COMMENTARY
 
North Waziristan Operation
Weekly Pulse
May 21-27, 2010
After the Times Square’s foiled terrorist incident, and the reported revelation that its lone suspect, Pakistani-born US citizen Faisal Shahzad, received rudimentary training in bomb-making from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan, the US pressure on Pakistan to expand its counter-insurgency operation to North Waziristan is likely to intensify. Consequently, Pakistan army’s option for inaction in this last remaining terrorist hub of the country’s tribal areas may significantly erode in coming days.

The opening of the North Waziristan front, whenever and with whatever scope it occurs, will be a natural culmination of Pakistan’s resolute counter-terrorism campaign that began in April last year in Swat, and expanded to South Waziristan in October and the remaining five agencies of the trial region this year. The rationale for this campaign was to curb the terror spree orchestrated by TTP and its allied groups across Pakistan since the summer of 2007, which has claimed the death of close to 3,000 security personnel and nearly 7,000 civilians.

The objective behind the North Waziristan operation will also be the same, as the region has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and various Taliban groups, including TTP and Punjabi Taliban, who are accused of, or have claimed, some of the most spectacular terrorist acts in the country, including the attack on the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi in October last year.

Over-Stretched

For months, the country’s security establishment and civilian regime have resisted growing American pressure to start the North Waziristan operation by arguing that the army and para-military Frontier Constabulary (FC) forces operating in six other agencies of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Malakand Division of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province are already “over-stretched in the insurgency-ridden region.”

Lt. Gen. Sardar Mahmood Ali Khan, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Reuters that Pakistani forces would take action in North Waziristan but in their own time and when adequate resources were available. In his words, such a big task in the mountainous northwest was not “fire-fighting” and had to be done in sequence with other battles. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has likewise stated that the government's decision on North Waziristan will be taken “keeping in view the priorities.”

That the country’s security apparatus is “over-stretched” is not an explanation without credence. Domestic wave of terrorism may have receded in recent months, yet roadside and suicide bombings continue. Ground and air operations in tribal areas occur almost daily. Terrorist activities and counter-insurgency operations in the region have produced well over one million internally displaced people registered with the United Nations. In April alone, over 80,000 people in South Waziristan and elsewhere became homeless. Moreover, Pakistan’s security forces do not have a precision counter-insurgency technology such as drones to minimize collateral damage. All of these issues certainly limit the country’s ability to expand the counter-insurgency operation to an area where the army and paramilitary runs the risk of getting bogged down.

However, critics of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism approach often point to a selective stand adopted by the country’s security establishment—whereby counter-insurgency operations are limited to only those groups involved in terrorism inside Pakistan, and the remaining ones, accused of terrorism in Afghanistan and India, are spared from military actions.

Strategic Assets

The same logic is applied to explain Pakistan’s consistent hesitation from launching a military operation in North Waziristan. It is alleged that the country’s security establishment has a soft corner for the Haqqani network of Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, who are allies of Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Umar, and local Taliban factions led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan. They allegedly constitute “strategic assets,” which the country’s security establishment aims to use in Afghanistan, whenever the current conflict is politically resolved in future through negotiations with the current Afghan insurgent forces.

In February and March this year, Pakistani security agencies, partly in cooperation with their US counterparts, succeeded in arresting almost all of the top Afghan Taliban commanders, including military chief Mullah Baradar. Through them, and intermediaries such as Khalid Khawaja and Col Imam, former intelligence operatives with ties to Afghan Taliban, the country’s security establishment may have attempted to co-opt Mullah Umar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to agree to some sort of political reconciliation with the Afghan government so that a pivotal role for Pakistan in future political resolution of the Afghan conflict could be guaranteed.

The two local Taliban factions, led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir, have, indeed, indirectly helped the army destroy TTP’s stronghold in South Waziristan. That Afghanistan, not Pakistan, is the focus of terrorism by the Haqqani network may have also helped in the process. But, then, the unfortunate reality is that after being defeated in South Waziristan, TTP and its terrorist affiliates—including members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Punjabi Taliban belonging to Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade—have taken shelter in North Waziristan. Reportedly, it was a splinter group of this Punjabi Taliban group, the self-proclaimed ‘Asian Tigers,’ which recently killed Khalid Khawaja.

Al-Qaeda Link

Like TTP, Punjabi Taliban, who essentially hail from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shiite militant sectarian entity, are believed to be directly linked to al-Qaeda. Recent media reports also indicate that the Punjabi Taliban leadership was approached by emissaries from Mullah Umar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to secure the release from ‘Asian Tigers’ of Khalid Khawaja and Col Imam. Despite this, the former was killed and the latter’s fate, along with that of Pakistani-origin British journalist Asad Qureshi, is still unknown. Does this mean that al-Qaeda, TTP and Punjabi Taliban have an agenda which is clashing with that of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network?

Faced with an onslaught from Pakistani security forces in South Waziristan and other agencies of the tribal region, this triangular network of terrorist organizations may be using North Waziristan as a safe haven to provide terrorist training to lone wolves such as Faisal Shahzad as part of an asymmetrical warfare strategy which terrorist organizations in desperate situations usually opt for. Al-Qaeda, TTP (along with its IMU component) and Punjabi Taliban are declared enemies of the state and people of Pakistan, and together, in their terrorist campaign of the last three years have already killed 10,000 Pakistanis.

Now if we presume that the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban under Mullah Umar’s command can be lured into surrendering arms and joining the political process in Afghanistan—with the help of Mullah Baradar and scores of other top Afghan Taliban leaders under arrest in Pakistan—then there is no reason why the army will not succeed on the North Waziristan front as much as it has succeeded on other two main fronts in Swat and South Waziristan.

This presumption is, however, grounded in the reported anger among Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network leaders over the kidnapping and killing of Khalid Khawaja, and the continued disappearance of Col Imam, who is believed to have been the chief architect of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in mid-1990s. Both may have gone to North Waziristan to seek the cooperation of Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network on behalf of Pakistani security establishment, as some local media reports suggest.

Tightening the Noose

That Pakistan army is tightening its noose around North Waziristan is clear from the recently intensified counter-insurgency campaign in Orakzai Agency, which flanks North Waziristan. Khyber Agency has likewise seen intensified fighting between the army and the insurgents. Some 17,000 army personnel are already camped in the main town of Miranshah North Waziristan. South Waziristan is significantly under army’s control by now, while there is little TTP resistance left in other tribal agencies such as Bajaur and Mohmand.

What this means is that when the time comes, and the situation is more clear—especially with reference to the reported wedge between Haqqani network and its Taliban allies, on the one hand, and al-Qaeda, TTP and Punjabi Taliban, on the other—the country’s army and paramilitary forces can be expected to realistically exploit this opportunity and expand their counter-insurgency mission to North Waziristan. And they can count on the former for the same help as, for instance, has been provided by Maulvi Nazir’s Taliban faction in South Waziristan against the TTP.

In most counter-insurgency campaigns, direct military actions are complemented with a strategy to pit pliable insurgents against the main insurgent enemy. One such additional counter-insurgent force against TTP in South Waziristan is, for instance, the so-called Abdullah Group, named after Taliban leader Abdullah Mehsud, who was killed in a security operation in 2007, thereby paving the way for Baitullah Mehsud to set up and lead TTP.

The sizeable troops already in Miranshah have conducted limited operations in North Waziristan before. The army is, therefore, in a position to begin a sustained but limited counter-insurgency campaign in the region—since a full-scale offensive runs the risk of the army being bogged down in the most hostile region—an eventuality that, in the country’s security calculus is unaffordable, given India’s consistent bid to raise security stakes for the country on its eastern frontier. A limited counter-insurgency campaign in North Waziristan could be tailored to the insurgent situation as it evolves, including the possibility of pressing Afghan Taliban for talks with the Afghan government authorities.

During such a carefully calibrated campaign, the security forces can selectively target the trio of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, TTP and Punjabi Taliban, while the decision to take military action against the Haqqani netwrok, the two Taliban factions allied to it and Afghan Taliban should depend on their respective responses. If they are unwilling to be part of the evolving international approach of political reconciliation in Afghanistan, in which Pakistan's security establishment wishes to play an instrumental role, then the army and paramilitary should have no option but to uproot these insurgent outfits as well from North Waziristan--and vice versa.

Time is certainly of essence here. Al-Qaeda, with local insurgent help primarily from TTP and Punjabi Taliban, would like to continue expanding its terrorist mission beyond the frontiers of Pakistan, especially through sponsoring terrorism in not just Pakistan but also Afghanistan, India and as far as the United States. That Pakistan achieves stability, India-Pakistan peace process makes progress and US-Pakistan ties move towards strategic partnership are prospects the global terror network can ill afford. Its survival rests upon destroying the political, economic and social fabric of Pakistan, scuttling the prospects of peace in South Asia, and preventing the entire international community, not just the United States, from assisting Pakistan and Afghanistan in their hour of need.

However, like many insurgent campaigns in history, peace is eventually negotiated with the very insurgent forces, and this is also an important pillar of the pragmatically-founded strategy of counter-terrorism being pursued by the US-led forces in Afghanistan. No one will object to Pakistan, if it also pursues such an approach. But, however pragmatic the foundation of such peace efforts may be, the onus of responsibility for the purpose is essentially, if not equally, on the shoulders of the insurgent forces—since, being non-state actors, they do not have the legal or moral right to use force against armed forces of a state or state parties, what to speak of committing terrorism or killing civilians.

No Two Opinions

An important reason why external pressure on Pakistan to start the North Waziristan operation will mount further in coming days is because US-led NATO operations in Kandahar province are only weeks away now. It is very much possible that during their regular interactions, the top civilian and military leaders of Pakistan and America may have already chalked out a joint strategy for the purpose, just as they are believed to be having a tacit understanding on US drone attacks in South and North Waziristan, which have essentially focused on the latter since August last year.

Likewise, if Pakistan’s security establishment, through the arrested top leadership of Afghan Taliban and other intermediaries (the likes of late Khalid Khawaja and still kidnapped Col Imam) as well as the Haqqani network, is able to persuade Mullah Umar-led Afghan Taliban for some sort of political reconciliation with the Afghan government, then we can foresee a resolute military campaign by the country’s army and paramilitary in North Waziristan, aimed to eliminate the remainder of al-Qaeda, TTP, IMU militants, and Punjabi Taliban currently holed up there.

Obviously, North Waziristan will not be the last front in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign—as Kashmir-specific banned jihadi outfits such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad allegedly continue to exist in Punjab. However, since India is unwilling to negotiate Kashmir, Pakistan cannot be expected to act decisively on this leg of counter-terrorism. For pressure from an arch-rival and a regional bully unwilling to make peace is one thing, pressure from a counter-terrorism ally and a great power great power willing to pursue strategic partnership is another. Even otherwise, in North Waziristan, the option of inaction for Pakistan has significantly narrowed down—as the US pressure on it significantly increases, the US-led Kandahar operation approaches fast, and the terrorism campaign of al-Qaeda and its local affiliates transcends traditional boundaries.