On again, op again

On again, op again

This is it; this is the op; it has started; no, it hasn’t.

Confused? You should be.

Frontline commanders don’t know the details. The fluidity and dynamics of the talks -- which are for real -- don’t allow it. But what’s clear is that there won’t be a Swat/South Waziristan type of effort in North Waziristan. Yes, that fabled "clean sweep" will happen, though in stages.

Think of it as a blitz in slow motion. Parts of it are already in play, e.g. the breakdown between the central and the South Waziristani/Mehsud Taliban as announced earlier this week; the isolation of hard-core elements from locals via curfews, which have, in turn, caused regular citizens to migrate; the continuation of collective punishment that is further isolating the locals from the foreigners; the army’s stretch-it-to-the-limit game of exploiting the tenets of existing peace agreements, for example like the recent burnout with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, to implement their ‘two tits for a tat’ method of retaliation in and around Mir Ali and Miran Shah, as recently seen in the Machis Camp operation, where elements of the 114 Brigade and the 7th Division’s own reserves -- the 29 Cavalry, the 47 Baloch and the 49 Frontier Force -- along with a Cobra squadron, artillery and drones pulverised a refugee settlement that had become a Uzbek hotbed, but where only a few hard-core militants were holed up. Was this overkill for an RPG attack at Miran Shah bases by militants? Yes, but it wasnt for the IED attacks earlier. See, overkill is the new deal when the old deal breaks down in North Waziristan. Especially when everybody in Pindi and Islamabad is on the same page. And especially since the Fazlullah regime was incidently founded along with the Raheel Sharif regime.

This carrot and stick/talk and fight strategy will continue to build. What GHQ claims as "targeted", "intelligence-based", "surgical", "retaliatory", "sting-operation" air strikes that are being conducted at "specific" targets, along with matching ground offensives that come in the shape of "sanitisation" and "clearance" ops, will eventually spill over into something more along the lines of what happened at Machis. And then things will stop. And then start again. But there won’t be a massive climax, short of Fazlullah being killed -- which won’t happen in North Waziristan as he’s not there.

The "talk-terror-airstrike" triangle did the trick. The Mehsuds -- the TTP’s foot soldiers -- are now on the side of the government. They like the talks and are against Fazlullah, who they’ve been uncomfortable with for being a non-Mehsud.

Blame the lack of military drama on the talks, for they have worked. The "Talk-Terror-Airstrike" triangle did the trick. The Mehsuds -- the TTP’s foot soldiers -- are now on the side of the government. They like the talks and are against Fazlullah, who they’ve been uncomfortable with for being a non-Mehsud, and who they are now associating with "foreign elements": a major victory for Aabpara. In the ensuing breakdown, another major player -- Hafiz Gul Bahadur,  who was always pro-Pakistan -- has been forced to operate like a tribal nationalist and walked away from his 2007 peace agreement with the army. For Bahadur, that was the gentlemanly thing to do; he didn’t have the capacity to deliver his side of the bargain -- control the foreigners and nihilists -- and thus chose the third option given to him by the army: lead, follow or get out of the way. That means that the militant umbrella stands tattered into blocs: Fazlullah, the Uzbeks, the Bahadur crew and the Mehsuds. And that’s a very broad generalisation. The Haqqanis are outliers, as there is buzz about the exit from North Waziristan Agency (NWA). In effect, for now, the south has been won. And it’s joining ranks with Rawalpindi to take the north.

This is happening at a good rate for Washington, too. Stopping the drones worked, as it gave the civ-mil combine in Pakistan the elbowroom it needed at the negotiation table. It also gave the Americans what they wanted: For the Pakistanis to help deliver a nice and quite Afghan election. Meanwhile, with the back-to-back visits by US military commanders, Special Representative for Af-Pak, James Dobbins, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, everyone was discretely reminded to hurry things along; it’s unclear if a clear deadline was given; it’s confirmed that a stopwatch was shown to Rawalpindi and Islamabad, reminding everyone about the time-bound nature of task versus talks.

That’s where we must cross Durand, where the Pakistani military, and especially the ISI, stand vindicated. They’ve helped deliver a safe and secure Afghan election. On paper, they’ve maintained a ruthlessly neutral stance in those polls and not openly sided with one candidate or another. They’ve survived the poison of Karzai’s barbs. They’ve killed the ‘do more’ narrative of Washington by doing the same thing, over and over again: covert support and protection for insurgent leaders vs selective intelligence sharing for certain insurgent movements, following its now perfected strategy of keeping the Afghan cauldron simmering, but not boiling over. Yet, they’ve managed to rebuild ties with the Pentagon and the State Department and smoothen out the flow of those Coalition Support Funds from Capitol Hill, less than two years after that famed half-apology over Salala by Hillary Clinton. They’ve also managed to highlight and then reduce India’s footprint in Afghanistan. And although they still haven’t been able to outspend New Delhi as it woos Kabul, they go unscratched when a Herat Consulate type of attack happens. They’re not eating cake, sure; but they’re not biting bullets either. And the radio chatter indicates that they like Raheel Sharif’s straight-shooting, team-playing Piffer swagger.

So what now? It’s simple: all eyes on the Afghan Taliban. We don’t know enough about them. Nobody does. But with President Obama announcing zero troops in Afghanistan by 2016, explaining the drawdown -- literally in stages -- the Afghan Talibs, who are the core of this insurgency, and who have real support in the Afghan south, are going to do something. It’s inevitable.

What exactly? Will rallying and reconstructing this unraveling Pakistani Taliban coalition be their top priority? Or will they pivot politically and take Kabul through other means? On both sides of the Durand, this insurgency has morphed from heavy-duty fighting in the mountains, to high-profile terror attacks in the cities, to assassinations of major leaders, to discrete negotiations. I see a trajectory here. It’s not called peace. But it’s not war, either.

On again, op again