As Pakistan’s military runs through its ground offensive in the federally-administered North Waziristan tribal agency in the punishing July heat of Ramzan, the harrowing homelessness of almost a million tribal people poses the most poignant humanitarian challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in its labyrinth. The disastrous ordeal of the displaced is by far the most compelling counterpoint to maintaining momentum and morale in this deadly battle, but several other concerns also roil the confused public conversation about the offensive.
The key question begging attention is not just about Zarb-e-Azb itself but about the possibility of its gestation into a full-on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaign. In other words, is Zarb-e-Azb going to remain a military exercise or does it signal a new phase in Pakistan’s long encounter with terrorism? Pakistan has carried out several military operations against terrorists in the tribal areas in the past, so how and why would this one be any different?
It is different for more than one reason. Unlike other initiatives, the task and timing of the North Waziristan operation has been discussed threadbare for years by all players, Pakistani and international, including NATO, the U.S., and Afghanistan. North Waziristan, where the U.S. has rained down over 250 Hellfire missiles in search of high-value Al Qaeda targets, has not only been seen as the last holdout of the infamous Haqqani network, it has also been cast as the toughest theater for a military offensive. In fact, the challenge of an offensive there was often seen as so onerous that the costs of terrorist blowback and military overstretch were regularly cited as prohibitive until the timing was seen as right or a broad political consensus urged it on.
Today, after several audacious attacks, including last month’s assault on Karachi Airport, it seems the terrorist advance triggered a tipping point for the military to launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb, but the government conversation around it is still embedded in tactical terms.
For the operation to count, or rather not be wasted as a costly and tough military offensive that flushes out terrorists from one enclave only to have them resurface in another, it will have to go to the next level, which would include baseline transparency about arrests and casualties. The military’s task is to recapture territory, close down sanctuaries, degrade enemy capacity, and weed out militants. But for the operation to sustain the state’s reestablished writ without reversing gains, the civilian-military leadership will have to create internal clarity about the scope, reach, endgame, and strategic objective of this operation.
What must be done? Connecting the dots in a state structure severely compromised by years of poor governance and rickety institutional capacity will not be easy. Yet, Zarb-e-Azb can be seen as an opportunity, an entry point, to begin the long campaign to reclaim Pakistan from the clutches of terrorism and extremism. To begin with, there are at least 10 simultaneous priorities that are urgent and unavoidable—and these require joint resolve, institutional clarity, and strategic focus.
First Relief, then Rehabilitation
The first and most urgent priority remains providing relief and shelter to those displaced by Zarb-e-Azb. Almost a million have registered as internally-displaced persons from North Waziristan, and the number is growing. To avoid the dimming of public morale, a resolute interagency, federally-orchestrated effort is necessary to address their suffering and treat the IDPs as more than a mere war statistic. At a time when Pakistan is making the beginnings of a painful transition by reclaiming its writ, tribal alienation can potentially be its worst unintended consequence.
At the very least, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government must be allowed to bring in more trained relief agencies, and efforts must be stepped up to deny space to proscribed and violent jihadist outfits rebranded as benign religious charities. While the government has finally acknowledged that the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates are fundamentally linked, some frontline relief work for IDPs in Bannu, for instance, is reportedly being carried out by jihadist groups rebranded as charities, peddling their exclusivist ideology.
Rehabilitation will come later. And for that, both budgeting and a build-back-better civilian system need to be in place. In the absence of a viable resettlement plan to protect populations from the twin burden of displacement and terrorist reprisals, thousands of dislocated people are adrift to Khost and Paktika across the border in Afghanistan. The U.N. has made its appeal, but it is Pakistan’s responsibility to create hospitable shelter for them. For now, some of these IDPs have already begun the trek back from Afghanistan, but mismanagement and deprivation largely define their daily experience. Some lessons from the 2009 Swat relief, recovery, and resettlement effort may be in order.
Given that Pakistan faces a complex terrorism and insurgent challenge, the battle has to be owned, led, and sequentially time-lined from the top. Political ownership and internal coherence are critical for the successful, logical outcome of any military operation and counterterrorism campaign. Right now the military is clearly taking a lead on what should have been a national, multi-sector offensive. Without strong civilian leadership and equally robust interagency coordination, which has been blunted by abiding political tensions between the party heading the federal government and the party leading the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government, this operation may only amount to an incalculable loss of blood and treasure. The politics of confrontation between the provinces and center will have to be managed better, for a start. At this sensitive moment for forging national unity, a deft hand on the political-consensus wheel is needed, not the politics of street agitation nor the government’s inexplicable delays in crisis resolution in Parliament with a highly charged opposition.
As it stands, expecting one military operation to stand in for a full counter-terror policy plan is not the way forward. Nor should the operation just organically drift into an uncoordinated series of tactical initiatives undertaken reactively by the military in response to spectacular terrorist offensives. It would be myopic to think that the lack of blowback from the Taliban is permanent. Asymmetrical warfare means dealing with combat over space and time, with the enemy regrouping and returning to the battlefield not when the state is in its operational momentum, but when they are least expected to. History, and Pakistan’s neighborhood, is replete with bloody lessons of such insurgent and terrorist tactics. Memories of the 2001 melt-away of the Taliban in Afghanistan are instructive, as are lessons learnt from their subsequent return in 2005.
Therefore, coordinated executive-tasking for a long, sustained campaign is needed from the prime minister’s office. No ministry will command joint reporting from all agencies at this point. The national-security committee set up a few months ago was a good move, but it clearly remains operationally weak. With terrorists on the march across the Middle East, Pakistan’s stakes in reversing the tide at home are too high for all hands to not be on deck. At the very minimum, a fusion cell needs to be resourced and empowered, with an overarching coordinating body, such as the National Counter Terrorism Authority, working day and night to define, tweak and coordinate goals. This agency has legislative cover, so no wheel-reinvention is needed. What is required is political support so NACTA can start coordinating intelligence and operational efforts across civilian and non-civilian law-enforcement and security agencies.
Reclaim the Narrative
In all counterterrorism and counterinsurgency initiatives, half the battle is about dominating the narrative. As it stands, the level of the government’s commitment to the larger war is still unclear from the huge deficits in strategic communication.
No joint session of Parliament, for instance, has been called to message the gravity of the situation, signaling a low priority for sustained counterterrorism efforts in the government’s political calculus. Months of talks with the Pakistani Taliban have given them overt legitimacy and non-kinetic advantage, although the operation has gone some distance in reversing this trend.
An immediate joint session of Parliament, possibly in-camera, can generate political support and inspire both public confidence and consensus. Military and government representatives can both make detailed briefings and share concerns, which can yield a joint or majority resolution. The Information Ministry can take the lead in multiple strategic-communication campaigns, and will likely get much support from the media in sharing this burden. The media campaign so far only focuses on conventional war propaganda and remains shy of identifying the larger enemy, which is crucial for nonconventional battle successes.
At another level, strategic messaging will have to face the hard rock of policy realities. Course-correction narratives, especially applicable to the military, which carries the baggage of political meddling and use of militants as strategic proxies, have been in the air for some years now. At the very least, to avoid accusations of tactical disingenuousness, the names of terrorists killed, including key targets, will have to be shared. Short of such proactive transparency, for which Pakistan’s government is neither trained nor institutionally geared, the bona fides of the operation will be questioned locally, regionally, and internationally.
No Deluded Distinctions
One of the most important priorities while broadening this battle has to be defining the enemy and endgame for Zarb-e-Azb 2.0. Targets and timelines, even if they are kept secret, cannot continue to be endlessly blurred. The military’s announcement that it is planning to pursue “terrorists of every hue” is encouraging, but yet to be tested. Its stated change of heart on the Haqqani network may also indicate a tactical wariness—part of the new thinking in the security establishment that made distinctions among terrorist groups—especially when the chips are down, as theoretical.
One of the main criticisms of the operation has been based on widespread reports of key militant targets having escaped well before Air Force jets bombed out the towns in North Waziristan. The military’s Inter-Services Public Relations has, in fact, even acknowledged as much. So, squaring some part of the old capacity-versus-commitment dilemma is essential in order to advance a credible national agenda against terrorism. The old temptation of trusting a cold peace on the western border to nonstate actors and militant tribals will have to be resisted and addressed. In other words, the operation will surely need to be escalated to enemy combatants beyond the Pakistani Taliban and an assortment of foreign fighters.
At the same time, the crucial question of sectarian and other militant organizations in Pakistan has not been addressed yet by either the government or the military. While the military has said that the second phase of the operation will aim to flush out terrorists from the other tribal agencies and the country’s cities, it is unclear if this will include extremist sectarian organizations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Jamat-ud-Dawah and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan/Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat which target and persecute religious minorities, including the Shia. If groups like the Jamat-ud-Dawah, which has received formal budgetary grants from the Punjab government for “public welfare,” are expediently ignored, the message to the rest of Pakistan will be that, at some level, accommodations with local militant and sectarian groups will continue.
Build the Police
Enhancing the autonomy, intelligence and operational capacities of the police and law-enforcement agencies is an urgent task, especially since the terrorist challenge is almost entirely going to be shouldered by civilian agencies in the urban theater.
In order to cut the size and critical mass of militant sanctuaries in the Punjab as well as in urban Sindh, the federal and provincial governments will have to take on the harder tasks of depoliticizing police appointments, rationalizing jurisdictions, and enhancing resources for effective counterterrorism campaigns. Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has borne the brunt of blowback from counterterrorism operations. Its current resources and expertise don’t allow it to fight back once an operation is over. It needs the sustained focus of a federal outreach initiative. With no real policing power available to large swathes of the province and given the ongoing insurgency and the continuing dangers of prolonged political alienation, Balochistan also merits special reform attention.
As it stands, Pakistan is shockingly inadequate when it comes to ballistics experts and forensics labs. Police are unable to produce convictable evidence in court because it has no resources to do so. Terrorists are arrested by intelligence agencies and police, with several overlapping mandates, at high costs, including personal safety, only to be acquitted by the courts for lack of evidence. The state of the police forces will only change if serious federal and provincial coordination is put into play. The autonomy and resources provided to the Motorway Police is one clear example of success.
Drain the Extremist Swamp
Countering extremism—draining the swamp in which terrorism, with its sophisticated use of social and visual media, finds easy recruits—is going to be the longest war Pakistan fights. This work needs to start now, when the terrorists on top of the target list are at least on the run, not when their blowback-capacity reemerges.
Without a clear-eyed policy of de-radicalization and holistic plans to neutralize terrorist sanctuaries and nurseries, the writ of the government will lapse back into decline. The provinces will need to revise curricula and textbooks that valorize militancy for a start. The project of reclaiming space from militant training centers and seminaries that nurture terrorists will also have to be built into operational timelines so that sleeper cells and new recruits don’t continue to critically amass. State remit is needed in the police precincts of our cities and semirural towns, where militant propaganda runs rampant with hate graffiti and billboards exhorting the public to other-ize and kill religious minorities like the Hazara and Shia, non-Muslims and Ahmadis, who get little or no protection from the state. The impunity for such acts has to go. Judges who hear terrorism-related cases need protection and anonymity during trials, as do witnesses.
The infrastructure of prosecuting and adjudicating terrorist and extremist acts is anemic and anachronistic; it could profit from an independent commission that brings invaluable capacity to government and parliamentary committees that could enact enabling legislation. Women’s voices in conflict-resolution and peace-building coalitions need to be included. The Protection of Pakistan Act is not a law anyone can be proud of; quite the contrary, in order to avoid becoming a legal cover for unchecked state brutality it needs critical inputs from the legal community for legislators to review it.
Don’t Alienate, Integrate
Post-offensive plans for the federally- and provincially-administered tribal agencies, other mixed-jurisdiction areas, and the “B areas” of Balochistan have to be fast-tracked. These regions require police stations and courts to integrate them with the country and its laws. Right now, law and order here depend entirely on arbitrary, outdated institutions (such as the political agent and the Frontier Crimes Regulation) and their law-enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to bear the avenging wrath of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The successful rehabilitation of North Waziristan’s lost population of IDPs is not going to be successful if it is a brick-and-mortar exercise alone. Their chieftains and political notables have lost power and agency to the Taliban; they can no longer maintain either the peace or enforce the law of collective responsibility. What is required is a more enfranchising system that does not pander to the elites resisting change; that creates stakes for the tribal poor; that is democratic and sustainable; and that serves as a bulwark against terrorism.
Squeeze the Money
Choking off terrorist financing will be pivotal to the medium-term goal of extending the logical remit of a military operation against terrorists. Many informal cash pipelines are being squeezed, but money-change agents and branches in ungoverned tribal outposts will become a serial migraine for the government if they are not controlled.
Key to curbing terrorist financing will be the capacity for slowing down opium cropping in Afghanistan, which has eluded even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to a large extent; but given the state of play in Afghanistan, local security forces will be unable to control growth. Narcotics interdiction at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border will help, but only to a limited extent. What will be equally meaningful is the closing down of financial spigots from private sources and allied Muslim countries to proxy organizations of terrorist groups posing as charities or seminaries.
Paying for the war and its next phase of urban counterterrorism will require major financial outlays, and media campaigns and strategic-communication plans against terrorism and extremism. So far, federal budget allocations and grant reports suggest that funding even NACTA and the Interior Ministry is not a priority; this signals poor resolve and internal incoherence from the federal government on its stated goals.
Stay the Course with Kabul
It is clear that the continuing fragility of Afghanistan, and a surge in intermittent bilateral tensions, will only add to the scale of the challenge Pakistan is facing. The International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan National Security Forces, and even U.S. drones have been ineffective in rooting out Pakistani Taliban command centers in Kunar and eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistani Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah has been challenged politically by splits among the Mehsuds, but to effectively cripple his militancy and messaging reach, and that of others escaping across the border to operate against Pakistan, coordination with Afghan forces is unavoidable and will only be made possible by narrowing the trust deficit between Islamabad and Kabul. Walking the talk on closing down terrorist sanctuaries on both sides will be crucial for denying space to insurgents and foreign fighters. Clearly, the Pakistani Taliban cannot be the only identified enemy. Political change in Kabul should also offer opportunities for regional cooperation while addressing core Pakistan-Afghanistan counterterrorism concerns through a joint strategic agenda.
The international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the “Durand Line,” has been operating as a revolving door for years, and will continue that way absent Western will and money. So Pakistan will have to keep working that long, weak border as an ongoing interdiction priority. A border-security force would be a good idea, as would a broader civilian policy that continues the task of reversing Pakistan’s old power games in Afghanistan. The no-political-favorites-in-Afghanistan plan should stay the course.
Build Bridges with India
Given the history of conflict with our immediate neighbors, foreign policy will become inextricably linked to counterterrorism successes at home. To be able to fight its complex and asymmetrical terrorist enemy, maintaining regional stability is another pressing priority for Pakistan. For meaningful talks with India on Kashmir and trade, the Line of Control must be cooled down through confidence-building measures and continued coordination between high-ranking military officials from both sides. The strategic stalemate and the politics of conditional diplomacy between Islamabad and Delhi will have to be addressed. Unless there is will and clarity in pursuing local terrorist franchises, there will not only be a crippling blowback but also, possibly, a “sanitization” of certain players favoring hardline policies in the region.
Finally, if the human costs of Operation Zarb-e-Azb are not to be squandered, all players must accept that while military action may have been the last resort, it is certainly no silver bullet.
The challenge ahead is huge, but a beginning can be made now. Instead of shrugging this initiative off as a one-off kinetic challenge, it is entirely possible to revisit this existential moment as a historic opportunity for forging a civilian-military agreement. Only then can this one big military operation be scaled up into a coordinated national effort to reverse the dangerous tide of violent militancy that scorches our earth from Karachi to Khyber.
Rehman is the founder and president of Jinnah Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad. She is a former federal minister and served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.