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NWA: Pointless Symbolism

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

At 01:30am [PST] on June 15, 2014, Pakistani Air Force jets launched aerial attacks on purported terrorist hideouts in the Degan and Datta Khel areas of North Waziristan Agency (NWA) in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) killing at least 140 alleged terrorists and destroying eight hideouts, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) [no independent confirmation of these claims is available].

Later in the day, ISPR declared, “On the directions of the Government, Armed forces of Pakistan have launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan Agency (NWA). The operation has been named Zarb-e-Azb [Sword of the Prophet].”

Since the commencement of the operation, several alleged terrorist hideouts in areas like Shawal, Degan-Boya, Hasokhel, Zartatangi and Qutab Khel have been neutralised. A total of 257 terrorists and eight soldiers have been killed during the operation so far.

Some experts have started describing the current operation as an earnest effort on the part of authorities in Pakistan to finally taken on terrorists, since the recent strikes have targeted their safest sanctuaries in NWA, which had, hitherto, remained untouched. Significantly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had declared, in National Assembly on June 16, 2014, “Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been launched against terrorism and it will continue till the obtainment (sic) of the final objective of restoration of peace and tranquillity in Pakistan. I am confident the operation will be the harbinger of peace and security for Pakistan.”

Such vaunting declarations are not a novelty in Pakistan, but are difficult to reconcile with the country's broader strategic design and continuing exploitation of terrorism as an instrument, both of domestic political management and external strategic projection.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in the aftermath of the attack on Karachi Airport on June 8-9, 2014, in which at least 33 persons, including all ten attackers, were killed. Significantly, claiming responsibility for the attack, the NWA-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) posted a statement that read, “...This is revenge for the killing of civilians, migrant women and their children. This is revenge for the violence of the corrupt Pakistani Government.” The statement signed by Usman Gazij, IMU emir, concludes, “The jihad already in place in Afghanistan should be extended to Pakistan’s territory as well. Jihad in Pakistan should be fought by the entire Muslim Ummah and not just a few people or groups.” Pakistani Major General Rizvan Akhtar, speaking on the day of the attack, had claimed that there were Uzbeks among the suicide fighters in Karachi, and some reports claimed that most of the slain terrorists were Uzbeks. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had also claimed responsibility for the attack.

The air raids have mostly damaged the hideouts used by the terrorists of the Hafiz Gul Bahadur faction of the TTP, which has just come out of the truce pact with the Government signed way back in 2006-2007, and groups sheltered by it. On May 30, 2013, a pamphlet issued in the name of Bahadur on behalf of the Shura Mujahideen, North Waziristan, accused the Government of reneging on the peace agreement, arguing, “It is now abundantly clear that the Government had quietly reneged on the peace agreement long ago – but we have been showing restraint against our will for the sake of people of Waziristan... Those who want to fight for the honour of Waziristan should cooperate with us.” Significantly, the Pakistani Air Force jets had pounded terrorist outfits in NWA on at least 11 occasions (prior to June 15) since the beginning of the New Year, claiming to have eliminated at least 287 terrorists, mostly foreign terrorists sheltered by the Gul Bahadur faction. It is believed that, as the Nawaz Sharif Government began peace talks with the Baitullah Mehsud faction of the TTP, now led by Fazlullah [also known as Mullah Radio, the leader of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or Swat Taliban], it started targeting the Gul Bahadur faction to appease the Fazlullah faction. However, Islamabad appears to have lost the plot again, as the talks with the Fazlullah faction have also ended.

The launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb may also help Pakistan appease the US, as Washington has repeatedly conveyed to Islamabad that Bahadur and his group have been helping al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. As the drawdown in Afghanistan inches closer, US pressure has mounted manifold.

Meanwhile, the ‘spokesman’ of TTP's Gul Bahadur faction, Ahmadullah Ahmadi, on June 19, threatened, “From today [June 19] we are launching a war against security forces with the name Zarb-e-Momin. We are an independent group and have no affiliation with the TTP.”

Significantly, the Gul Bahadur faction had distanced itself from the umbrella TTP organization due to rivalries with former chief Baitullah Mehsud and disagreements over targeting the Pakistani state. Often cited as an example of the “good Taliban”, loyal to the Pakistani state, the faction has now turned renegade; hence the retaliation by the SFs. It is likely, however, that the main leaders of the Gul Bahadur faction have fled as information regarding the operation was leaked in advance. In Its May 30 pamphlet, the group had disclosed, “We’ve received credible information that the Government has decided to launch a military offensive [in the region].” This has been an established pattern in Pakistan, with state agencies launching operations well after information has been passed on to the target terrorist formations, and has facilitated the state to channels of communication with the outfit open for the future. Fazlullah had, similarly, escaped when massive operations were launched in Swat in 2009, and survived to eventually head the ‘united’ TTP.

The geographical mapping of the aerial operation clearly demonstrates that its targets are the anti-state groups in Pakistan, clearly distinguished from 'loyal' groupings that continue to do Islamabad's bidding in Afghanistan. The worst attack took place in Datta Khel, the stronghold of the Gul Bahdur faction. There was, however, no attack in Miranshah and Mir Ali, strongholds of the Fazllulah faction and the Haqqani Network.

A US Congressional report notes that the large number of terrorist outfits within Pakistan can be broadly divided into five groups: globally oriented terrorists, Afghanistan-oriented, India- and Kashmir-oriented, sectarian, and domestically oriented. Islamabad’s policy has been to cultivate the first four categories of 'loyal' terrorist formations, and to targeting only those that have turned renegade and redirected their ire against domestic targets. This policy remains in clear evidence in the latest operations in NWA.

Indeed, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif, on June 16, emphasized, “All terrorists along with their sanctuaries must be eliminated without any discrimination. The operation is not targeted against our valiant tribes of North Waziristan but against those terrorists who are holed up in the Agency and have picked up arms against the state of Pakistan.”

The hype generated around Operation Zarb-e-Azb is, consequently, misplaced. This is just another campaign in a long series that has been launched after the Lal Masjid debacle of 2007, targeting renegade terrorist formations. Other prominent operations of this nature in the past have included: Operation Rah-e-Haq-I (Swat Valley and Shangla District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP); October 25, 2007-December 8, 2007); Operation Rah-e-Haq- II (Shangla District in KP, July 2008); Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (Khyber Agency in FATA; June 28, 2008-July 9, 2008); Operation Sherdil (Bajaur Agency in FATA; August 7, 2008– February 28, 2009); Operation Rah-e-Haq-III (Swat District in KP, January 2009); Operation Black Thunderstorm (Buner, Lower Dir, Swat and Shangla Districts in KP; April 26, 2009–June 14, 2009); Operation Rah-e-Rast (Swat Valley and Shangla District in KP; May 16, 2009–July 15, 2009);  Operation Rah-e-Nijat (South Waziristan Agency in FATA; June 19, 2009-December 12, 2009); Operation Khwakh Ba De Sham (Orakzai and Kurram Agencies in FATA; March 23, 2010-June 1, 2010); Operation Brekhna (Mohmand Agency in FATA; November 3, 2009); and Operation Koh-i-Sufaid (Kurram Agency in FATA; July 2, 2011 - August 18, 2011).

The precarious security environment in Pakistan, with the maximum number of civilian fatalities since 2003, recorded in 2012 and 2013 (3007 and 3001 respectively), underline the comprehensive failure of this long succession of past operations, and their inability to stall Pakistan’s accelerating hurtle into chaos.

With the start of this latest operation, an estimated over 200,000 persons have already been evacuated from the area. The localized operation in targeted areas in NWA also increase the probabilities of a terrorist retaliation in other areas of Pakistan providing, a pattern that has resulted in the suspension of operations in the past. On June 19, 2014, Federal Minister for Defence Khawaja Asif had already stated, “We will try to end the operation in North Waziristan as soon as possible.”

In all probability, Operation Zarb-e-Azb will also come to an end sooner rather than later, without any decisive gains. The military may bring away the illusion that the terrorist assault at Karachi has been 'avenged', but the capacities and intentions of the terrorists are unlikely to be impacted in any significant measure.

[Source:  SATP]

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