ISLAMABAD — Pakistan on Wednesday launched a push on the remaining pockets of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) fighters holed up in the remote Shawal Valley bordering Afghanistan. Though the advance had long been expected, the timing was surprising.
News of the assault came from the military’s Inter Services Public Relations media branch as the head of the army, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Raheel Sharif, flew to the Shawal Valley to meet troops stationed in forward areas before ordering the operation to commence.
Addressing the troops, Sharif said: “The sacrifices of the soldiers will not go to waste and we will achieve our ultimate objective of a terror free Pakistan.”
As well as calling for the terrorists to be flushed out of their hiding places in the heavily forested valley with numerous ravines, which facilitated infiltration from Afghanistan, Sharif called on their abettors across the county to be hunted down.
The campaign in the Shawal Valley is the final phase of Operation Zarb-e-Azb that has steadily driven the TTP its allies and affiliates from their sanctuaries in North Waziristan since June 2014. Since then, terrorist attacks across Pakistan have fallen sharply as the security forces have conducted a campaign to neutralize them.
Analyst and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said the final drive to mop up the remnants of the TTP in the Shawal Valley was expected this year, but the timing was unexpected, which will likely prove advantageous.
“[Gen. Sharif] did say that there was going to be the last push this year, but most people thought that it would be in springtime or early summer”, he said.
“In fact, considering the climate, it's pretty smart to do it now, as the militants will find it very difficult to move around and to find alternative base areas with access to food.”
He said the military on the other hand will be able to cope much better despite having to face the same conditions.
“Army troops will not find it easy, either, of course, but at least they can use helicopters to ferry into blocking positions, while the assault elements move by foot," said Cloughley. "And they don't have to worry about resupply, as the system is extremely efficient, courtesy of hard-won experience in the past few years.”
As to how long this final phase to defeat the TTP will last is uncertain, said Cloughley, though he said he believes there are factors indicating the operation should be concluded in a matter of months.
“It would be unwise to try to forecast how long it will take to defeat them or drive them out, but the army chief is a very determined man and he's been planning this drive for a long time, and he's probably looking at a wind-up by mid-year, so that refugees can start moving back in before next winter,” he said.
In fact, Cloughley said he believes at this stage Sharif will be focused on what will follow the expulsion of the TTP to safeguard the gains and sacrifices made by the military.
“What he really wants is a civilian system of local governance, not necessarily centered on the federal system, and it will be interesting to see what the new governor might come up with to suggest to Islamabad. I have no doubt that he and the chief have had discussions on this.”
Iqbal Zafar Jhagra was appointed today as the new governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which borders the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which Waziristan is a part, and Afghanistan.
Sharif appears by far and away the most popular figure in authority in the eyes of the public. However, this has led to persistent speculation as to whether he would accept a rumored extension of his term in office, which ends this coming November.
Sharif ruled out an extension in January, however, stating he would retire in November and the fight against terrorism would be continued by his successor. Sharif’s predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, accepted an extension of his term, and Kiyani’s predecessor was Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized control in a coup.
Nevertheless, the story is a recurring one with former president and co-chairman of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari being the latest person to resurrect it. On Tuesday he said Sharif’s rejection of an extension was premature and could hamper the fight against terrorism.
Last month, however, Zardari welcomed Sharif’s rejection of an extension. Zardari last year also lashed out against the military for what he claims was overstepping its boundaries and has been residing in Dubai ever since.
Highlighting Zardari’s change in position, Claude Rakisits, senior fellow at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and an expert on Pakistani affairs, said he believes Sharif is not going change his position.
“Notwithstanding Zardari's confused and contradictory statements, General Sharif has made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in extending his tenure. Moreover, he made clear that if the usual three year tenure were to be extended by the government, it should be applied to his successor,” he said.
Rakisits said he believes Sharif is mindful of what is at risk should he stay.
“General Sharif is only too well aware the damage that can be done to the image and reputation of the army if the COAS overstays his welcome. Under his watch the country has made great strides in rolling back the threat of terrorism, and this has significantly boosted the army's reputation, something that was really necessary after years of military rule and little progress in fighting the terrorists.”
“And although General Sharif is by far the most popular and powerful figure in Pakistan today, he would not wish to jeopardize all this counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency hard work by extending his tenure. So I seriously doubt that he would stay beyond November 2016, when his term ends.”