After long deliberations by the government regarding peace talks with different warring factions of terrorist outfits in the North Waziristan Agency, it finally, with insistence from the armed forces, decided to undertake the use of force against terrorists. It soon became clear that the so-called peace process was a tactic that terrorists used to buy time to conceal, dislocate and re-orientate the cache of arms, explosives and ammunition, and to disperse into Afghanistan and adjacent regions. To avoid the possibility of collateral damage to the local population, strenuous efforts were made to shift them to safer places before the operation commenced.
Before the operation, North Waziristan was a terrorist hub for planning and the conduct of various terrorist acts. Factories of improvised explosive devises, built under schools and houses, were used to produce all kinds of explosives for sale to anyone. The literature produced in North Waziristan was being used as a tool to indoctrinate the minds of the locals, especially the youth, against the state and its armed forces. Terrorists had effectively terrorised local residents into cooperating with them. As these outfits had existed here for a long time, blood relations had been formed between the common people and terrorists, further complicating the equation. This dynamic had led the locals into helping terrorists thrive socially, while feeding into their terrorism economy as well.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb has not been an easy undertaking, comprising a major chunk of the army’s resources and a huge demonstration of its strong will to clean the area off terrorists. Since its initiation, there has been a massive decrease in terrorist incidents though terrorism is far from being eradicated. As clearly stated by an army’s spokesperson, since the terrorists are on the run, the army would not give them any chance to regroup. Ambassador Masood Khan, Pakistan’s permanent representative to UN, has pointed out that “several hundred terrorists, including foreign operatives, have been taken out; IED and munitions factories destroyed; huge cashes of arms and communication equipment disabled. Vast swathes of land have been cleared. Terrorists’ hideouts and networks have been dismantled and their command and control system has been degraded.” As revealed through the media, a major element of success is attributable to the effective use of aerial combat coupled with massive use of firepower and conduct of ground offensives.
A detailed insight into counter-insurgency operations reveals that it requires a clear strategy — to clear, hold, build and finally transfer the area under operation to the IDPs. This would require the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and government bodies to work closely to determine realistic timelines to achieve success in clearing terrorist hideouts and finally, rehabilitating the locals in their area. This has to be a systematic and gradual process that should be a result of in-depth deliberations and an effective inter-agency process. Developmental projects, as well as revival of infrastructure affected during the operation, would have to precede reinstatement of the locals in their areas.
In this regard, there are some serious fears that if the locals are brought back in too early, the situation would revert and there could be a fresh surge of terrorism. Those promoting an early return of locals to the area, cite the example of the Swat operation. However, in Swat, the tourist industry readily supported the rehabilitation of locals. North Waziristan poses a difficult quagmire. Speedy rehabilitation of the locals would be incentivising terrorists to initiate a new phase of terrorism nationally. While the armed forces move from clearance to holding of territory and undertaking further offensives in areas of suspicion, any plan for possible return of IDPs would amount to losing the gains accrued through the operation so far. It would be virtually playing into the hands of the terrorists, who are waiting to exploit their close nexus with the locals.
The operation has a serious international dimension. The cross-border nexus, as well as the impunity that terrorists have to operate freely in Afghanistan, puts serious questions on the successful eradication of the terrorist network operating here. As the prime minister pointed out in his speech to the UN in September, “complementary counter-terrorism measures on the Afghan side of the border are essential to achieve optimal results”. The government should also undertake bilateral means to deal with the issue of cross-border movement of terrorists and to contain their operations through Afghanistan.
As a corollary to the operation, some issues that would demand serious analysis may include an assessment of how successful has the operation been in disrupting and eliminating terrorist infrastructure; what challenges would the return of the IDPs pose; what measures could be taken to socially condition the local people; and what alternative means of income can they be facilitated with, so that they don’t feed into the terrorism industry.
Finally, the situation in North Waziristan is currently fluid. Though it seems that the operation has been a major success and terrorist infrastructure disrupted, any abrupt policy change can lead to undoing the successes achieved. The operation’s success would lie in the consistency of use of force and retention of strength in the area long after the operation is over. So far, there are little signs of planned precursors of rehabilitation efforts on part of the civil administration. There is a dire need to focus on the hearts and minds campaign so that terrorists never find a sanctuary among the local people again.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2014.