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August 26, 2014

Zarb-e-Azb: A Prognosis

The Pakistani military operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched against the Taliban in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) is now in its third month.The Pakistan Army is committed to take on militants of all hues, particularly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its foreign allies such as al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The US is hoping that they will also dismantle the Haqqani network and other Afghan based groups operating from NWA against Afghanistan. Public support for the operation remains high, but militarily, much remains to be done. Despite claims of success by the Pakistan military, the ground reality is more sobering.

In spite of the fact that ground troops have been operating in the area for quite some time now, the Pakistan Army’s reliance on aerial strikes remains paramount. The Army continues to claim success through aerial attacks using fighter jet aircraft, but no such success has been claimed by ground troops. High-speed aircraft have great relevance in conventional conflict but have limited application in confronting small groups of insurgents. The claims of the Army are hence suspect and in all probability are highly exaggerated. In any event, no leader of consequence has either been captured or killed in the army operation. All that has happened is that the militants have been displaced for the time being from the territory they were holding.

Having a safe territorial base to operate from is certainly an advantage for the militants. It permits them safe bases for recruitment, planning, training and execution of operations against the state. To that extent, the loss of a sophisticated physical terror infrastructure, where they enjoyed facilities to make bombs, manufacture weapons and train recruits is a serious setback to the militant groups that were operating out of NWA. However, the loss is by no means crippling. Dispersal of militants has not affected their core strength, which remains intact. Regrouping to a different area is simply a matter of time. As an example, the TTP reconstituted itself in NWA after being ejected from their strongholds and ancestral homeland in the Mehsud tribal areas of South Waziristan in 2009. In the instant case, Taliban fighters have moved into the Shawal Valley and to areas such asDattaKhel sub-district, home to the Hafiz GulBahadur Taliban faction with which the Pakistani government has maintained a long-standing truce. It is not clear whether the Army will open yet another front to hunt down the displaced TTP, IMU and al Qaeda fighters. Many militants have also fled further west into Afghanistan, where the Pakistan military will not be able to reach. The Afghanistan government is embroiled in its own battles and has neither the capacity nor the desire to look into Pakistani concerns with respect to such fighters.

How Pakistan deals with the Haqqani network will indicate its sincerity in eradicating terrorism from its soil. However, Pakistan is unlikely to target the Haqqani network as they view the group as their strategic assets in Afghanistan.It is no secret that since the start of Zarb-e-Azb, no Haqqani fighter has been killed or captured over the course of the operations.Reports indicate that the Haqqani network had relocated to Parachinar in Kurram Agency, even before the start of Zarb-e-Azb, sometime in May this year. Kurram Agency is surrounded by Afghanistan from three sides and is closest to Kabul. It makes sense for Pakistan to support the Haqqani network, as they would be valuable assets in any Afghanistan configuration, post the withdrawal of US forces by end of 2014. Officially, the Haqqani network is part of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. However, the group maintains distinct command and control systems and has close ties with the Al Qaeda and other foreign extremists in Pakistan.

North Waziristan, where operations are currently underway, is but one base of the militants. As of now, the networks of various militant groups such as the TTP, al Qaida and Haqqani, has spread far beyond North Waziristan to tribal areas such as Mohmand and to Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan. Metropolises like Karachi too are severely affected. For the Pakistan state to win its war against terror, it will have to pursue these groups throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan, where they have support.

Pakistan’s counterinsurgency doctrine advocates the use of aerial strikes, artillery bombardment and employment of armour for conduct of operations. The mass evacuation of local populations therefore takes place to facilitate military operations. The Pakistan Army did this earlier in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan Agency (SWA). However, success of any counterinsurgency operation has to have the support of the local population. A displaced population whose homes have been ravaged, looted and reduced to rubble is unlikely to extend any form of support to the Pakistan military when they return. In NWA, the conflict has forced a million people from their homes as recorded by the Pakistani authorities. The number of internally displaced persons (IDP) is possibly even higher, as the figures from the camps established by the Pakistan government do not take into account those that fled west to Afghanistan. More importantly, most Taliban fighters from all groups left the area well before the launch of operations by the Pakistan Army. Many also slipped through with the fleeing IDPs.

The long-term prognosis for the region is therefore bleak. The Pakistan military will perforce have to remain deployed in the areas they have cleared of militants, to prevent the return of militants. In the earlier operations conducted in the Swat Valley and SWA, the Pakistani Army continues to maintain a heavy deployment of troops. The Pakistan Army lacks the capacity to deploy in each and every area where militants are operating. To do so, they would have to raise a very large counterinsurgency force to combat terrorist activity, but the Pakistani economy, already at the break point, will not be able to absorb such expenses. The future hence looks bleak. The war is far from over. It has perhaps only just begun.

The article is written by Major General Dhruv C Katoch (Retd) who is the Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). The views expressed are his own.

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