Wednesday May 22, 2024

A counterterrorism future again?

By Mosharraf Zaidi
December 20, 2022

Thirteen years ago, in December 2007, the Pakistani military completed Operation Rah-e-Haq, ostensibly cleansing Swat of the threat of a terrorist takeover by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

This would not be the last military operation to cleanse Swat. In July 2008, Operation Rah-e-Haq II was launched. Then in January 2009, there was Operation Rah-e-Haq III. The result? A February 2009 ceasefire with the TTP. And a legislative, regulatory and constitutional fiasco that ended in another operation that began in May 2009: this one was called Operation Rah-e-Rast. By the middle of July 2009, the operation was completed. Once again, Swat had been cleansed of the TTP. The wave to TTP terrorism never really stopped though – in part because the core supply chains for terrorism in Pakistan shifted southward, from an Afghanistan origin story to a Jhang origin story.

At a highly anticipated moment that should have been the start of a consolidated large-scale counterterrorist and counter-insurgency push in January 2014, then-third-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif balked. He asked a committee of four old men to figure out whether any push was needed at all or another round of talks would do.

Six months later, the Pakistan Army went ahead with its own version of that push. That operation was called Zarb-e-Azb. A terrorist attack at the Karachi airport may have triggered Zarb-e-Azb, but the December 16, 2014 APS terrorist attack escalated the war to a whole new level. Military courts were set up, a National Action Plan was drafted and agreed on. This was Pakistan’s Charter of Security moment. By January 2015, the war was really on. By January 2016, it was largely won.

A grateful and victorious nation never really got to celebrate the victory, nor assess how it took so long, nor truly thank its soldiers. How could it? With the whole country having experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from a distance, and large swathes of Pakistani territory having actually been destroyed by the war, there was no time to heal, to question, to weep, or to laugh. When the Panama Papers landed in April 2016, the climax of a different kind of operation began. That climax was the August 2018 swearing in of former prime minister Imran Khan as he took the oath of office.

From 2016 onward, having fought a war for an entire generation, Pakistan’s substantial military capability was deployed to fix the national discourse, to win the fifth generation war, to eliminate corruption (only the kind engaged in by elected politicians), to help judges figure out the truth, to support organizations like the FBR to find data, and the SECP to find files, to help reduce Pakistan’s external debt, and improve Pakistan’s image at home and abroad. All of this is far outside the actual capabilities and domain of any country’s military – but who can question a victorious nation’s best and bravest? On and on it went.

After 2018, the military really went to work. PIA needed saving, so the air force deployed military officers to help PIA become Emirates and Virgin Atlantic. Wapda has never worked so the age-old solution of serving army officers at Wapda was conceived, possibly by some of the very smartest Pakistanis that assemble around the military leadership to guide its decisions. As problems grew, so did military-driven solutions. When Covid-19 hit, the federal government could not get provinces to report cases from major hospitals accurately. The ACs and DCs – also the best and bravest – were struggling. Enter sector commanders and corps commanders staffers. Suddenly, for a brief few moments, every tehsil was Sweden. Every Covid-19 germ, on the run.

Where was the TTP this whole time? Ostensibly in Afghanistan, enjoying the local hospitality offered to them in that country by the dastardly Afghan government run by Ashraf Ghani. If only Afghanistan could be rid of the Americans and run by some really salt of the earth, honest people.

Enter Zalmay Khalilzad, with some help, of course, from the Pakistan military – and: Eureka! The Doha Agreement. The Afghan Taliban, long the ultimate symbol of freedom and autonomy for so many Pakistanis, would finally have their day. By August 15, 2021 the Ashraf Ghanis of the world had fled. Among the first things that happened as the friendly Afghan Taliban took over? Pakistani federal ministers tweeted celebratory pictures of US forces fleeing Saigon. An elected Pakistani prime minister publicly announced that the Afghans, by being taken over by the Taliban, had “broken the shackles of slavery”. Oh, and the Taliban also jailbroke hundreds of TTP terrorists from Bagram and Pul e Charkhi prisons.

This weekend, four Pakistani policemen were killed in Lakki Marwat. Pakistani public discourse was fixated on a father-son duo of political plumbers from Gujrat that could not win their five seats in a free and fair election without the help of that same indispensable military. A few hours after the assault on Pakistani cops in Lakki Marwat, terrorists took over a counter terrorism department (CTD) police station in Bannu.

Lakki Marwat and Bannu are near the international border with Afghanistan buffered by the tribal districts, but were traditionally where Pakistanis from the tribal districts would flee to when the military operations against the TTP were underway. Where will the people of Lakki Marwat and Bannu now go to flee the operations that will eventually be required in these districts? And what kind of traitors will these districts add to the ranks of the legions of so-called traitors that have stood up and questioned the way security and politics has been conducted on the soil of their forefathers?

Some of the generals running the country, or more accurately, the military today, earned their stripes – as officers, and as men – fighting the country’s first war on terror. For the last six years, they have watched poor leadership, poor television talk shows, and a poor country, all cave in on them. A country that should have been thanking its veterans every day has spent most of 2022 questioning the political judgment and wisdom of a generation of officers that had earned the gratitude of a nation. And soon, if not already, this same generation of officers is going to have to find the wherewithal to go back to war. A war that may have been entirely avoidable, if not for the political interventions and distractions that were allowed to undermine the professionalism of the country’s most important organizations and assets.

People want hope. Especially in winter months as yet another calendar year winds down. But hope requires raw material. It requires the ability to establish a robust case about pathways forward that can become force multipliers. We have already been to this very specific place. Waves of terrorist attacks. A largely clueless, hapless and gutless national response to our policemen being killed and our police stations being taken over. All through 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 – that is where the country was.

The year 2015 was the year of transformation and renewal. Clued in. Resolute. Brave and ferocious. Pakistan fought back like a roaring tiger on a rampage, tearing through the enemy. And then it went to work in itself.

What is the ambient level of the country’s ability today to generate a nationalist surge of approval for more military operations? With millions of locals already completely exhausted from the last round of such operations, with no money to spare in the treasury, with no major world power having boots on the ground kinds of stakes in the region, and with no trust in or across political and military elites.

Perhaps the coalition government can accommodate a few dozen more advisers into cabinet, and perhaps instead of Nawaz Sharif’s four-man committee, the PDM can conjure up an eight-man committee. Perhaps the military can continue to fix the economy, anthropology, sociology and Egyptology too. Perhaps everyone can reiterate their commitment to Islam at the start of every speech with longer dedications. Perhaps more can be said by Imran Khan about the glory of the Haqqani Network and the Kandahari code that has sustained the Afghan Taliban.

Some Pakistanis expect more from this otherwise very capable elite, and this incredibly potent set of institutions and individuals. Those that do are the real heroes. They are able to see light in absolute and utter darkness. We should pray that what they see becomes manifest to us all. Otherwise, Pakistan is in for more of what it has endured in the past, with less to be able to resist or fight it.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.