Operation or not?

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Media reports suggest that the Obama administration is re-thinking its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that regard, while many in the U.S. government have called for greater military action against Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan in general, and North Waziristan specifically, by Pakistani or American forces, that sentiment may be changing given better understanding of the ramifications of such operations on Pakistani stability. In fact there are reports that the US is actually planning to increase military and economic assistance to Pakistan. The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer has added a new dimension by intensifying fears about a violent backlash to more aggressive action in North Waziristan from religious extremists or those who exploit them. A weakness that emerged in Pakistans ruling coalition has been largely resolved and the clear indication is that no one wants democracy to be derailed. The religious divide in society, however, has long term implications especially if it persists and is exploited for destabilisation.

The economic situation remains precarious in spite of a good economic management team in place. The recent political steps to address the issues of tax reforms, reduction in expenditures and corruption hold out hope that this problem is being accorded the highest priority. With 2011 being the year of reciprocal Presidential visits as well as a preparatory period for the general elections in 2012, it is important that all institutions and political forces focus on plans to methodically make democracy and the economy sustainable. A declining economy has grave implications for internal and external security as well as Pakistans place in the globalised world.

With that as background, what can be done about North Waziristan and sealing off Taliban and other sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan considering the fact that the area is emerging as a haven not just for militants and insurgents but also as a sort of badlands for criminals creating a serious lawlessness issue in the country? Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the general perception is that all problems in Pakistans tribal areas are because of the situation in Afghanistan due to the US and NATO presence. Secondly, there is also the perception that groups with various epithets like the Quetta Shura, Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Taliban, Punjab Taliban are broadly interlinked and that Al Qaeda if it still exists in Pakistan is largely irrelevant in the present ongoing situation except for its world wide ambitions. North Waziristan with a population of about 400000, mostly Pashtuns, in about 4400 square miles has always been a fiercely independent area. The Pashtuns with strong geographical, historical and cultural linkages on both sides of the border believe that the war in Afghanistan is a struggle for freedom from invading forces and their allies—this is the real issue behind various events that Pakistan cannot ignore.

This leads to the conclusion that military force no matter how decisive will not work on its own. A robust well funded program to bring education, employment, justice and basic services like water, health care and electricity is essential because it is often overlooked that this is what the majority of the people want. These considerations are important for any decision maker contemplating military operations in the area. The recent New York Times report that the bottled-up mix in North Waziristan has an upside because they can be targeted by drones turning that area into killing fields is not something that Pakistan would want given its long term consequences for the region and the overall war on terror and that the fact that this is a part of Pakistan.

As far as the military option is concerned a very rough estimate is that about 75000 troops would be required for an effective and decisive military operation. These troops with follow on Frontier Corps and police would be needed for at least a decade to clear pacify and transform the region into a stable and economically viable zone. So far effective civil administration has not been established in other areas of FATA cleared by the military and it is the military that is overseeing all development work. The military has more than 140000 troops already committed in FATA and adjoining areas. Tensions with India continue and there is general suspicion over Indian policy towards Pakistan though some tentative steps are being taken to start a dialogue. US diplomacy needs to encourage this process because Pakistan considers India a threat for good reason—bulk of the Indian military faces Pakistan, major issues remain unresolved and dialogue and confidence building measures have not made much headway.

Pakistans Army would also require support from medical to logistics to armored vests and advanced electronic detection devices and surveillance systems. The Pakistan Army Chief has been at pains to explain that the military cannot risk imbalance or prolonged indecisive military action due to inadequate resources that may lead to serious country-wide destabilisation.

But the battle would be really fought and won on the political, ideological and economic fronts. Without the educational infrastructure, medical, agricultural and employment programs, military occupation will fail and will cause a huge blowback. This has happened after earlier military operations that led to numerous terrorist attacks in urban areas and even linked up border and hinterland insurgents. The current internal situation needs to be carefully evaluated and understood. Political and economic stability can arrest and turn around the degradation of Pakistans internal security environment a prerequisite for badly needed foreign capital inflow. It should also be noted that there is comparatively less violence in the areas around the northern and southern logistic corridors from Pakistan into Afghanistan and a third central corridor if created can deliver far more than any military operation. Right now the Taliban strategy is to target NATO logistic flows to make the existing corridors unsafe.

Considering the enormous cost of a military operation in men and materials with uncertainty surrounding the eventual result as far sealing the border and ending the struggle in Afghanistan is concerned, as well as on the negotiated peace settlement option, it would be far better to give Pakistan the kind of support that gives it stability, and gives its military capacity for North Waziristan credibility. The overall strategy till 2014 and beyond and the end result sought could then be coordinated. So far this is not happening.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff. He is now associated with Spearhead Research.