An ongoing Pakistani military operation is flushing out militant groups in areas bordering Afghanistan — but which groups are being targeted? And why?
KARACHI, Pakistan — On June 15, Pakistan’s military launched an offensive against various militant groups in the North Waziristan region. This military offensive came as a response to a number of incidents, including the June 8 attack on a Karachi airport that claimed 15 lives.
Until recently a Taliban fiefdom, the mountainous region of North Waziristan is one of the seven semi-autonomous territories, also known as agencies, that come under the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Senior defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told MintPress News that the army stalled for years, refusing to take action there, despite the known presence of senior al-Qaida leadership.
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, described the offensive as “inevitable,” especially after peace talks with the Taliban broke down in mid-April.
“Among the several seminal events, one was the execution of nearly two dozen Pakistani soldiers by the Mohmand tribal agency branch of the Pakistani Taliban,” Kugelman told MintPress in an email.
The Karachi airport attack was the “last straw,” Kugelman said, and gave Pakistan “the right pretext to launch it [the offensive].”
Good timing for some, bad for others
The offensive may have been foreseeable, but the timing is what has made many uneasy, especially in the United States.
“This North Waziristan operation is certainly a good thing, but in many ways it is really coming at the wrong time,” Kugelman said. “This is for two reasons — one, the U.S. forces won’t be in a strong position to engage these militants in battle when they arrive in Afghanistan; two, the U.S. forces are trying to undertake a peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan, and yet all these militants streaming into Afghanistan from the Pakistani side could make their departure much more complicated and bloody.”
Meanwhile, Kugelman said “conspiratorial-minded analysts” offer yet another explanation. According to him, they posit that “Pakistan’s security establishment may have decided the time was right to launch an assault that would inevitably send militants spilling into Afghanistan, thereby further destabilizing Afghanistan and consequently undercutting the presence and engagement of India inside Afghanistan.” However, he was quick to add: “I’m not sure I’d go this far.”
Rizvi said the military command appears determined to take control of the area. “It cannot afford a failure because this would undermine its credibility inside and outside of Pakistan.”
In fact, Operation Zarb-e-Azb — named for the sword of the Prophet Muhammad — is generally being seen as an operation to end all operations. But Rizvi warned that it will “not eliminate violence in Pakistan; only weaken the capacity of the Taliban and their allies to resort to violence in a sustained manner.”
The Pakistani army began to target the militants seven weeks ago, first with aerial bombardment of their safe havens, then with ground attacks. It claims to have surrounded the area and killed over 500 militants, including many from al-Qaida affiliates like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.
With public opinion in its favor, the army has reiterated that it will flush out “terrorists of all hue and color” like the homegrown Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, and its foreign allies such as al-Qaida.
But does this mean the army will also carry out the offensive against those it has backed in the past? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said: “If there are exceptions made, then the purpose of this operation will be defeated.”
Rizvi, the defense analyst, believes the military leadership has had a change of heart toward some of the militant groups. “Previously, they thought if some groups were not causing problems to Pakistan, why go after them?”
More recently, however, the military leadership seems to have realized that “if they do not control North Waziristan before the NATO troops leave Afghanistan, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban could join together to challenge the Pakistani state,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced. Many believe that much of the Taliban secretly fled or were given the opportunity to leave before the army went into North Waziristan.
“These fears are not misplaced,” said Hasan Abdullah, a journalist researching Islamist groups who is in touch with some Taliban figures and other jihadi groups. “All key commanders fled the area before the operation.”
To this, Nawaf Khan, senior researcher at the Islamabad-based FATA Research Center, an independent think tank, said, “This is mere speculation, there is no solid proof.”
Yet Kugelman noted that there is also no indication that any Haqqani fighter — Afghanistan’s most experienced and sophisticated insurgents — has been captured or killed. “Typically, in Pakistani military offensives in the tribal areas, a big show is made of captured or killed militants paraded in front of the cameras, etc. There has been nothing this time.”
That may be so, but the army has been releasing photos and footage of bomb-making factories, a huge cache of arms and ammunition, foreign currency and ready-made suicide vests. Three weeks into the offensive, the Pakistan military also took some journalists to Miranshah, a town in North Waziristan that was formerly a hotbed of Taliban activity. BBC Urdu’s Haroon Rashid was among those journalists, and reported that the place looked like a “ghost town” that local residents left in a hurry.
“In some parts of the bazaar most of the shops were half open, with saleable goods still on display as if the shopkeepers had just gone for prayers or a short break,” Rashid wrote.
The “most feared” enemy of the U.S.
Members of the Haqqani network are among those who had allegedly been alerted and slipped away. The group, ideologically aligned with al-Qaida, operates on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. With its base in North Waziristan, it is thought to be supported by the Pakistani security establishment.
According to Abdullah, the Pakistani establishment has always used Islamist militant groups as “strategic leverage,” especially when it comes to Afghanistan and India.
“This thought process lies at the core of the flawed ‘good Taliban/bad Taliban’ narrative,” he told MintPress, explaining that the Afghan Taliban and some other jihadist groups are seen as “good,” while those that turned on Pakistan are “bad.”
The Haqqani fighters have allegedly carried out a string of attacks on U.S. and Indian targets in Afghanistan.
But if the operation failed to target the Haqqani network, said Kugelman, the U.S. would not be pleased. “Washington has long considered the group to be one of its major threats in Afghanistan (perhaps even greater than the parent Afghan Taliban), and believes it is responsible for various attacks on the U.S. interests in Afghanistan, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul,” he explained.
“It consists of some of the best-trained and -equipped jihadis who have carried out some effective and high-profile attacks in Afghanistan. The U.S. regards them as a major threat and rightly believes that this group will play a significant role in shaping the post-withdrawal scenario,” Abdullah said of the Haqqani network.
Kugelman agreed that the Haqqanis — “long a strategic asset of the Pakistani security establishment” — had the opportunity to get the group’s fighters out of the area prior to the offensive. He also added that there were reports of Haqqani fighters “setting up a new haven in Parachinar in Kurram agency,” another tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Pressure from the U.S.
The Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, has been supporting the Haqqani group for years, but now the U.S. is exerting major pressure on Pakistan to dismantle Haqqani safe havens.
The same was endorsed by Khan, of the FATA Research Center. “Pakistan had been withstanding the pressure for years, but refused, as it was not in its national interest. But maybe now it feels the timing is right to say goodbye to them.”
Yet Pakistan insists that this is one fight that is not being fought at anyone’s behest, least of all the U.S.
Abdullah speculated that through the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015, the U.S. “has made it clear that it would not release around $300 million (of the $900 million) to Pakistan in the form of Coalition Support Fund unless Pakistan carries out an operation in North Waziristan.”
The same was pointed out by Kugelman. “Washington has suggested that it could reduce or even cut military aid to Pakistan if Pakistan does not take definitive action against the Haqqani network. This will not sit well in Islamabad, where officials argue (and rightly so) that the Pakistani military has sustained tremendous losses in its fight against militancy,” he said.
Will Pakistan irk the “good” Taliban?
According to Kugelman, there was no incentive for Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network — “a time-tested trusted asset” — amid all the uncertainly in Afghanistan and in the absence of a peace agreement with India, which the Haqqani network and other Pakistani strategic assets violently oppose.
“Going by the conventional wisdom of the security establishment, it makes strategic sense that Pakistan abstains from irking the ‘good Taliban,’” Abdullah noted.
Meanwhile, there is also the underlying fear of a potential backlash from those who have never harmed Pakistan.
Khan, however, argued otherwise. “If there were bad feelings on the part of the Haqqanis, these would have surfaced by now. These fears are baseless, as no one truly knows what is happening in North Waziristan, the place is totally sealed.”