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Profiling our North Waziristan policy

By Syed Talat Hussain
November 1 2012





Predictably, the North Waziristan operation has been near-permanently shelved. While this may not be music to the ‘kill em all’ school of thought in Pakistan, this is a reality that is likely to hold for months to come, barring of course, a devastating attack on say a nuclear installation or other such target of high value. Small scale operations and tit for tat retributory strikes may happen according to the scale of activities of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but there is little or no possibility of the present-day deployment in the agency to become a war formation and clear out the Taliban from their strongest of the remaining strongholds. Leaving aside the emotive side of the debate about North Waziristan, in which proponents take absolutist positions for and against the option of military operation, the anticlimax to the recent hype about the possibility of the army striking hard in these areas does raise the all important question: What exactly has the army been trying to do in North Waziristan? Having lost thousands of precious lives and after spending billions of rupees since 2004 in Fata and the adjoining areas, why has it consistently baulked at pulling down the final fortress of a ferocious foe? This question becomes even more intriguing when raised against the backdrop of the army high command’s well-thought out conclusion that all the attacks on Pakistan’s strategic assets that have emanated from this agency have been funded and supervised by Delhi. For a force that is considered India-centric, a do-nothing approach to the costly conspiracies being hatched against the country’s vital security interests  shows exceptional restraint, if not stupidity.

The answer to this question partly lies in the fact that Pakistan never had a coherent and cohesive policy towards all of Fata. It is certainly true of the military operations, each of which was carried out as a pretty much stand alone effort, with limited objectives, without much consideration for its implications for the next phase in another agency. While all along, the Taliban remained a mobile threat that swiftly moved from one end of the region to the other, aided and sometimes spearheaded by the Central Asian stock of militants, the army’s assaults even in their most awesome form avoided stretching the forces thin and chasing the militants in a cat and mouse game. These operations were unlike a swift race on a hundred metre track. These were more or less conducted like high-altitude climbers chalk out their slow ascent, one peak at a time and a long rest before eyeing the next one with a different set of tactics. A natural result of this policy was that as the military kept on moving forward cleansing the territory of Fata, the Taliban steadily dispersed to different locations for regrouping, till they ran out of space and got entrenched in North Waziristan. It is correct to say that the army overlooked the TTP’s deadly potential in North Waziristan because it was too preoccupied with consolidating its gains in South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Swat besides battling hordes of fighters in Mohmand Agency and Orakzai. Consistent deployments to prevent Taliban from re-entering the cleared areas and ongoing battles (some of them have been least reported in the media even though these have been exceptionally bloody with high casualty rates) in smaller theatres were a core consideration for the army to avoid getting embroiled in North Waziristan.

Another factor that perpetuated this dithering was the peculiar power realities of this agency. Unlike South Waziristan, where the army had little local support primarily because of the dominance of the Mehsuds, in the North Hafiz Gul Bahadur was not at all inclined towards TTP’s anti-Pakistan activities. He, together with Maulvi Nazir from the Wazir belt in South Waziristan, also had been instrumental in containing and also evicting from their respective strongholds Uzbeks, the most dreadful demons of death. The army and the intelligence agencies counted on the hope that North Waziristan would remain an uncomfortable terrain for the TTP and the Waziris would prevent them from striking strong roots there. Much time was spent in assessing whether this hope was true or false. This was a policy of containment (of the TTP) through proxy (of local supporters). Clearly, this failed to yield results. Uprooted from all over region, the steady stream of militants of all varieties soon overwhelmed the cities of North Waziristan rendering even strongmen like Hafiz Gulbahadur somewhat powerless. The motley crew of militants swept across the main areas and brought under control all the key arteries connecting key towns. This take over was swift and comprehensive. For the army, it created a numbing complexity: it could only root out the newly-entrenched militants by hitting them in the cities with the real possibility of civilian casualties that could well run into thousands. This would also create another diaspora of displaced Waziri Pashtuns. It went against military logic and local dynamics to lose the hearts and minds of both the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. If that happened — the army calculated — both North and South Waziristan would erupt in a civil war — a nightmare for the country and a boon for the TTP. The army stalled in its tracks and held back its punches even as the TTP kidnapped and killed its soldiers, decapitated dead bodies and demanded ransom for the severed heads. These brutalities (which in scale and depth were horrendous and demoralising for a professional force) were weighed against the costs of a head-on assault on the TTP and it was decided that restraint was still a better course to follow.

However, even when this patience was exhausted — after the Mehran base attack in Karachi last year —an elaborate plan was put in place to bite the bullet in North Waziristan, something else intervened. And this was the American factor combined with messy domestic politics.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan

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