Shades of Zarb-e-Azb


    Anti-terror operation is one year old


    They said it would be over in a matter of months. Three or four at the most. Yet Zarb-e-Azb has gone on for a year. We are still, just like six months or so ago, on the verge of clearing the tribal area of all species of terrorists. And, of course, we have degraded their command and control structure. Most of them are on the run. The rest have been killed. And the small pockets that remain are being wiped out right now. Hence the airstrikes in Tirah valley, and airstrikes in Khyber Agency, and the ongoing operation in North Waziristan Agency.

    Popular opinion is still in favour of ISPR press releases, though, especially if you trust the media. They are happy to relay a few scores killed every few days, just as the military says. Just numbers; no names, no high profile commanders nabbed, no upper tier Taliban chiefs killed in the strikes. Yet the operation is ‘largely successful’, and everybody gulps it.

    “It has been a success to the extent, at least, that it has brought terrorist activity in FATA under reasonable control, and incidents of terrorism overall have declined”, said Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, prominent analyst.

    “Yet it is surprising that the operation has gone on so long. Initially the military said it was a three-to-four-month job, but it’s been a whole year”.

    This sentiment is widely shared. The operation, by and large, has been successful, even though everybody hints that there might be some grey areas.

    “Militarily, the operation has been a clear success so far”, said Mansur Khan Mehsud, executive director of the FATA research centre, an Islamabad based think tank that focuses on the insurgency and its fallout. “The militants are clearly on the run”.

    The operation, by and large, has been successful, even though everybody hints that there might be some grey areas

    And this feeling is shared by the Old Guard that oversaw the great game at a different phase of its evolution. When they ran things, setting up factories that produced indoctrinated soldier-cleric mercenaries was undisclosed state policy. And together with America and Saudi Arabia, it was the lynchpin of the Afghan jihad strategy that ultimately led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

    “The operation has been successful to a large extent”, said Gen (r) Hameed Gul, who was the ISI chief during the waning years of the first Afghan war. “But there are a lot of factors at play which prevent outright success. India is more belligerent and more actively involved; it is passing a lot of money to our enemies”.

    And the Taliban?

    With or without India’s help, though, the Taliban have proved resilient enough to regroup and re-strike despite the loss of the North Waziristan command centre. Some of its most daring strikes, including the Peshawar school attack, came after Zarb-e-Azb took off.

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    “The militants are obviously well-entrenched in some areas”, added Dr Rizvi. “They continue to demonstrate the ability to strike violently in urban centres where militancy and religious extremism, including sectarian divisions, have strong roots with some societal support”.

    But with the operation going on for so long, and terrorists still able to strike pretty much at will, questions are beginning to arise about the long-term outlook of Zarb-e-Azb. Initially, especially after Peshawar, it was believed that there was finally enough unity – since there was finally a big enough tragedy – for the operation to finally turn on former militant proxies housed in urban centres. Most of these had been ‘brought up’ by the ‘establishment’ but had turned sour after Gen Musharraf’s Lal Masjid operation.

    With time, though, it became clear that the political will needed to see the operation through big cities was simply missing.

    “The military seems focused on the tribal area, but a different approach will be needed for cities, and that has not evolved, either in the military or the civilian leadership”, added Dr Rizvi.

    That, most probably, is why the National Action Plan (NAP), that was supposed to be the blue print of the grand strategy that would end terrorism forever, never got off the ground.

    So far, the military has taken out the terrorist infrastructure in the tribal area. If the objectives of Zarb-e-Azb were limited to FATA, it would be mission accomplished

    “NAP never happened because the political leadership does not have the will”, said Gen Gul.

    And the N-league has good reason not to be interested. It is politically inconvenient for it to alienate the right-wing Deobandi lobby that forms its core support base.

    “Interests of some of these militant groups overlap with those of the political support base of the government”, said Dr Rizvi.

    That, again, explains what happened to NAP. Whether or not the action plan will still be central to victory remains to be seen. So far, the military has taken out the terrorist infrastructure in the tribal area. If the objectives of Zarb-e-Azb were limited to FATA, it would be mission accomplished. But they promised “all hues and colours”, which means big cities, population centres, urban hubs, Punjabi Taliban, etc. And NAP is nowhere to be seen. And the ruling party is not interested hunting militants in Punjab and Sindh. And there is really no chance of any movement on the madrassas. And only very selective information comes down from the mountain – and it’s always about dozens of militants killed, etc.

    The word on the street, though, is ‘all good’. One year out, Zarb-e-Azb continues to be taken at face value.