June 26, 2014
Pakistan’s military has spent months trying to convince their civilian masters of the necessity of mounting a large military offensive in the lightly-ruled North Waziristan tribal agency, currently a hotbed for Islamist extremists and foreign fighters. The objections of the political class were finally overcome following the June 8 terrorist attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, a devastating demonstration of strength by the militants and a further display of the inability of local security forces to contain extremist groups and the futility of continuing peace talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On June 15, Pakistan’s military launched Operation Zarb-e Azb (“the cutting strike”), a massive offensive designed to clear North Waziristan of militants and extremists. The name of the operation appears to be part of an effort to lend a sense of Islamic legitimacy to the offensive – Azb was the name of the sword carried in battle by the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistani forces were also armed with a religious decision signed by over 100 clerics from various Islamic trends that declared their operations a jihad with the right to use on iron fist on extremists guilty of hundreds of murders (Hindustan Times, June 24).
The operation began with F-16 airstrikes that killed a claimed 105 militants, including the alleged planner of the Jinnah Airport attack, Uzbek commander Abu Abdur Rahman Almani (Dawn [Karachi], June 15). American CIA drone strikes have also targeted militants in the region, though these are not officially part of the government’s offensive. Despite the apparent tacit approval of Islamabad and the unlikelihood that American drone operations inside North Waziristan would be mounted independent of Pakistani authorities during a military operation in the region, Pakistan has still condemned recent drone strikes in North Waziristan as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (The Nation [Islamabad], June 14; June 19).
According to the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Marine General Joseph Dunford, U.S. forces inside Afghanistan were not coordinating with the Pakistani offensive but were ready to intercept militants looking to wait out the operation inside Afghan territory (AP, June 17). The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is seen as a major factor in motivating Pakistani authorities to take the offensive in North Waziristan before the Afghan Taliban are able to consolidate their control of the border region in cooperation with local militants. Some 450,000 residents of North Waziristan have fled the offensive so far, taking advantage of a break in the campaign to allow their evacuation to Bannu, Peshawar, Kohat and, ironically, across the border in Afghanistan (Dawn [Karachi], June 22).
Pakistani Helicopter Operations in North Waziristan
The success of Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan depends to a great extent on the willingness of Afghan president Hamid Karzai to seal the border, though appeals from Islamabad have yet to receive a positive response from Kabul. Karzai, who alleges the terrorist problem in his country has a Pakistani origin, is apparently seeking a commitment from Islamabad that the offensive will be part of a major operation to shut down cross-border militant groups such as the Haqqani Network that have operated with the connivance of Pakistan’s military intelligence service (News on Sunday [Islamabad], June 22). Targeting the Haqqani Network is also a condition of further U.S. military assistance (The News [Islamabad], June 13). Whether Afghan security forces actually have the ability to effectively seal the border remains an open question. Without the full cooperation of Afghan forces, some militants are believed to have already slipped across the border into Paktika and Khost provinces, while others may have scattered into the remote wilderness of North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley (News on Sunday [Islamabad], June 22). Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Shaida Muhammad Abdali, recently observed that Pakistani authorities had not succeeded in their battle against extremism “because they are fighting those they don’t like, but not those whom they like” (The Hindu, June 24).
The offensive has encountered a generally favorable popular attitude from a populace grown tired of terrorist strikes, particularly after the Karachi Airport attack. Opposition criticism has been muted since the operation began. First-hand accounts of the fighting are hard to find, however, as the campaign is being tightly managed by the public relations arm of the Inter-Services Intelligence ISI) unit. All journalists were ordered to leave North Waziristan on the first day of the offensive and nearly all accounts of the fighting since have originated with the military. Cell phone service has been cut off in the agency and internet service is practically non-existent (News on Sunday [Islamabad], June 22).
Pakistani tactics have included integrated operations involving Cobra helicopter gunships, snipers and artillery, deployments along the Afghan border to prevent militants from escaping, securing the boundaries of urban centers like Miranshah and Mirali, processing refugees through filtration points to weed out fugitive militants and the establishment of “surrender points” to encourage militants to lay down their arms without fear of immediate retribution.
The Army’s offensive reflects a shift in strategic thinking in the Pakistani military under the new leadership of Chief-of-Staff General Raheel Sharif, who has emphasized the danger of Islamist militancy in the tribal agencies over the traditional attempts by the Pakistani military to co-opt such groups in the interest of maintaining “strategic depth” in the event of a major conflict with India (Express Tribune [Karachi], June 24). While the political leadership in Islamabad has reluctantly agreed to the necessity of a major military operation in the tribal region, it continues to fear a major backlash from terrorist cells based in Pakistan’s poorly secured urban centers. Creating a local administration capable of maintaining order and security in North Waziristan after the conclusion of active operations will also pose a major challenge to Islamabad.
This article was first published in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.