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By Zeeshan Salahuddin
With much of the world's focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict, a similarly tragic conflict has gone all but unnoticed. On June 15, the Pakistani Army launched a comprehensive military offensive in the northwestern part of the country, targeting militants in the North Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The operation was termed "Zarb-e-Azb"—translating as “a strike from the Azb,” the sword wielded by the holy prophet Mohammed—which established the doctrine of the armed forces from the first blow. It was a holy crusade against the enemies of the country and the enemies of Islam, an operation that was judicious, unrelenting, and absolute.
Asim Bajwa, Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the public relations wing of Pakistan’s military, said the military will make no distinction between militants in terms of their affiliation or backing. "We will hunt them down wherever they go," he asserted. As of August 28, 2014, 600 militants have been killed, whereas the military has lost 29 soldiers in the conflict. One civilian death has also been reported in relation to militant attacks.
The operation came after a series of devastating attacks by the Taliban and their affiliates, following failed talks between the government and the Taliban. The latest of these attacks targeted the Karachi airport, in an attempt to damage military infrastructure and aircrafts. It caused an uproar in international media, a well-established tactic that paints Pakistan in a very negative light in the international community.
The attack was mostly unsuccessful, with the militants shot down on the outer perimeter after hours of fighting and resulting in the death of 37, including the 10 attackers. Prior to the Karachi confrontation, militants attacked the Peshawar airport in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province in December 2012, Kamra Airbase (75 kilometers north of Islamabad) in August 2012, and Karachi-based Pakistan Naval Station Mehran in May 2011.
Earlier this year, the Pakistani state invited Taliban representatives to negotiate a peace treaty, in an attempt to bring stability to the country, which has been under attack since 2004. This move, announced by Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar, was lauded by the religious right and largely condemned by moderates and leftists.
The first round was held on March 26, 2014. Ultimately, the negotiations were unsuccessful, as militant factions continued to attack the state apparatus, despite declaring an unconditional ceasefire. The brazen airport attack in Karachi, the country’s largest city with an estimated population of over 20 million, became the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
The military had already been using aircrafts to conduct periodic bombardment of militant facilities and hideouts for several months. The ground offensive began on June 15 and, from the beginning, the military faced numerous challenges. First of all, the terrain is mountainous and highly porous, particularly along the border with Afghanistan. Tracking and trapping an indigenous enemy in this terrain is a logistical nightmare for any military plan. Second, the area is well populated by civilians, with close to a million inhabitants. The civilians were given advanced warning to evacuate the area, resulting in a massive exodus and the second largest internally displaced people (IDP) crisis Pakistan has faced in the past five years. Nearly 950,000 people have been displaced in the conflict’s wake. The previous military offensive in northern Pakistan’s Swat Valley was conducted in May 2009, also resulting in millions of IDPs.
According to Major General Richard Barrons of the U.K. military, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - the Pakistan chapter of the Taliban) fighters are an estimated 36,000 strong, 14,530 - 16,640 of which operate out of North Waziristan and adjoining areas, as estimated by Al Jazeera on February 28. Reports indicate that some 5,000 foreign fighters have fled the area altogether, whereas hundred have escaped from the areas where the military is conducting operations, embedded amongst the IDP civilians. The fact that we have only seen 600 casualties and another two dozen militants that surrendered, from a pool of roughly 7,000 fighters, thus seems a plausible number. However, it also manifests itself as a problem, as the militancy has been routed, but not rooted out.
News of the military offensive has all but died out in recent weeks. On August 14, Pakistan's independence day, Imran Khan (leader of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the second largest political party to emerge after the May 2013 elections) and Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri (a firebrand, self-proclaimed moderate who openly supports the military) embarked on their respective "azadi" (freedom) and "inqilaab" (revolution) marches against the sitting government. Hundreds of thousands of supporters poured into the federal capital of Islamabad.
Two weeks later, they still lay siege to the strategic red zone, where the Parliament House, the National Assembly, the Prime Minister House, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and various other government buildings are situated. The resulting clamor has all but drowned out the news of the military offensive, which continues unabated, with the military in near full control of the North Waziristan Agency. Even an attack in Quetta, on two military airbases on August 14-15, received minimal coverage. The attack was completely thwarted and all 12 perpetrators killed.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb may be deemed successful because the military has effectively gained control of the land. If history repeats itself, the population should be largely rehabilitated and peace can return to the area, much as it did to the Swat Valley in the years following the 2009 operation. However, several hurdles remain. First, the insurgency runs deep, and is now embedded with the fleeing civilian population. It is very much active, as demonstrated by the military airbase attacks in Quetta in mid-August. Second, the ideology remains intact, and while routing the militants is a good thing, a well-designed counter-narrative campaign must be implemented--for example, sharing the military's award-wining stories of heroism in the wake of the 2009 operation.
Until the ideological fire that fuels the militant rebellion is snuffed out, militancy will inevitably rear its ugly head again. As the military campaign drags on into its third month, the might of the army is undeniable, but bullets and artillery fire alone cannot dismantle the mentality that lurks behind this insurgency.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist based in Pakistan.
[Photo courtesy of M Tauqeer Ahmed]