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North Waziristan is the final frontier

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Sherry Rehman

There is a saying in Pakistan that if you can’t defeat your enemy, befriend him. This is particularly true in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan, where, in six agencies, there’s an unprecedented military offensive against militants. Despite many tactical alliances and ceasefire pacts in Waziristan, Pakistan has gone in with firepower backed by US drones. The cornerstone of the security policy here is to attack militants close to the al-Qaida, but spare armed syndicates that protect Pakistan’s flanks.

The turbulence in the Af-Pak border zone has led Washington to put out strategic leaks about possible military intervention inside Pakistan. The heart of the problem is what could alter the dynamics of declining US-Nato successes in the Afghan theatre. North Waziristan agency (NWA), and what the Pakistan army is able to do there, seems to have become the litmus test for US-Pakistan relations. After Faisal Shahzad’s attempted bomb attack in Times Square, the pressure on Islamabad to act against anti-US Taliban in NWA has increased. Islamabad pleads capacity constraints; the US cites commitment gaps.

The stakes are high. After failing to build institutional structures in Afghanistan, the test for Washington is linking US-Nato ground offensives in the south and Loya Paktiya to Pakistan’s push on the militant Haqqani-led groups from NWA. The Obama presidency needs a game-changer in a theatre where success is elusive despite a COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy that focuses on population safety. The expected Taliban reversals have not happened despite a massive offensive in Marjah. In Washington’s view, Pakistan is pulling its punches as it may need the Taliban when the US exits Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, this is a battle for its stability and survival. Action is overdue against terrorist and sectarian groups in Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There is a compelling need to act against extremist groups after the massacre of nearly a hundred Ahmadiyas in Lahore recently. The Punjab government needs to do a counter-terror sweep of its cities. The federal government must back up this action with pro-minority legislation. None of this requires the military to act, but such actions will see heightened terrorist attacks on civilians and military alike. This is something that the government will have to brace itself for.

The challenge in NWA is that Islamabad does not have the military or civilian capacity to open all fronts at the same time. Enmeshed in a blighted strategic endgame, with a growing terrorist threat, tanking economy and India posturing to the east, the military option in NWA cannot be a hair-trigger decision. The terrain has sobered the ambitions of several imperial powers, including the British, Russians and now perhaps the Americans. Despite impressive successes in other agencies, the army now faces 50,000 massed armed guerrillas in NWA. Hardened groups such as the Tehrik-I-Taliban, the Haqqani-group and jihadist outfits such as LeT and Lashkar-I-Jhangvi, Lashkar Zil, al-Qaida veterans and Salafists have sought sanctuary there after resisting army operations in surrounding areas. Islamabad’s fear is that if it shoves a fist into this hornet’s nest, maintaining the fragile consensus against terrorists at home would be difficult, as well as protecting its cities from further attacks.

This can be no “shock and awe” exercise that can be switched off by remote control. Pakistan has already lost over 3,000 people in two years as a result of the terrorist backlash; the economy has taken a $35 billion hit. The question is, will the US be around to help hold down Pakistan’s fist when its army swoops on al-Qaida strongholds such as Mir Ali? The military’s tactic in any counterinsurgency initiative in mountainous terrain is ‘pincer and choke’ the enemies’ escape routes. The 8,000-feet high mountainous trails in NWA are legendary for providing escape routes to Afghanistan. So, if these routes are not blocked, the whole exercise will lead to the enemy escaping to hospitable terrain. Given the unequal number of border checkposts on either side of the Durand Line, it is unlikely that any permanent flush-out of Waziristan is possible. If the NWA is grand central for terrorists, then the Afghan border provinces provide strategic depth. While the US-Nato forces in Afghanistan need to do their bit, Pakistan will have to step up border checks and review unwritten peace deals with tribal leaders who change sides too often.

The other question is: how long can the Pakistani army stay in the agencies it has secured? Is there a civilian ‘build, hold and transition’ component to the project? Once again, before putting pressure Pakistan with an escalating war, huge governance commitments such as ROZ (reconstruction opportunity zones) assistance will have to roll off the US machine. Why should Pakistan be expected to do more than reverse the Taliban tide in some areas, when US has not been able even to broker a new post-insurgency model for Afghanistan? Pakhtun alienation is not a concern for exiting nations, but it has huge blowback potential for Pakistan – Karachi is host to five million Pakhtuns.

What will help is a phase-by-phase plan for securing the area, holding it until the tribes that have been terrorized by the Taliban are able to return and do business. Second, though the elites in Waziristan’s tribal areas have been marginalized by the Taliban, they will resist governance models that diminish their pre-Taliban political powers. The military will have to stay in Waziristan until the police and frontier corps in that area is strengthened, and the tribal leadership prepares for critical reforms and political activity by mainstream parties. FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) reform will only work if introduced incrementally, and the government’s recent announcements, if implemented, will be a brave start. At the federal level, security sector reform is critical because peace deals with militants who promised not to attack government installations have almost always failed. As a temporary tactical move, there is some use in neutralizing militants to focus on the main enemy, but not in the long-run. The state must start assuming charge of security.

The politics of a military operation are never easy. No military relishes fighting inside its own borders, and no civilian, elected government embraces the use of force as a first, or even second option. The government has thrown its full weight behind the operations, despite the costs that accrue from such initiatives. As a result, Pakistan now has its own generation of lost people, human tragedies, economic crises, internal strife and political instability.

While the military presses on with an offensive in Orakzai agency, there will be little room to divert forces for anything more than strategic strikes on NWA areas where the terrorists cluster. Pakistan must dismantle al-Qaida as well as India-centric jihadist outfits as a priority. It also must allow Kabul to form its own stable government and hope for a friendly partner. But it will need Pakhtuns to maintain stability in Afghan border provinces after the expected US troop withdrawal in 2011. Seeking more than surgical raids in NWA is asking for too much. Pakistan must act decisively against terrorists, but using its own gameplan.

Sherry Rehman is a member of the National Security Committee in Pakistan’s Parliament