With the end of Pakistan Army’s offensive in Orakzai, Washington continues to convince Islamabad to undertake an operation in North Waziristan. Pakistan’s reluctance to tackle North Waziristan diminished with a blunt message from the US, warning that any future aggression on US homeland hailing from the region would have serious consequences. While the Pakistan Army has agreed to launch a military operation, it has reserved the right to decide the timing and strategy of the same.
North Waziristan is home to the Mehsud warriors, like former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Chief Baitullah Mehsud (believed to be killed in a US drone strike in August 2009) and the present leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. Additionally, it remains an integral part of Al-Qaeda’s command and harbours the powerful networks of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani that have organised many attacks in Afghanistan. Numerous militant groups have sprouted in the area with prominent training camps and a pervasive jihadi culture; an area that can be rightly termed as the ‘militant beehive’ of Pakistan. The make-up of militant groups in North Waziristan is complex and volatile. On one hand, the Haqqani network and militants like Hafiz Gul Bahadur have an alliance with the Pakistan government and target the NATO and US forces. On the other, groups like Al-Qaeda and TTP remain anti-Pakistan, and attack the security forces. Apart from these, North Waziristan continues to be a safe haven for foreign militant groups like the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). At times, anti-West groups like Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s have also been confronted by the Pakistan Army due to changed attitudes or new accords with anti-Pakistan groups like Al-Qaeda.
Islamabad’s present priority is groups that bear enmity towards the (Pakistani) government. While the army would want to confront the anti-government groups, it fears treading into North Waziristan. The main reason for this trepidation remains its alliance with the Haqqani network and the equation the latter shares with other militant groups in the region. Thus, even though the Pakistan Army has conducted small operations on the borders of North Waziristan, it has remained unwilling to forge ahead.
The Haqqanis have had a long history of alliances with the Pakistani military and have acted as useful interlocutors between anti-Pakistan groups and the state. It is important to note that Haqqanis facilitated the peace accords between Islamabad and the extremist groups in February 2005 and again in January 2008. In summer 2006, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah orchestrated a cease-fire between Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group and the Pakistan government, further persuading them to concentrate their efforts against US forces in Afghanistan. Clearly, the Pakistani military considers the Haqqani network as an asset to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan, post the potential US withdrawal and ensure Pakistan its ‘strategic depth’. Any action against the Haqqanis would affect its longstanding relation with Islamabad.
Besides, the Pakistan Army has expressed its concern on undertaking an offensive currently, with the pretext that it faces limitations due to overstretched troops and inadequate resources due to its engagement in South Waziristan and FATA. However, the recent India-centric military exercise Azm-E-Nau 3 exhibited an entirely different picture. The exercise comprised of more than 50,000 troops while a major chunk of the army continued to remain in position in the North-West, reflecting Pakistan’s reasonable capability to undertake more operations. Tracing the history of India’s non-initiation of a war against Pakistan, the Pakistan Army can easily divert almost half of its troops to the western sector without fearing any serious threat on its eastern front. Clearly, there are other things playing on Islamabad’s mind.
The aftermath of Operation Rah-i-Nejat in South Waziristan was marked by many attacks in reprisal within Pakistan, majority of which were traced back to North Waziristan. Drone attacks in North Waziristan have ignited the region’s ire towards the Pakistani establishment, and an offensive would further unleash a high degree of terror. Adding to this fear is the recent threat of a “big war” issued by the Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen (SIM), in case the government violates the peace accord. SIM is a consortium of Baitullah Mehsud’s TTP, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group and the Mulla Nazir group.
While the death toll resulting from direct attacks (post-Operation Rah-i-Nejat) has plunged, the military faces the threat of casualties ensuing from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and attacks from militants in North Waziristan. More importantly, the after-effects of an offensive are most likely to echo in Punjab, the heart of Pakistan. North Waziristan is home to several new militant groups, primarily offshoots of extremist factions like JeM, LeT, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Given their strong linkages and sleeper cells in central and southern Punjab, any action undertaken in North Waziristan may lead to numerous attacks in the Punjab.
Although these aspects are being covered up with statements of “limited resources”, there are some genuine rationales for forswearing an immediate operation. Considering the mountainous terrain of the province, the advantage always lies with the guerrilla warriors. It is imperative to have a reasonable knowledge of the terrain and proper planning before engaging in any operation in North Waziristan. Taking into account that the Pakistan government has minimal control over the region, any potential offensive will require sufficient time for acquiring reliable intelligence and understanding the pulse of the region.
The Pakistani military’s current formula is focused on delaying the operation and buying time till the US troops start withdrawing in 2011. Pakistan holds the strings to decide the strategy and timing of any offensive in North Waziristan. Therefore, it would avoid disturbing the ‘militant beehive’ till 2011. The present hold-up can also be used by the Pakistani military to give its allied groups time to consolidate their strengths and establish alternate havens in areas, just in case the United States coerces Islamabad into launching an offensive in North Waziristan.
With the likely withdrawal of US troops in 2011, the Pakistan government may end up repeating history by negotiating peace accords with groups in North Waziristan or undertake selective targeting of anti-Pakistan groups, which would not be possible while the US remains in the AfPak region. For the time being, Islamabad wishes to exhibit its ‘supportive side’ to Washington and pocket the $7.5 billion economic aid package approved by the Congress. It will also continue to support the United States in order to receive more weapon packages in return that will clearly never be used against its own malcontents.