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Déjà Vu: This Military Operation In Pakistan Must Be Different

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By Liz Whitfield: 

The Pakistani military is currently battling militants in the country’s tribal areas in an attempt to eradicate terrorist groups committed to the overthrow of the Pakistani state. This operation, focused on the North Waziristan tribal agency, is only the latest in a series of campaigns that have narrowly targeted anti-state extremist groups. Indeed, from 2002 to 2010, the military executed six similar operations across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in Swat Valley.

In retrospect, these previous campaigns may have succeeded in their immediate goal of clearing militants from the targeted areas but made little progress toward the broader goal of eradicating militancy as a whole. This is primarily because the operations were not complemented by efforts to strengthen governance in the affected areas or increase the security of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unless the Pakistani government does more to address the conditions that make Pakistan a permissive environment for militancy, Operation Zarb-e-Azb may turn out to be a limited tactical military victory but a strategic failure in the country’s fight against terrorism.

The Pakistani military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, after the failure of months of attempted peace talks with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. The operation is primarily directed against TTP and other groups that attack the Pakistani state, although the government insists that it is targeting all militants in the region including those of concern to the United States such as the Haqqani network. As a consequence of the operation, most of the residents of North Waziristan have fled and are now considered internally displaced person or IDPs. There are approximately one million of these displaced persons, the majority of whom are sheltering with host families or in public spaces in the nearby town of Bannu. So far, observers have roundly criticized the government for its insufficient efforts to provide relief for the displaced.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb is likely to be nothing more than a temporary solution unless the Pakistani government complements it with efforts to address terrorism at its source. A lack of effective governance in the tribal areas is one such important facilitator of militancy in Pakistan. FATA is still governed by an archaic system of indirect rule under the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Under the FCR, the state possesses very little power and traditional elites exercise only weak control through a tribal jirga system. Militant groups have been able to so effectively establish themselves in FATA precisely because of the existence of this governance vacuum; groups such as TTP could easily entrench their rule simply by executing any tribal leaders who dared oppose them.

In past operations, such as the ones in Swat Valley and South Waziristan, the military has dealt with this persistent power vacuum by leaving troops permanently stationed in the area post-operation. This, however, is not a sustainable solution long-term. Reforming the FCR and creating a more durable writ of law — in a way that remains sensitive to local traditions and customs — would begin to fill this governance gap and prevent militant groups from moving back in after the conclusion of Zarb-e-Azb.

Another measure that would help Pakistan achieve its overarching counterterrorism goals would be for the government to more proactively attempt to coordinate with Afghanistan on military operations in the countries’ respective border regions. The existence of these regions as havens for terrorists and the porous nature of the border between them has been a continual problem for both countries.

In the past, Afghanistan has repeatedly criticized Pakistan for allowing militants to use FATA as a base from which to mount attacks within Afghanistan. Now the criticism has reversed, with Pakistan complaining that Afghanistan has failed to be the “anvil” to Zarb-e-Azb’s “hammer.” Although political realities and a troubled history make such coordination extremely difficult, in the long run it would be mutually beneficial for both countries if they could mount parallel operations and thereby deny the militant groups an easy escape route. As a bonus, such coordination would also help soothe tensions in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s strained bilateral relations.

While these suggested measures admittedly face significant political and operational hurdles, there are some doable first steps that the Pakistani government could begin with. For instance, the government could convene a high-level committee made up of civilians and military officers to propose a set of concrete governance reforms for FATA. In addition, Pakistan should consider reaching out to Afghanistan to float the idea of possible future coordination of military operations. These actions would represent progress in the right direction. Without eventually addressing the systematic failure of governance in FATA and the ability of terrorists to escape across the border into Afghanistan, repeated military operations like Zarb-e-Azb will remain nothing more than a stopgap solution to Pakistan’s terrorism problem. 

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