Progress and Peril in North Waziristan


Last month, I had a rare opportunity to visit North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region blessed with rugged beauty, yet cursed with a long history of conflict. Long a haven for terrorists, both local and foreign, it’s been described as the most dangerous place on earth.

My visit was eye-opening — but it also raised some unsettling questions. There were clear signs that Pakistan has made progress in countering terrorism in North Waziristan, but also good reason to believe that a less positive picture lay beyond the small area I saw. Moreover, Pakistan’s efforts in the region cannot be designated an unqualified success, given its lack of decisive action against certain terror groups, particularly the Haqqani Network. I also was struck by how easily the progress made could be squandered, thanks to the enduring presence and appeal of extremism around the country. Ultimately, the North Waziristan counterterrorism campaign highlights the broader disagreements between the United States and Pakistan over the latter’s support for militants, a divide that has widened with the Trump administration’s threats to Pakistan over its ties to terrorists.

A Well-Timed Visit

The trip was arranged by a Pakistani military keen to showcase its achievements in an area where it has waged a punishing counterterrorism campaign, called Zarb-e-Azb, against anti-state violent jihadists since 2014. The operation has substantially degraded the capacities of the Pakistani Taliban, which is responsible for the majority of Pakistan’s terror attacks over the last decade.

Subsequently, Pakistani civilian deaths from terrorist violence plummeted from more than 3,000 in 2012 to just over 600 in 2016. In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where North Waziristan is located, the number fell from about 550 to fewer than 80 over that same period. Even the most hardened critic of Pakistan can’t deny that its counterterrorism fight has paid some dividends. To be sure, it’s overly generous to describe Zarb-e-Azb as a full-fledged success story, since some terrorists were simply displaced elsewhere in Pakistan or over the border into Afghanistan. Moreover, while many Pakistani Taliban fighters have been killed, it is difficult to verify whether, as the military claims, thousands of them in fact died in the operation. Still, the sharp decrease in terror-related civilian deaths is a striking and heartening data point.

The timing of the visit, which I made with several other U.S. South Asia analysts, was significant. The Trump administration is raising the pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terror groups, particularly the Haqqani Network branch of the Afghan Taliban, that are based in Pakistan and target Americans in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered this tough message in Islamabad last week, just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did in October. U.S. officials acknowledge Pakistan’s progress against groups like the Pakistani Taliban, which the government in Islamabad considers an enemy. However, the United States is highly skeptical of Pakistan’s claims that it has acted against the Afghanistan-focused groups, which are a top U.S. priority but act as an asset for the Pakistani military.

What better way, then, for Pakistan to illustrate its achievements against anti-state terror — and, perhaps, to distract Washington from concerns about the lack of action against terrorists who target Americans — than by bringing Americans to North Waziristan to see the government’s progress in a region where terror has long run rampant? U.S. congressional and military delegations have made visits over the last year or so, and participants have spoken positively about their experiences. “I was very impressed with the progress,” Sen. John McCain said after a visit in July 2016.

From War Zone to Locus for Development

I was also impressed. A bus took us on well-paved roads around Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan — once a coveted zip code for bad guys both Pakistani and foreign and a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes. Today, the former war zone has become a locus for development. We saw new markets, athletic fields, and medical clinics — all constructed by the military. In the part of town we drove through, there were relatively few destroyed buildings. We also saw many Pakistani flags. Not too long ago, a military official told us, it was Taliban flags flying everywhere.

Sure, I knew we’d be getting a dog and pony show — a carefully choreographed visit meant to reveal only what our hosts wanted us to see. Indeed, there was something surreal about our sojourn through Miranshah, as we were shuttled around in a luxury bus from one new development project to the other. It was like being on a VIP visit to a shiny new theme park.

No reasonable observer would call Miranshah safe today — more than half a dozen armed trucks escorted our bus around the city. Still, it’s come a long way. You can’t construct roads or hospitals — or bring American visitors out to see these projects — if you’re under siege by terrorists. Even a Potemkin village, which skeptical observers may contend is what we saw, requires a modicum of security to be built.

And yet, the questions lingered. What do the locals, traumatized not just by terrorism but also by massive displacements and the army’s scorched-earth counterterrorism tactics, think about these new development projects? We didn’t have an opportunity to speak to them, and the military was mum on the issue. Clearly, however, not everyone is pleased. In January, nearly 80 residents filed a petition claiming they have been prevented from repossessing some 8,000 shops in Miranshah destroyed during Zarb-e-Azb. More broadly, there’s good reason to believe that what we saw represented the exception rather than the norm. North Waziristan locals have told Pakistani reporters that the area remains woefully underdeveloped, and that most of the recent development projects have been built near government facilities.

There’s also good reason to fear the security situation beyond Miranshah. Despite the insistence by our military hosts that there are “no no-go areas,” terrorism continues to stalk other parts of North Waziristan and the broader tribal region. The FATA Research Center, a nonpartisan Pakistani research group, estimates there were 33 “terrorist incidents” across FATA between July and September 2017. This is a notable drop from the 74 such incidents reported over the first three months of 2014 (several months before the launch of Zarb-e-Azb). Still, a region convulsed by nearly three dozen terror attacks over a three-month period is far from stable.

Squandered Progress?

Ultimately, the trip left me more unsettled than reassured. Despite less terrorism and more development in North Waziristan, Pakistani state and society still nurture an environment that encourages and enables extremism. Triumphs over terror in North Waziristan do not mean the nation has triumphed over terror on the whole. On the contrary, so long as extremism remains entrenched, Pakistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism.

Indeed, radicalization is deep in Pakistan, and in areas far from Waziristan. Extremist ideologies are prevalent across the country. From public school textbooks to religious leaders’ sermons and even the Constitution — which contains a clause designating Ahmadis, a minority sect of Islam, as non-Muslims — society is rife with hostile views about religious minorities, India, and the West.

In fact, the deep tentacles of extremism nearly torpedoed our trip to North Waziristan. Mysterious road closures delayed our drive to an airfield in Islamabad where a helicopter was to spirit us to Miranshah. With concerns about worsening weather in the tribal region, we faced the possibility of having to cancel the trip altogether.

Eventually, we learned that government officials had shut down several key Islamabad roads in anticipation of a protest led by a hardline Islamist group called Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY). The protesters were opposing a change the government had made to the oath all electoral candidates must utter that affirms Muhammad as the final prophet. TLY is no innocuous group of religious conservatives. Party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi regularly fulminates against Pakistan’s religious minorities. The group lionizes Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who in 2011 assassinated a former governor of Punjab province simply for opposing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. One of TLY’s rallying cries is “death to blasphemers.”

Fortunately, we reached the airfield in time and were able to make the trip. Still, the irony was unmistakable: An attempt to showcase counterterrorism progress was nearly foiled by an impending protest of religious extremists.

The State and Militancy

These protestors, and their handling by the state, are the latest manifestation of Pakistan’s extremism problem — and another reason to fear that the progress in North Waziristan could be fleeting. It speaks to a whack-a-mole effect in Pakistan — if you snuff terror out in one place, it can easily pop up somewhere else.

TLY is one of several new hardline religious parties that not only mobilize on the street, but contest local elections. It bagged more than 7,000 votes in a recent by-election in Lahore. The Milli Muslim League (MML), a party with links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, won nearly 6,000 in the same poll. (By comparison, the Pakistan People’s Party — one of the country’s main opposition parties and the ruling party in the previous government — netted about 1,500.) These parties are not terrorist organizations, but they do not renounce violence. TLY leader Rizvi is explicitly violent in his sermons. In a speech earlier this year about several abducted liberal social media activists, he declared, “The whole Ummah demands that you kill them.”

The Pakistani security establishment supports bringing groups like TLY into the political process, claiming this “mainstreaming” could turn them away from violence. At a dinner in Rawalpindi after our trip to North Waziristan, I heard a senior Pakistani military official ask why, if the United States could support Ireland’s Sinn Fein party joining the political mainstream, couldn’t it support mainstreaming Islamist parties in Pakistan? This analogy, of course, is questionable; among other things, Sinn Fein formally renounced violence in 1997. The risk is that bringing groups like TLY and MML into the political fold will strengthen and even legitimize the hardline ideologies that spawn militancy, thereby weakening more moderate political forces and increasing future prospects for terror.

The government’s position toward these hardliners is concerning. Several days after our trip to Waziristan, the TLY-led march arrived in Islamabad. Protestors initiated a sit-in that lasted more than two weeks, demanding that Zahid Hamid, the law minister responsible for changing the electoral oath, be removed from office. For 17 days, the government did little to end the protest. Finally, after a bungled effort by police to disperse the sit-in turned violent, the government — with the military’s mediation — concluded a deal with the protestors in which Islamabad agreed to fire Hamid. The agreement ended the crisis and eliminated the risk of more violent protests — but it also meant the government had capitulated to hardliners.

Then there’s the Pakistani military’s broader contribution to an environment that fosters extremism. The army has long practiced a selective policy toward terrorism, targeting groups that stage attacks in Pakistan, like the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving alone those that use Pakistan as a base and draw state support. These include the anti-India groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba and anti-Afghanistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network — all of which receive varying degrees of largesse from Pakistani security and intelligence officials. So long as these militant groups continue to enjoy the use of Pakistani soil, other efforts to combat extremism will be incomplete and ultimately unsuccessful.

The military’s selective counterterrorism posture highlights the incomplete picture we got in North Waziristan: Pakistan had acted forcefully against the Pakistani Taliban, which the security establishment considers a threat. But when it came to Washington’s top priority, the Haqqani Network, the picture was a lot murkier. Predictably, our hosts in North Waziristan insisted, as Pakistani officials often do, that Zarb-e-Azb’s aim was “to eliminate all terrorist networks.” During the ride through Miranshah, where the Haqqani network used to be headquartered, they pointed out several locations — the basement of a mosque, a barren field — as former bases for the group. One of our military briefers, when asked what happened to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, simply said it had “melted away.”

In fact, it’s likely that the group has merely been displaced from North Waziristan up north to other areas of the tribal belt. American officials and even local tribesmen believe the Pakistanis tipped off the Haqqanis in North Waziristan before Zarb-e-Azb began, to give them an opportunity to escape. U.S. analysts claim the group relocated its main base to the Kurram tribal agency, and several Pakistani researchers have told me it has a presence in the Kurram capital of Parachinar. In June, a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed a Haqqani commander in an area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province just over the border from Kurram.

While the Haqqani network may have been dispersed in North Waziristan, it has not been destroyed and likely not even diminished on a regional and national level. The group remains alive and well in Pakistan, underscoring that while the counterterrorism progress we saw in Miranshah is very real, by no means is it an unqualified success.

Implications for U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Our trip to North Waziristan encapsulated the troubled state of U.S.-Pakistan relations — particularly the sharp mismatch in expectations and interests between the two sides on the issue of terrorism. We saw the achievements of a Pakistani counterterrorism operation that U.S. officials rightly regard as impressive but ultimately insufficient, because it didn’t address Washington’s priority concern: hunting down the Haqqani network.

One of the Pakistani military’s main messages to us in North Waziristan was this: Pakistan has eliminated its terror safe havens, and now the need is for Afghanistan to stabilize its own border region to prevent terrorists on its soil from staging attacks in Pakistan. “The threat,” we were informed, “lies across the border.”

But Washington’s view is very different. U.S. officials concede that Pakistan is doing the right thing by stabilizing its border with Afghanistan and has every right to expect Kabul to do the same on its side. At the same time, Washington does not believe the threat simply “lies across the border.” Rather, U.S. officials argue that Pakistan remains unstable in no small part because it still provides safe havens to regional militants — and it’s high time Pakistan track down terrorists that stage attacks in Afghanistan, including on U.S. troops.

U.S. officials — including Mattis during his recent trip — acknowledge the counterterrorism progress that we saw in North Waziristan, as well as the Pakistani lives lost in the country’s fight against terror. And yet Americans and Pakistanis fundamentally disagree on the issue of cross-border militancy emanating from Pakistan. America says it’s a major concern, while the Pakistanis either dispute this premise or, as they did during our trip, speak around the issue.

Indeed, one of the deepest disconnects in U.S.-Pakistan relations is rooted in threat perceptions. The Haqqani Network is America’s enemy and Pakistan’s asset. The Pakistani Taliban is also America’s enemy — but an enemy of much greater priority for Pakistan.

This fundamental divide was thrown into sharp relief on a visit to a restive locale that provided a tantalizing glimpse of how much better things could become — but also a humbling reminder about the fragility of the progress that has been made there.


Michael Kugelman is the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @michaelkugelman

Image: Michael Kugelman