Amidst much fanfare and after months of advanced warning, the Pakistan army recently launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb (“Great Strike,” named after a sword used by the prophet Muhammad) in North Waziristan. After about two weeks of air operations, the army has announced that it is launching ground operations, and has stated with striking certitude that 376 militants and 19 soldiers have died since the launch of Zarb-e-Azb. The army also claims that no civilians have perished, despite evidence to the contrary. Hoping to dispel the usual dubiety about Pakistan’s military operations, which have focused upon the bad “terrorists” while safekeeping their “strategic assets,” the army’s spin doctors have claimed boldly that “terrorists of various hue and colour”, including the Haqqani Network, will be targeted. Nearly half a million people have been internally displaced as they have fled the fighting.
While Pakistanis rally around their army, those of us who have observed them over the years are less impressed. We’ve seen this show before. Even Shuja Nawaz—once a stalwart optimist about the Pakistan army, its intentions, and its capabilities—has been guarded in explaining this operation to the media. In a recent article, he even warned that it will most certainly “fall short.”
What can we really expect from this operation?
Cirque de So Lame?
If the current operation sounds familiar: it should. The Pakistan army conducted a similar operation in South Waziristan in 2009. After sustaining criticism for the civilian losses and unmanageable crisis of internally displaced persons that resulted from its May 2009 Swat offensive, the army gave months of notice in advance of its South Waziristan operation. While the civilians fled, so did the militants. The army launched operations in nearly vacated terrain of the Makin Valley. Then the army conducted tours of the area for scholars and journalists. (I was included in one such show.) The army knew that as soon as the civilians returned, so would the militants, an outcome that it sought to avoid. But in the meantime, the United States muted its ceaseless demands to do more because, it seemed, the army was.
For years now, the United States and Afghanistan have demanded that Pakistan conduct an operation in North Waziristan. North Waziristan is the ostensible home to the Haqqani Network and to slews of foreign fighters tied to al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and various other militant groups operating throughout the region.
While Pakistan seems to finally be acting, don’t expect this operation to yield any big catches. The army, as it did in 2010, gave plenty of warning. Any terrorist worth his Chinese knock-off Air Jordans has long fled the scenes. Key members of the Haqqani Network have long been ensconced in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
While every U.S. pinprick drone strike in Pakistan is accompanied by a chorus of shrieks of outrage about the numerous innocents who must have been slain in yet another kufar (infidel) stampede upon Pakistan’s sovereignty, Pakistan’s liberal and illiberal elites alike are absolutely silent on this operation. Not only is this hypocritical, it is unfathomable. The civilian toll of Pakistani conventional air strikes is legendary— far more lethal than drone strikes could possibly be. Where are the Code Pink activists and their Reprieve allies? Where is Hazrat Imran Khan? They are nowhere to be found. In their universe, the loss of innocents are only worth bemoaning if an American drone kills them. And even at its height, the U.S. drone program never caused massive internal displacements of persons like the various Pakistani operations have.
Of course the Pakistan army, as always, is completely unrestrained in its ability to manufacture facts about this operation, as none of their claims can be independently verified. So what can one actually believe?
What is the Pakistan Army Trying to Accomplish?
The timing and goals of this operation and its attendant human costs should be puzzling. It is doubtful that this operation will have a significant impact, given the long advance warning the terrorists were given. Nonetheless, the army will capture some weapons caches, shut down some land mine factories that have terrorized Pakistan and Afghanistan alike, and “discover” now-notorious tunnels that Islamist militants love to construct in the tribal areas. Certainly evidence of “foreign involvement” will be proclaimed to convince Pakistanis of the undying efforts of the “Brahmanic-Crusader-Talmudic” alliance to undo Pakistan. This will make for good television viewing and stock photographic images. But what will it really achieve?
First, it will likely comfort Pakistanis that their army can do what their civilians could not: deal with the Pakistani Taliban. Nawaz Sharif and his chief rival, Imran Khan, campaigned on a platform of negotiating with the Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban’s June assault on the Karachi airport reminded Pakistanis of their reach. It also reminded them of the inefficacy of Sharif’s efforts. The army was nonplussed with Sharif’s proposal for political reconciliation: for all its faults and fictionalizing, Pakistan’s security forces have suffered severe losses at the hands of the bad terrorists even while the spy masters of the ISI have sought to protect the “good mujahideen” who serve Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and India.
Second, the Pakistan army no doubt hopes to undermine calls from certain American critics to take Pakistan off of the American dole. Year after year, Americans continue to learn of Pakistan’s perfidy, which includes taking American cash as an ostensible ally in the war on terror while continuing to support, train, arm, guide, and control the various factions of the Afghan Taliban and groups such as the Haqqani Network who have killed thousands of Americans in Afghanistan. As Carlotta Gall has detailed in The Wrong Enemy, Americans have themselves to blame for waking up so late to realities that were obvious to anyone who was paying attention. The revelation that Osama Bin Laden was ensconced in a spartan sanctuary close to Pakistan’s military academy further outraged American policy makers and their electorate.
Reflecting this atmosphere of vexation with Pakistan’s double-dealing, in June 2014, Senator Carl Levin pushed forward an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015. Under the provision, the Secretary of Defense cannot waive the certification requirements needed to release $300 million of the $900 million Coalition Support Funds to Pakistan, unless he can certify that “Pakistan has undertaken military operations in North Waziristan that have significantly disrupted the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network.”
Third, this operation will further destabilize Afghanistan. It’s hard to believe that this was not one of the goals in the first place. As an election observer in Afghanistan, it was difficult to ignore that Pakistan’s so-called peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban and the ensuing “cease fire” was concurrent with the run-up to Afghanistan’s election. This must have freed up a lot of Pakistani militant resources for disruptive “actions” in Afghanistan. While Prime Minister Sharif may have been seeking some sort of political rapprochement with the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistan army had a very different understanding of what negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban meant. For the army, it meant trying to persuade the wayward Pakistani Taliban to stop targeting them and reorient their guns, IEDs, and suicide bombers towards Afghanistan where they could disrupt the election, harass Americans and their allies, and continue to demonstrate to Afghans the inefficacy of President Karzai and his government.
As one Pakistani journalist, M. Ilyas Khan, recently wrote for the BBC,
The overall picture is one of a military ground assault which is taking place at a time when most of the apparent ”adversaries” have disappeared from the scene. Many of them are reported to have crossed into Afghanistan and may play a potentially destabilising role there once all NATO combat troops leave by the end of the year.
For critics, including this author, this operation likely is more about driving Pakistani militants into Afghanistan rather than eliminating them or seeking their disarmament and demobilization. The timing could not be better from Pakistan’s point of view: with Abdullah Abdullah insisting that the presidency has been stolen from him a second time, Afghanistan’s near future is in question. This injection of yet more killers will further destabilize Afghanistan, which would at least give Pakistan’s Taliban proxies more time, more breathing space, and more murderous allies. At the same time, such instability will preclude the Indians, now led by a staunch Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, from putting forward a plan for Afghanistan.
Hit Rewind. Press Play?
There is no likelihood that the Pakistan army will decide to shut down its support to the menagerie of Islamist militants operating in and from Pakistan. Therefore it’s difficult to not conclude that many innocent Pashtuns will die, lose their property, and remain in camps for internally displaced persons so that the Pakistan army can—once again—fool its citizenry and the international community all the while continuing to play the double game that it plays so well. Yes. We’ve seen this show before. And it never has a satisfying ending.
C. Christine Fair is an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program within Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of the new book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.
Photo credit: Al Jazeera English