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October 14, 2014

Zarb-e-Azb: Gear up for the ‘forever war’


October 14, 2014

“No time sensitivity please, this isn’t fast food,” explained an officer from Peshawar’s XI Corps, involved in ground operations in North Waziristan. “This is fine dining, a 20 course dinner, and right now, you’re on the fourth or fifth course. If you want to enjoy your meal, you will need the evening off.”

Soldiers love food metaphors and, like journalists, they don’t like deadlines. While a Dharna-affected Pakistan has led to the national limelight moving away from Zarb-e-Azb, the ambitiously named (“Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”), even overdue military foray into North Waziristan — ground zero for the many terror groups which operate in the region — the Pakistani military has taken advantage of the broader political space carved out for it as a natural consequence of the ongoing anti-government crisis to figure the way forward for this war, as well as hone and enhance its own counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) skill sets.

“There’s more elbow room on the dining table today than we had earlier in the year,” said the officer, pushing the war-as-a-meal symbolism. “It’s not relevant how the extra political leverage was created, but it’s very relevant how we will utilise it in [Zarb-e] Azb.”

Translated, troops on the ground as well as their generals in General Headquarters now clearly reckon that Op ZEA (the Army’s new abbreviation for Zarb-e-Azb) is a long-term, ambitious engagement.

The campaign is going to haul beyond this winter, as new towns one may never have heard off — Tapi, Spalgha, Panda — are captured to ring across the national conversation; it’s going to extend into stages, with just the clearing and holding bit taking up to “a couple, maybe more, years”, according to an officer, before the building and transferring to the civilian-run administration even begins. Interestingly, there are abstract views about the return date of the internally displaced

local population back into North Waziristan (generally, senior officers in the Army are not too keen on IDPs returning soon).

Moreover, Op ZEA is being seen as an eventually strategic game-changer for the region, which culminates with laws enacted, roads built, model villages constructed and borders sealed to buffer the endangered (Pakistan) from the embroiled (Afghanistan), finally de-hyphenating the American-manufactured security equation that is Af-Pak.

With key built-up areas (the towns of Mir Ali, Miranshah, Boya-Degan and Dattakhel) now taken, on-the-fly operations, air strikes, explosives/ordnance hunts and firefights continue, even as Phase Two of the operation officially begins.

Minor operations will also roll on through the so-called ‘non-fighting season’ of winter. “Why fight an unconventional war via the conventional ways,” asked an officer in explanation, further claiming that “we are geared up for the cold, but they [militants] are the ones who melt away when the chill arrives.”

Expect Shawal — a rugged no-man’s-land nestled between South and North Waziristan, with narrow alpine valleys and jagged peaks that rise up to 18,000 feet, as the next obvious target. Already being softened by both Pakistani air strikes as well as the CIA’s drones (which are back with a vengeance, though both sides have insisted in background conversations that Langley’s drone targeting is independent of Pakistani coordination), it’s where many militants have fled to since the fighting began, in earnest, last spring. The plan, simply, is to pound the locality hard and then take it by next spring. Thus, there is a long-term, almost relaxed, pace to the army’s operations, resonant in conversations on the ground in Waziristan and in the GHQ.

“The key difference in fighting COIN [counterinsurgency] in a foreign land versus your own land is time and legitimacy,” explained an infantry officer stationed in Waziristan for months. “Foreign forces are expeditionary forces, always running behind schedule. They are subjected to a time window and legitimacy problem. We are not.”

Yet, despite of the military’s can-do swagger, serious questions remain about Zarb-e-Azb, the foremost being: why now, and not earlier?

“Strategic restraint”, explained one officer, referring to the criticism generated around the beginning of the operation by the remarks of the former army spokesperson, the retired Major General Athar Abbas, about former Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani’s recalcitrance to launch an operation in the north soon after a 2010 campaign secured South Waziristan. Early summer saw those remarks create shockwaves against ‘Canny Kayani’, demarcating his style and intentions as clearly different from the incumbent Army Chief Raheel Sharif.

But, the officer continued, the pre-operational waiting game had more nuance to it: “Fata is not in a vacuum. The time Kayani took was for decisions that were linked to the Americans, to the Afghans, to 2014 and even to our own fatigue...Yes, we chose to remain under siege in North Waziristan, barely able to move. Yes, it was embarrassing. But those same bases where we were holed up for years are now providing the perfect jump-off points to launch full-scale offensives, are they not? So there is a dividend of patience we are enjoying operationally in North Waziristan.”

Other questions also arise. Have all the militants groups been unequivocally targeted, as the suave spokesperson of the Army, Major General Asim S. Bajwa, claims with his now famous “all colours and hues of terrorism will be eliminated” statements?

Moreover, that leads to another, even more serious question: Is this operation the real deal, the much awaited ‘clean sweep’, or a temporary push by the military to meet pending deadlines, like that of US/NATO/ISAF’s 2014 drawdown? Or worse, yet another ticked box to land defence deals while keeping the pot that is South Asian security simmering for attention and aid?

Like anyone else, soldiers don’t like being asked tough questions. But many officers on the ground admit that the “Haqqani Question” remains as unanswered for them as it does for the rest of the world: Where did the region’s deadliest militant faction, once cited as the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus by an American military commander, and widely assumed to be based in North Waziristan, disappear to? Kurram? Quetta? Rawalpindi? Safe passage across the border?

Irrelevant, they say. What’s relevant is that a primary objective of counterinsurgency has been achieved: space, long ceded, has now been denied. The capacity of all and sundry groups to operate from the tribal agency has been reduced, as the rug of establishment — the ability to base — has been pulled from under them.

Yet, this was not always the case. In the initial stages of the campaign, when The News interviewed officers operating in North Waziristan, there was a lack of clarity about who to hit and who to spare. The situation earlier this summer, for example, with Hafiz Gul Bahadur — long considered a ‘Good Taliban’ tied up in a peace agreement since 2007/8 with the army was, as one officer put it, “dicey”. There were “mixed variables” that would not let the military unleash upon the southwest into Dattakhel and other areas dominated by Bahadur’s forces. Thus, those areas became safe havens, even as the operation continued elsewhere in the tribal agency.

Anxious to keep the momentum going — which had been built after they took Miranshah and Mir Ali — junior officers were getting impatient, too. As were the Americans, who restarted the drone programme mid-summer in zones like Dattakhel, where the Pakistani military was not yet fully engaging. Meanwhile, the locals had their own gripes: if the Dawars of Miranshah and Mir Ali were being targeted, why not the troublesome Wazirs of the southwest, too? If the Uzbeks were being hit, what about the Arabs? And the Afghan-centric groups, as well as suddenly “friendly” sub-commanders, who were retaining positions of safety in areas as south as Razmak?

Not any more. “GB [Gul Bahadur] is on the run, and it’s because we’ve decided to go for him... This whole ‘agreements’ and ‘proxy’ business makes life difficult in a full-fledged op,” said an infantry officer involved in the campaign.

“It isn’t like the old days,” confirmed a senior staffer in GHQ. “If I play double games with my juniors today, lives are affected tomorrow. We can’t be lying to ourselves when we are under a rocket-propelled grenade RPG attack that’s coming from the village of a so-called friendly fighter...Grays are becoming black and white for us when it comes to terrorism. Ten years of war can do that. Zarb-e-Azb is helping clean the slate for the Army.”

War is so fluid, this line of argument continues, that you can’t really pick one target or forego another when it comes to the heat of a contemporary joint-forces COIN operation and/or CT battle out in the badlands. As for the theories about the militants’ movements or migrations? Officers admit that it has happened before, and may well have happened again, though with some irreverence:

“With the Haqqanis, it’s a damned if we do and damned if we don’t narrative,” explained an officer involved in clearance operations. “Plus, some things are simply above our pay grade...But I’ll tell you something: We haven’t seen the Haqqanis being bussed out of here. We haven’t gotten orders saying ‘Don’t shoot at Haqqani, but do shoot at X, Y and Z’. That’s just not on. Not in a war like this one.”

A senior officer in GHQ had an even more candid take on the Haqqani question: “Of course, there are favourites. Every intelligence agency in the world works with bad guys. The CIA doesn’t work with Santa Claus, does it? Nor do our agencies...But forget the agencies for a minute, and look at the big picture. Look at how the state is committing itself. Look at the resources we’ve spent and lives we’ve lost for this area, and tell me if we can be blamed for a simple policy that works for us: that we won’t take everyone on at the same time...No, sir, we won’t. Now, even the Americans are understanding this policy.”

As for assessing gains and losses, amidst criticism from what one officer termed the “non-elimination mantra of the media”, that is the reproachful contemporary analysis that blames the Army for either having given enough warning signs to militants based out of North Waziristan to move out of the area before ground operations began in earnest — or worse, a safe passage — operational officers The News interviewed came up with broad, but similar, themes.

In a counterinsurgency, they surmised, a standing opposition in a pitched battle is a fantasy; so don’t expect big gains to be propped up on a regular basis. In the build-up and initial stages of the operation, officers admit, a lot of armed groups fled because they had better local intelligence — and, unlike Swat, more local help — than the Army. Officers also stressed the “success” of the massive aerial bombing campaign — which started in early spring and killed in the twenties and thirties whenever negotiations broke down or retaliation was in order.

Officers also emphasise that gains have to be measured in terms of ‘non-events’, too: The impressive capacity of the militants — improvised explosive device (IED)-manufacturing facilities, ordnance caches and distribution networks, for example — which was uncovered had to be understood before it was dismantled.

“Accumulated over three decades of a terror-driven economy, with wholesale markets of weapons and IEDs and sophisticated smuggling and storage links, cutting off Tango supply lines that run into the mainland was a major achievement,” claimed an officer involved in clearance operations, referring to the codename given to Taliban and other combatants by the Fata-based officers.

The fact that there has been little or no terror blowback in the mainland, Dharnas and all, with the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz’s “Fortress Punjab” not yet breached, despite promises of revenge attacks by militants — always an area of concern for the Lahore-centric government — is evidence of attainment too, claims this Army-driven perspective. The recent Quetta Airport/PAF Base attack, even the attempted mutiny to capture a Pakistan Navy frigate in Karachi, are seen as successfully quelled outliers in this line of argument.

“Zarb-e-Azb cannot be judged on a scoreboard, but a pendulum,” explained an officer who has conducted several ground operations in the larger campaign. “It’s about time versus space. We may have the momentum, but the enemy has the time. The key, for us, is to have both.”

[End of Part 2 of a series of special reports on Operation Zarb-e-Azb by the newspaper’s National Security Editor. Tweet to him at @wajskhan]