An anti-terrorist squad keeps watch at a checkpoint in Bannu, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban on Monday warned foreign firms to leave the country and vowed retaliatory strikes against the government after tanks, ground troops and jets were deployed in a long-awaited offensive in a troubled tribal district. (A Majeed / Getty Images)
ISLAMABAD — The military operation underway since Sunday in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, Operation Zarb-e-Azb (a reference to the sword carried by the Prophet Mohammed), indicates Pakistan has finally lost patience with all terrorist groups and not just those opposed to the Pakistani state, say analysts.
However, they acknowledge the struggle will be a long one.
According to the military’s Inter Services Public Relations media arm, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif “emphasized that all terrorists along with their sanctuaries must be eliminated without any discrimination,” and the operation is targeted at “terrorists who are holed up in the Agency and have picked up arms against the state of Pakistan.”
Though the operation appears to be driven by the military, in an address to lawmakers Tuesday Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated, “The Zarb-e-Azb operation will not end till all terrorists are eliminated.”
Claude Rakisits, director at Politact, a Washington-based advisory firm that focuses on South Asian issues, said the operation became inevitable after the collapse of the much-derided peace negotiations and last week’s attack on the airport in Karachi.
“The military and the government are now determined to hit these terrorists very hard,” he said.
Analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium says the military’s preparations began a long time ago and intensified after peace negotiations began with the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).
“Since the negotiations started about nine months ago the armed forces of Pakistan have placed special attention on gathering intelligence on high-value militant leadership and their training grounds, which includes their command structure.”
He highlights the tri-service nature of the operation with the Air Force, backed by the Navy’s signals intelligence equipment, using its ISR capabilities and precision-guided munitions to locate and take out high-value targets, to support the Army’s aerial and ground assault that has been spearheaded by the Special Operations Task Force.
Though there has been a steady trickle of casualties thus far, (in small-scale firefights and improvised explosive device attacks), Khan said the military faces a real threat from the terrorists and legacy man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) may be of concern.
“So far PAF has not encountered any real ground opposition but the fear of these militants using Soviet origin and CIA supplied MANPADS is certainly something that PAF command would be thinking of,” he said.
Beyond an act of retaliation, Rakisits says the operation appears to indicate a change in how the Pakistani establishment views the non-state actors on its soil, considering many of those killed belonged to the Uighur’s East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but also the Haqqani Network.
“If that is indeed the case, it would confirm that the military has changed — or at least is in the process of changing — its attitude toward some of these ‘good’ Taliban,” he said.
Adding, “One should not forget that the Pakistani military has in the past refused repeated American requests that it hunt down the Haqqani Network hiding in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. There are conflicting reports that the recent drone strikes were a joint US-Pakistani operation. If that is the case, it would be a real game changer.”
As the Haqqani Network is allied to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group that recently ended its 2007 peace agreement with the government, “it would appear that indeed the government and the military have decided to no longer differentiate between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban.”
Though welcomed, Rakisits is uncertain the operation will deliver the required results.
“Prime Minister Sharif had already waited much too long before taking military action against the TTP and their fellow ideological travelers. While this operation will not eliminate the militants, if this operation is effectively conducted it should seriously degrade their fighting capability and their ability to terrorize the civilian population,” he said.
He also highlights that many terrorists will simply slip across the border into Afghanistan.
Former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, does not think a Pakistani request to seal the border will amount to much.
“The request to the Afghans to seal the border was made entirely tongue-in-cheek,” he said. Pakistan has long been annoyed that it is always blamed for illegal border crossings, simply because it is impossible to “seal” the frontier, and Kabul and the US have always protested vociferously that Pakistan “isn’t doing enough” to stop such activity.”
“But now that Pakistan forces are being further committed in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], and there is detectable flight of terrorists towards Afghanistan, it is quite another matter. It is the responsibility of Afghan and coalition forces to prevent militants from crossing the border into Afghanistan, and of course they cannot do so. The Afghan Army is incapable of policing the border, and not capable of very much else, either.”
An additional danger is what happens inside Pakistan.
“Inevitably, there will be a very nasty backlash, with most likely a number of terrorist attacks in urban areas, on security facilities and against strategic assets,” says Rakisits. “But the military appears prepared for it. For example, the 111 Brigade has been asked to beef up the security of Islamabad, with 30 troops to guard Adiala jail where quite a few TTP inmates are being held.” ■