Implications of Military Operations in North Waziristan Agency for Pakistan and the US
Since beginning of August 2012, the grapevine in print and electronic media has been buzzing with the question of whether or not the Pakistan Army will launch a military offensive in North Waziristan Agency (NWA). With such consistent media coverage, these impending operations, if any, became much debated operations raising critical questions among the larger segment of society. While Pakistan’s instinctive response was to unequivocally deny the media leaks; nevertheless Army chief’s address at the Azadi Parade on 14 August, calling for national unity “in the battle against terrorism” made many analysts to interpret it as an indication for necessity of military operations against militants and Pakistan’s willingness for such a venture in North Waziristan. This exaggerated overdrive of speculations and expectations have made the whole scene clouded by rumours and contradictions about operations in NWA leaving the masses worried and concerned. In such fragile and uncertain environment dispelling the impression of any possibility of “joint operations” by the Army Chief himself endowed the masses with most needed assurance. Although the nations stands unified in support of the belief that elimination of the menace of terrorism remains essential; albeit expects adoption of methodology best suited for Pakistan.
No doubt war operations are thoroughly deliberated and carefully planned, yet these rarely take place as planned or intended. The planning for World War I and II continued for decades with meticulous care but nothing went as planned and military operations did not take an anticipated course. It can, thus, be argued that wars take unpredictable courses causing unexpected consequences. This contextual support allows assuming that any military action in NWA by Pakistan in the prevalent security and political environment would involve severe repercussions on various fronts. Pakistan Army went in for military action in SWA in the past to eliminate the evil-doers. Despite Army’s enormous contribution thereafter in the economic development of these areas, repercussions of these operations reverberate, even today, to the detriment of the soil of Pakistan. A final decision about the type and scale of military operation in NWA, therefore, warrants detailed deliberations taking cognizance of all possible envisaged repercussions of these operations.
The operation will certainly have serious implications for Pakistan at different fronts. While there is no gainsaying that half-hearted measures in North Waziristan will not be in the interest of Pakistan and the US both, rushing into a full-blown military offensive could also turn out to be counterproductive worsening already precarious law and order situation in Pakistan further and badly affecting GWOT led by the US. This article is dedicated to identify the implications of military operations in NWA both for Pakistan and the US and suggesting a way forward as well. Envisaged repercussions for Pakistan are enlisted below:
Repercussions for Pakistan
- Neutrality can turn into hostility. NWA is supposedly the sanctuary for al-Qaeda elements, the Haqqani network, TTP, Hafiz Gul Bahadar group and other militant outfits including the Punjabi Taliban. Haqqani network, Bahadar’s group and al-Qaeda elements are not directly engaged in volatile activities against Pakistan. Their armed struggle is confined to Afghanistan only. In case of military operation in NWA, their neutrality vis-à-vis Pakistan is expected to transform into hostility making them to turn some of their guns towards Pakistan thereby creating serious security challenges. Whereas the Punjabi Taliban have their presence in Southern Punjab and Karachi where they can violently react to the situation. The Pakistan needs to prepare itself to absorb and handle such a backlash. Besides this backlash, Military operations in NWA will damage the confidence and trust which Pakistan enjoys with Taliban in Afghanistan. Hitherto the Taliban in Afghanistan have not been hostile against Pakistan, however the military operation against Haqqani can upset them affecting mutual confidence and Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moreover, neutralizing or cutting off the Network’s in North Waziristan alone will not suffice for elimination of the menace of terrorism. The external links and networks supplying arms and ammunition should also be dealt with simultaneously.
- Negativity of Blame Game against Pakistan. Terming the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm of ISI” will not do any good and. The ground reality is that Pakistan military is engaged at multiple fronts round the clock. On top of it to be called insincere in its efforts to hunt and kill terrorists is hurting and morally discouraging. For Pakistan Army to engage in a warfare that will result in collateral damage to its own people is an astounding endeavour. North Waziristan’s uneven terrain is inhospitable for any sustained military action therein. Hence engaging herself in operations could entangle the Army inadvertently with masses not supporting operations due to the US stance about Haqqanis.
- Traditional and historical context. Tribal agencies having their own peculiar cultural history have never been vanquished and stood fast against attacks by British and USSR in the past. The British, despite declared victory almost a hundred years ago in Waziristan, could not subjugate the tribal people and abandoned the area rather soon. The trait is the same even today and the tribal elders can perceive present efforts as the US motivated even if initiated by Pakistan independently and alone. Such perception would not remain limited to NWA alone and entire tribal belt already volatile and infested with cruel elements can spark the tribal sentiment which can transform into anti state feelings and accomplishments as well.
- Humanitarian crisis. According to estimates, based on the 1998 Census Report, NWA houses 50, 000 families having a population of more than 500,000 people. Military operation in NWA could displace a large number of people resulting into the second highest displacement in the military operations after Swat. The people suffered a great deal during similar displacement mounted up after other such operations and majority of them couldn’t get any assistance from the government or NGOs. The problem will get further compounded as the chaotic security situation will not allow free and frequent humanitarian activities. FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) is already looking after 123,750 displaced families. This means that FDMA alone will not be able take care of such large number of displaced people. Hence government needs to prepare itself for the new crisis of displacement.
- Financial Implications. The current financial crunch coupled with the issue of unemployment and closure of enterprises had badly impacted the already limited resources of the government. This precarious financial ability of the present government raise some serious questions over the preparedness of the government to deal with the issue of expected displacement of around 500, 000 people as a result of military operations in NWA. Already registered 123,750 displaced families are living in miserable conditions.
- Diluting the Army’s potential. With already thousands of army personnel stretched out in FATA, western borders and other calamity hit areas, undertaking operations in NWA will further dilute the army’s ability to react to new situations, leaving pitfalls in the security of the country and creating voids on the eastern border. The situations like post-Mumbai attacks can disrupt the proclaimed normalcy with India which would demand a befitting response in case India undertakes any venture after such situations. The policy makers must ensure that this operation and future military activities must not lay bare our eastern border.
- Shifting of Talibans to hinterland of Pakistan. Taliban are good at relocating themselves as and when they consider it necessary. With their sanctuaries abolished in FATA, SWA and other areas along Afghan border, Talibans can choose already bruised Baluchistan as their next recluse in the event of military operation in NWA. Such happening would have rather grave consequences than the peaceful presence of these elements in NWA. With RAW and other agencies already in play there, the possibility of the province becoming hostage at the hands of these elements cannot be deemed “beyond the realm of possibility”. The army and other Law Enforcement Agencies do not possess sufficient resources to take them on concomitantly in Baluchistan, FATA, SWA and NWA. Moreover, Pakistan is already engaged in extensive operations against militants and terrorists in different areas and pockets where civil authorities could not yet assume control. Initiating operations in such environment would be like making Army busy with both hands. Therefore, opening of new fronts would be unrealistic.
- Polarization of the Pakistani society. Operations in NWA at this stage could trigger the process of polarization of the Pakistani society at much faster pace. Pakistan has already made unprecedented contributions for accomplishing her role in the GWOT by sacrificing over forty thousand precious lives and enduring losses worth 100 billion dollar to infrastructure. These colossal contributions are objected by many quarters especially when the US led allies play blame game against Pakistan as a tool of coercion. Opening of this new front would spark more reaction and earn harsh retaliations from the quarters which believe it as compliance to the US insistence. Pakistan, thus, needs to be cognizant of the fact that military operation in NWA can further polarize the society and impact the much needed national harmony negatively. Though Chief of Army Staff has already made an effort to address this aspect to an extent by emphasizing on the importance of not doubting the country’s military leadership in what choices it makes for the sake of the unity of Pakistan during his speech on the Independence Day at the Pakistan Military Academy, yet lot more needs to be done.
- Possibility of hot pursuit operations by the US/NATO. The US / NATO planners will keep hot pursuit operations as one of the chief contingency if so called coordinated operations are initiated on both sides of Durand Line. Although the possibility is already dispelled by non less than COAS himself, yet repeated proclamations by the senior US officials about the “Joint or Coordinated Operations” against Haqqani Group raise concerns . The assertion of joint or coordinated operations can be exploited for hot pursuit operations on Pakistani soil like in June 2008, when NATO forces bombed Mohmand Agency where Pakistan army was present. Pakistan’s Government may display a high degree of tolerance over such happening but people would lose patience and resort to angry public demonstrations.
Implications for the US
- Anti US sentiment in Pakistan. The US needs Pakistan, both to balance growing Chinese influence and partnership in GWOT. Pakistan’s relevance further signifies for the need of successful withdrawal from Afghanistan as Pakistan can facilitate negotiated settlement and can provide the cover for turning a retreat into a smooth exit. Pakistan needs the United States to balance against India and have a stable Afghanistan for securing peace on her western frontier. Nevertheless, insistence for military operations in NWA can turn an already unfavorable public feeling into a strong anti US sentiment; leaving limited options for the Government of Pakistan. The US, therefore, should not push Pakistan too far to face a domestic front.
- Shifting of Militants to CARs. The Taliban are optimized for the battlefield they fight on and have relatively superior ingress among the masses of border areas of neighbouring nations and implicit support of elements striving against the US. In case of military operations in NWA, shifting to other areas would be the most likely option of militants. The best place for seeking refuge and continue their activities against the US would be Fergana Valley which stretches through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union groups that have a loyal following in the Fergana valley can render needed assistance to the elements shifting from NWA. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan do not posses enough military capability to handle this kind of situation. It would be much difficult for the US or NATO to operate there as compared to Afghanistan.
- Drawdown related Complications. It is estimated that 1,30,000 soldiers, 50-70,000 vehicles and 1,20,000 containers must be moved out for planned withdrawal by 2014. The US and NATO are quite aware of Afghanistan’s history with invaders. Military withdrawals from Afghanistan have ended in disaster several times in the past; the British departure in 1842 and the Soviets withdrawal in 1989 ended in chaos. Both the British and the Soviets left a country that they had been unable to pacify. This also holds true for the US and NATO today. Insurgents who would shift to many places as a result of operation in NWA would presumably do everything possible to launch attacks on NATO troops during their withdrawal. The situation will get untenable if masses in Pakistan get out in the streets for the reasons highlighted above to prevent PAKGLOCs and militants start creating mayhem on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).
Suggested Way Forward
The US and NATO would leave Afghanistan without suffering strategic disaster. They can claim elimination of menace of terrorism while acquitting Afghanistan to remain on high moral plinth. Pakistan cannot leave Pakistan nor it can change its border with Afghanistan nor can it evaporate the sympathies and bondage of many Pakistani ethnic groups with Taliban phenomenon. There is, thus, an asymmetry in the US and Pakistani interests about military operations in NWA. The Chief of Army Staff took cognizance of this aspect and clearly reiterated Pakistan’s perspective, saying, “We might, if necessary, undertake operations in NWA, in the timeframe of our choosing and determined only by our political and military requirements. It will never be a result of any outside pressure. Pakistan’s national interest continues to be the prime consideration for any decision in this regard.” This reiteration not only evaporates the common perception that military operation in NWA by Pakistan Army would be on behest of the US but also reassures Pakistani masses that Pakistan’s interests will not be jeopardized. The concerns and implications highlighted above notwithstanding, getting rid of the menace of terrorism from the country and providing much deserved peace to the public is essential. Pakistan, despite all negativities, had to gnaw this bitter pill to flush out the perpetrators of terrorism. Following course of action should be adhered to.
- Pakistan must develop consensus among the masses by taking notables from all walks of life that the war against extremism and terrorism is the need of hour. The whole nation must stand united against this threat. Supporting the Army relentlessly is imperative if the Pakistani nation wants to rid itself of terrorists and their ruthless plots to increase terrorism in Pakistan.
- Finalization of anti terrorism laws, pending at the level of parliament for quite some time, must be ensured to provide legitimacy to the military operations.
- The capacity of civil administration should be enhanced before initiating military operations thereby making it capable of administering the affected areas without Army’s assistance.
- The old cliché still holds: war is politics. A political solution to the conflict such as initiating negotiations with the Taliban is the need of the hour. Efforts should be focused to eliminate the cause and not the executor of the cause. Pakistan must leverage its influence and persuade the Haqqani and other groups who are not anti Pakistan to close down their activities and exit North Waziristan and go into Afghanistan where the bulk of their fighters are already based. Reportedly, the US and NATO have been striking every conceivable deal with Afghan Taliban to make their withdrawal smooth. Pakistan too, to avoid backlash of operations, should resort to this approach.
- While the door for negotiation and dialogue must never be closed, there must be absolutely no leniency for those who do not accept the writ of the Pakistani state.
- Physical dominance of rugged territory of NWA is not possible; also in irregular war physical dominance remains of limited value. Moreover, the NWA dynamics do not support an all out military offensive for various reasons. Creating an illusion of victory than attaining victory would yield better dividends. American operations in Helmand are a case in point. On the other hand, rather than losing many men in pitched battles, the militant groups will disperse while engaging advancing troops with few fighters in combination with the use of area denial weapons like IEDs and booby traps. Therefore, going for all out operations do not stay a fundamental operational necessity.
- Above and beyond, Pakistan should play an active role for the success of reconciliation process in Afghanistan. This concomitant initiative will also facilitate negotiations with the Haqqani Group who would indirectly become part of the larger negotiation process. If that is done, it would leave the Pakistan Army to deal with the TTP and its affiliates and others elements in NWA with their sanctuaries abolished or freedom of action curtailed in Afghanistan.
- Having created such obtaining environment, a relatively less daunting operation would be required, that too in an enabling environment, allowing Pakistan to eradicate the remaining elements through selected targeting procedure. This approach would cause least bloodshed and violence, exhibit Pakistan’s resolve for elimination of negative elements and allow gaining the support of masses due to easily acceptable justification for limited operations.
- While the operation on both side of the Durand Line are a primary necessity to curb the nefarious activities of militants, better border management and close cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the eventual obligation to control terrorism and establish the writ of the state in border areas. Pakistan should avail this opportunity and involve the US and international community to develop efficient border management system across the Durand Line which would cease the prospect of continued insurgent attacks from across the Durand Line.
Learning lessons from its past, Pakistan must take concrete measures to avoid political, military and humanitarian crises in the country against the backdrop of a military operation in North Waziristan. Pakistan should also convince the US and NATO to share the burden caused by the influx of huge number of displaced people and other economic losses. Only then the people may begin to trust the policy makers, something missing so far in the decade-long war on terror. If militancy can truly be wiped out, this would genuinely brighten the future of Pakistan. The future generations of Pakistan deserve this. We have suffered greatly as a result of the Taliban threat. There is a need to search for a durable solution with least bloodshed. Successful operations in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009 would not have been possible without public support. So it would be a wise thing for Pakistan to realize the need for building political consensus within the country for such a critical impending military campaign.