For some years now there had been talk of launching a military operation against the local and foreign militants well-entrenched in North Waziristan, but it got delayed due to one reason or the other.
In fact, for quite some time, such an action was considered inevitable on account of the provocative terrorist attacks claimed by the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its foreign allies.
There had been limited military action in North Waziristan in the past, but a peace accord between the government and the Utmanzai tribes, including both the Wazirs and Dawars, and also incorporating the militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in September 2006 and its renewal in subsequent years, ensured that there would be no major operation as long as this agreement remained in place.
Except in the early years, the government refrained from publicly defending the peace deal as it was signed from a position of weakness and gave away too much to the militants. The militants, on their part, often accused the government of violating the agreement and on occasions threatened to scrap it in protest against the airstrikes conducted by the military in North Waziristan from time to time.
However, they didn’t act on the threats and, instead, used this as a pressure tactics because an end to the peace agreement would have inevitably led to a military action and, in the process, too much suffering as it is happening now.
In recent years, the peace accord lost its meaning as local and foreign militants of all hue and colour made North Waziristan the hub of their activities and used its territory to launch terrorist attacks not only in Pakistan but also in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who stayed away from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) despite being offered the position of its deputy head in 2007-2008, often appeared helpless and, on occasions, unwilling to take action against the militants who came from outside North Waziristan and set up their bases to challenge the writ of the state.
The US had been applying pressure on Pakistan all these years to undertake military operation in North Waziristan. It had publicly criticised the September 2006 peace accord in North Waziristan and President General Pervez Musharraf had to take along its architect, Lt Gen (retd) Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai, who was then the Governor of NWFP (later renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to the US to explain to President George W Bush the finer points of the agreement and its likely benefits.
The US remained unconvinced as one heard several American officials questioning and criticising such peace accords with the militants. It is another matter that the US has been negotiating with the Afghan Taliban and only recently made a deal to swap five Taliban prisoners held for more than 12 years at the Guantanamo Bay prison to secure the release of an American soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
In 2012, the Pakistani military came close to moving into North Waziristan in a big way to undertake an operation against the militants, but a premature statement by the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, announcing the imminent launching of the action seems to have prompted the army high command to abort the plan. Pakistan didn’t want to be seen to be undertaking military operation at the behest of the US in view of the strong anti-US sentiment in the country and also on account of the Taliban narrative that Islamabad was fighting America’s ‘war on terror’.
Though the blueprints of the plan for the military operation in North Waziristan appear to have been ready for a while now, these were updated as the time went by. The brazen terrorist attack on the Karachi airport and the separate claims of responsibility by the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) forced the government’s hand to go for the kill. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s patience ran out and he had to abandon his policy to secure peace in the country through talks with the TTP.
The government was in such a hurry to launch the operation, codenamed "Zarb-e-Azb" after the name of a sword used by Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), that it didn’t even wait for the end of the 15-day deadline given by the Governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sardar Mehtab Ahmad Khan and Corps Commander Peshawar Lt Gen Khalid Rabbani, to a 64-member tribal jirga from North Waziristan. The jirga had been asked to expel foreign militants hiding in North Waziristan and ensure proper implementation of the old peace accord.
The jirga members had advised the people not to leave their homes and villages as they expected a breakthrough in the talks with the government and the militants in the hope of averting the military operation. In fact, this delayed the evacuation of the people to safer places outside North Waziristan as, subsequently, curfew was imposed, roadside security checkpoints were strengthened, supply of food items became scarce and airstrikes intensified.
The federal government didn’t call any all-parties conference or take the parliament into confidence before launching the offensive, but almost all political parties, except the Jamaat-e-Islami, the JUI-F, and JUI-S, backed the decision. Imran Khan’s PTI also came on board after complaining that it wasn’t consulted. The PTI-led coalition government of Chief Minister Pervez Khattak took the same plea. It should have been consulted because the province has been bearing the brunt of the TTP backlash after every military operation and would have to host thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), whose number rose to over 70,000 on June 19, leaving North Waziristan.
The apparent targets of the "Zarb-e-Azb" are the TTP, the IMU, and al-Qaeda because they have been waging war against Pakistan. The airstrikes launched in the first phase of the operation have targeted the positions of militants affiliated to the three groups and the army has claimed to have killed more than 200 terrorists. As usual, the claims couldn’t be verified. The name of only one slain IMU commander, Abu Abdur Rahman al-Mani, was mentioned but he wasn’t a known figure. The IMU is presently headed by Usman Ghani, who had replaced Usman Adil, who was killed in a US drone strike. Usman Adil had replaced Tahir Yuldashev, the best known IMU leader who, too, was killed in a drone attack.
Reports from North Waziristan indicated that Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s men haven’t been attacked yet and that they have gathered in the Dattakhel sub-division near the border with Afghanistan. The Haqqani network, too, has been spared until now. This was the reason that the US resumed its drone strikes after a nearly six-month break and launched three attacks recently to target the suspected members of the Haqqani network.
The US and Pakistan have different priorities in North Waziristan and it seems the drone strikes weren’t coordinated as Islamabad would have liked the Americans to use the drones to target the TTP and IMU cadres. Finally, the Khan Said Sajna faction that broke away from the TTP recently and is apparently not involved in the recent wave of terrorist attacks too isn’t a target yet in the "Zarb-e-Azb" operation. Its fighters seem to have moved out of North Waziristan. The Sajna group could hold peace talks with the government in future in case the latter opts to do so again.