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Pakistan Is Headed For a Dangerous Denouement

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • December 22, 2014

    Almost 130 innocent school children died in Peshawar on December 16 in one of the most brutal terrorist strikes in recent history. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility and called it a revenge attack for the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan.

    The deteriorating internal security environment in Pakistan has gradually morphed into its foremost national security threat. Karachi remains a tinderbox that is ready to explode. The Al Qaeda is quietly making inroads into Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayebba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HuJI), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The TTP has consolidated its position in North Waziristan and is giving the Army a tough time. Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan and the restive Gilgit-Baltistan are a perpetual security nightmare.

    Two successive Army Chiefs have publicly declared that internal instability is the number one national security threat. The Army is, however, relatively inexperienced in counter-insurgency operations. General Kayani had declared 2009 as ‘Military Training Year’ to re-orientate the Army towards internal security duties. Before becoming COAS, the current incumbent General Raheel Sharif had developed the training manuals for counter-insurgency. Over the last decade, the Army has deployed more than 150,000 soldiers in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA areas. It has suffered almost 20,000 casualties, including about 5,000 dead since 2008. The total casualties, including civilian, number more than 50,000 since 2001.

    Hurt by a series of Taliban successes in “liberating” tribal areas and under pressure from the Americans to deliver in the “war on terror”, in the initial stages the Pakistan Army employed massive firepower to stem the rot. This was the case when operations were launched to liberate the Swat Valley (Operation Rah-e-Rast, May-June 2009) and South Waziristan (Operation Rah-e-Nijat, October-November 2009). Unmindful of civilian casualties, fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery were freely used to destroy suspected terrorist hideouts. This heavy-handed, firepower-based, approach without simultaneous infantry operations on the ground failed to dislodge the militants. But it caused large-scale collateral damage and alienated the tribal population even further.

    Counter-insurgency operations against the TTP in South Waziristan drove most of the fighters to North Waziristan, but for long the Army remained reluctant to extend its operations to this province. North Waziristan has rugged mountainous terrain that enables TTP militants to operate like guerrillas and launch hit-and-run raids against the security forces. When cornered, the militants find it easy to slip across the Durand Line and find safe sanctuaries in the Khost and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan.

    On June 15, 2014, the Pakistan Army and Air Force launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting) – their much delayed offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan. The operation began with air strikes and was subsequently followed up with offensive counter-insurgency operations on the ground. Approximately 50,000 regular soldiers are involved in the operation. The air operations were assisted by US drone strikes, which caused extensive damage. As a result of the operation, one million civilians left their villages and became refugees. Many terrorists are claimed to have been killed, most of them foreign terrorists.

    There can never be a purely military or a purely political solution to an insurgency. A successful counter-insurgency strategy is a dynamic but balanced mixture of offensive operations conducted with a humane touch and socio-economic development. Political negotiations to address the core issues of alienation of the population and other political demands must also be conducted with the local leadership simultaneously. The tribal culture prevailing in the NWFP and FATA, with its fierce ethnic loyalties and diffused leadership, makes the task of the Army and the government even more difficult.

    Creeping Talibanisation and radical extremism are threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty. If the Army fails to conclusively eliminate the scourge in the north-west, it will soon reach Punjab, which has been relatively free of major incidents of violence. After that, it will only be a matter of time before the terrorist organisations manage to push the extremists across the Radcliffe Line into India. There has already been one major incident of violence at the Wagah border on the Pakistan side. It is in India’s interest that the Pakistan government succeeds in its fight against radical extremism. Else, India will have to fight the Taliban at the Atari-Wagah border.

    Political turmoil, internal instability, a floundering economy and weak institutions make for an explosive mix. Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but the situation that it is confronted with could rapidly degenerate into unfettered disaster. All institutions of the state must stand together for the Pakistani nation to survive its gravest challenge. The Army and ISI must concentrate on fighting the enemy within, rather than frittering away energy and resources on destabilising neighbouring countries.

    The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India