August 07, 2014

ZARB-e-AZB: Phony War or Paradigm Shift?

Sushant Sareen

July 31, 2014

Touted as the 'mother of all' anti-insurgency operations, the much demanded (by the US) and long delayed (by Pakistan) military operation in North Waziristan (NWA), Operation Zarb-e-Azb has turned out to be quite an anti-climax. A few weeks into the operation, the Pakistan Army has been 'valiantly' reconquering its own territory from its own proxies and 'strategic assets'. Ironically, the Pakistan army had itself allowed 'the terror central' NWA to become a 'protectorate' where all sorts of despicable gun-totting, suicide jacket wearing, rocket wielding bunch of terrorists set up base and blithely peddled their wares in not just Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and beyond.

Quite amazingly, the Islamist terror groups were living cheek-by-jowl with the Pakistan military. For close to a decade now, the Pakistan army kept denying and deflecting all information and intelligence provided by the Americans and Afghans of suicide bomb factories, IED manufacturing units and other such grisly enterprises operating in this area. Today, these very same factories of murder and mayhem are being triumphantly discovered and displayed before Pakistan's 'embedded' media, and the very same army that allowed NWA to become something of a place out of Dante's inferno – there was reportedly even a 'man-eaters market' where the jihadists publicly beheaded people and mutilated bodies – are prancing and preening as the saviour of Pakistan.

Questions are, however, now starting to be raised about the entire operation. For all the grandstanding by the Pakistan army and the civilian government that this operation was going to be against all kinds of terror groups based in NWA, no such thing seems to be happening. By all accounts, the 'good', 'not so good' and 'bad' Taliban had received adequate notice to vacate the area and move to safer places. What is more, arrangements were made for the 'good' Taliban – Gul Bahadur, Haqqani network, and breakaway factions like that of Khan Said Mehsud – to relocate to new camps under the guise of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). According to Afghan intelligence and some Pakistani analysts, such camps were set up in Kurram agency of FATA.

Not surprisingly then, not one significant 'good' Taliban commander has been either killed or captured. There have certainly been some casualties caused by the aerial attacks and also skirmishes on the ground, but there has been no major firefight, let alone pitched battle, as yet. At best some middle ranking TTP commanders and cadres have died. There is also no independent verification of the 500-odd Taliban fighters claimed to have been killed by the military. On the contrary, a few published eye-witness accounts of IDPs from NWA reveal a lot of civilian casualties. But such is conspiracy of silence in Pakistan's 'independent' media that no one has bothered to follow the story. There is an almost Gestapo-like control that appears to have been imposed, what with 'good' jihadists like LeT, JeM, Jamaat Islami and such like groups being the only ones provided unfettered access to the IDPs.

Remarkably enough, six weeks into the operation, none of the fears that served as excuses for not launching the operation earlier have come true –there has been virtually no resistance; nor has there been any Taliban retaliation in rest of Pakistan. Given Pakistan's past record of deception, doubts are natural to arise when Pakistani officials claim that this time they are going for a total clean-up. The line being taken by varied spokespersons of the establishment is that there will be no discrimination and no distinction made on who is to be targeted and who is to remain unmolested. The problem is that no one believes that the Pakistanis have actually made a paradigm change in their policy. So what then is the purpose and strategy behind this entire exercise?

Clearly, this operation has been launched keeping an eye on the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan. The timing and the tactics suggest that this is Pakistan's first major gambit in the unfolding endgame in Afghanistan. What the Pakistanis are trying to do is push the war back into Afghanistan by sending in their proxies to fill the vacuum that is expected from the withdrawal of bulk of the foreign forces. Knowing full well that the Americans have been drawing down their forces, the Pakistanis have disingenuously been pointing fingers at both the Americans and Afghans for not providing the 'anvil' to their 'hammer'. In other words, the absence of the anvil is precisely why this operation has been launched at this point in time. This means that many of the Jihadists who are being 'expelled' or 'pushed out' of Pakistan are not going to face any real problem in Afghanistan. In the process, the Pakistanis are hoping to win brownie points for having launched this much awaited operation and at the same time keep their larger game plan of keeping their 'strategic assets' intact.

Another extremely critical objective of this operation is to regain some measure of control over both territory and terrorists, which seems to be slipping out of Pakistan's clutches. With the drawdown underway a window had opened for Pakistan to re-establish its control in the areas straddling the Afghan border. This window will close once the withdrawal is complete and the post-2014 jostling for power begins in Afghanistan. After Pakistan army wrests control of the Jihadists' safe base, anyone wanting to use this area will have to do so under the command and control of the Pakistan army. This means that the jihad factory will continue to operate, but without the jihadists enjoying any of the autonomy of action that they had started taking for granted.

All the talk that the attack on Karachi airport or any of the other recent attacks served as the catalyst for this operation is hogwash. Only the most naïve will believe that the new Pakistan army chief has brought about a change in the thinking, orientation and strategy of the Pakistan army. At best, the new army chief can only tweak things and lay emphasis on certain aspects of policy. To expect that he will swing his cane and the entire behemoth called Pakistan army will be ready to make an abrupt about-turn from a jihadist policy is to expect the moon. Simply put, weaning the Pakistan army off jihadism is as difficult as making it see sense on India or Kashmir.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb also has certain clear political benefits for the army, not the least of which is that it has helped the army to refurbish its image. An added bonus is the money that the Americans have been pumping into Pakistan. For all its jihadist orientation and deep anti-Americanism, the penny seems to have suddenly dropped that Pakistan needs to keep the Americans engaged one way or another in the region for the money to keep flowing. But it isn't just the Americans. The Chinese money too is critical for keeping Pakistan afloat. Ever since the operation started, the ISPR has been pointedly mentioning how the air strikes have been targeting ETIM and other Uighur terror groups based in NWA. Apparently the Chinese had been pressurising Pakistan to act against the Uighur terrorists and the Pakistanis obliged. Clearly, like the Americans, the Chinese seem to have convinced themselves that they can change Pakistan's behaviour by ploughing in more money and military assistance. But if America's blindness over Pakistan's perfidy did a lot of good to it, then China too is likely to suffer a similar fate.

As for the possibility of a blowback in reaction to the operation, more than the retaliatory strikes by the 'bad' or 'irreconcilable' Taliban – these can be written off as collateral damage. It is the larger blowback of this double game that should set alarm bells ringing. In trying to get a firmer control over the situation, Gen Raheel Sharif might well have disturbed the uneasy equilibrium that his predecessor had established between the Pakistani state and the Islamist groups. Unless the military establishment can now impose the dominance of the Pakistani state over its proxies, a pretty tall order,  chances are that a new equilibrium will be established in which the Pakistani state will recede even more by conceding more to the jihadists than it had until now. The paradigm shift resulting out of this phony war will therefore not be so much the elimination of terrorists as it will be their empowerment. 

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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