a military operation in North Waziristan at the moment, it may help to recall what the Americans have pushed Pakistan to do: one, squeeze the flow of money to the Haqqanis; two, sever the information links that keep the Haqqanis one step ahead of the Americans; and three, dismantle the Miranshah hub that the Americans are convinced exists. So perhaps if not a major military operation, some other measures are being contemplated on the Pakistani side. But then, are half-measures in North Waziristan really in the interest of Pakistan?