Zarb-e-Azb: A Tale of Valiant Army Against Terrorism

Written By: Prof. Khurram Ali Khan

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After an initial reluctance, the Government of Pakistan decided to initiate an offensive operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) along Pakistan-Afghanistan border to eliminate terrorism. The operation in NWA has been code named as 'Zarb-e-Azb'. The operation commenced on June 15, 2014 as a renewed effort against militancy in the wake of the June 8 attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the TTP and the IMU claimed responsibility. The major goals set for the operation were elimination of militant hideouts, sanctuaries, arms storage and training centres of different terrorist groups. The main targets were Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Punjabi Taliban, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Al-Qaeda and all militant outfits.

Pakistan military had been planning this operation from the last few months but the dialogue process between government nominated committee and TTP delayed the offence. Imperatively, right after the pandemonium created by TTP marred this last opportunity for peace and there was no option left but a comprehensive military operation against the perpetrators of militancy and insurgency in Pakistan. After lots of deliberation and homework finally Pak Army launched full-fledged operation against militants in NWA. Pakistan Army being a professional force; their previous experience in other tribal agencies and Malakand Division helped them in this operation. Pakistan Army had cordoned off the NWA to avoid any escape by militants. However, the possibility of fleeing torwards Afghanistan was not ruled out. Imperatively Pakistan had to share and coordinate its operation with the US and Afghan security forces. Only with an assurance of Afghan border secured by the US and its allies, we could obliterate transnational militants linked with Al-Qaeda and TTP.

Pakistan Army had a significant presence in NWA hence it was expected that more than 30,000 troops would participate in this operation. Pakistan Armed Forces are equipped with Cobra gunship helicopters, JF Thunders, F-16 aircraft, surveillance drones, long range artillery, Main Battle Tanks and night vision capabilities. Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) also took part in this operation. The SSG commandos played an important role in the success of previous military operations till then. It was expected that SSG would play a key role in this mission. If we analyze capabilities of Pakistan Army, then we can say that there is no match between Pak Army and TTP-led militants in NWA. Pakistan’s ground forces with the close air support of gunship helicopters proved a lethal combination that ultimately caused massive damage and terrorist groups retreated towards Afghanistan. The world witnessed that Pakistan Army did all to get rid of all types of militants sanctuaries from NWA.

During Zarb-e-Azb, the command and control centres of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups have been dislodged effectively. Without masterminds or command and control centres, the sleeper cells of TTP in major cities would be of little use. The NWA was the last sanctuary for the transnational militant organizations. Due to the presence of these militant groups in NWA, Pakistan faced worst terrorist attacks in last few years. The economic losses were gargantuan. Foreign direct investment declined in Pakistan. But after the success in NWA, an ameliorated security situation with improving respite, stability and steadiness in all walks of life can be clearly observed.

The operation being carried out successfully, improved Pakistan’s image not only domestically but at global level. The perception at global level about Pakistan’s alleged double game in the war against terror is now totally eradicated as the operation gave a clear message to the world that Pakistan takes war against terrorism very seriously. The concept of good or bad Taliban does not exist at all. The military has carried out air strikes against every militant faction, whether it is against Pakistan or any other country. There are allegations on Pakistan that it has a soft corner for the Haqqani Network or Afghan Taliban but the reality is different from such allegations. The Haqqani network had been closely aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that saved IMU from total annihilation in SWA by late Molvi Nazir group in 2007. The Haqqanis brought Uzbeks to NWA after 2007 and provided them shelter and tactical support. The IMU has been involved in many high profile attacks against Pakistan. The IMU carried out attacks on Mehran Base, Peshawar Airport, Kamra Air Base, Bannu jail break and recently Karachi Airport. The Haqqani Network by all logics cannot be ally of Pakistan. This is the reason that Pakistan military has clearly conveyed this message to all militant groups in NWA to leave this area or die before the commencement of Zarb-e-Azb. Subsequently many militant groups fled the area. The key difference in fighting counterinsurgency in a foreign land versus your own land is time and legitimacy. Foreign forces are expeditionary forces, always running behind schedule. They are subjected to a time window and legitimacy problem. Our soldiers were not. Zarb-e-Azb is being seen as an eventually strategic game-changer for the region, which culminates with laws enacted, roads built, model villages constructed and borders sealed to buffer the endangered (Pakistan) from the embroiled (Afghanistan), finally de-hyphenating the American-manufactured security equation that is Af-Pak.

Till first anniversary of the launch of the Zarb-e-Azb, significant gains against the menace of terrorism were: 2763 terrorists killed, 837 hideouts destroyed and 253 tons of explosives recovered. There have been significant achievements with “strongholds, communication infrastructure and sanctuaries” of militants largely cleared as “Operation Zarb-e-Azb moves to the last few pockets close to Pakistan-Afghan border.” A dramatic shift in institutional strategy dealing with terrorism took place last year that many attribute to Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sharif and others to the collective decision by the Corps Commanders led by the Chief. The new strategy was considered necessary to quell the rising terror attacks in the country that were taking an increasingly heavy toll on human life as well as on individual and state-owned physical assets. It is relevant to note that two commanders of the outlawed Baloch insurgent groups – Balochistan Liberation Front and Tanzeem-e-Lashkar-e-Balochistan – and 57 fighters laid down their arms during August 2015. It is logical to assume that their decision may reflect a dramatic change in how the province is being governed post-2013 election with a Baloch nationalist, Dr Abdul Malik, as the Chief Minister and with a change strategy. In a latest twist, Brahumdagh Bugti has also shunned the demand of free Balochistan and agreed to negotiate with the government. Khan of Qallat is also expected to end the self-exile and come back to his homeland. This is a positive development and a first step in the right direction; however, one hopes that efforts to engage the exiled Baloch leaders continue with the objective of bringing all into mainstream politics for that way lies prosperity of the country as well as the province.

Significantly, sources in private conversations acknowledge that the militant networks have been considerably degraded but maintain that a bigger threat is coming from urban-based groups linked to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Karachi operation is continuing with the largest number of arrests of those affiliated with the TTP; irrespective of the false claims made by some political parties. The Rangers were given the power to clean Karachi, under the administrative control of the Sindh government, however the frequent visits of the Prime Minister and General Raheel Sharif to Karachi and their briefing by Rangers on occasions without any representation from Sindh government is being seen as an operation fully supported by the centre and the establishment – the two organs that have proved effective in combating terrorism in this country. Be that as it may, more work needs to be done especially in south of Punjab irrespective of political considerations as well as in other urban centres where TTP encroachments are patently evident.

Currently, having fled military Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the militants – both local and foreigner – took refuge in the high altitude Shawal Valley of North Waziristan. Thick forest, treacherous terrain and deep ravines, it has everything they need to remain in business of fighting the forces. But that was not to be – with rest of North Waziristan cleared of militancy, the Shawal Valley couldn’t be left in control of militants to be used as a launching pad for forays into the cleared areas. After a heavy pounding from air to soften the targets, a ground offensive has been launched, and for all the reasons it is going to be very tough.

The Shawal Valley is the last hideout of militants and they would spare nothing to fight back. And for the forces the battle for Shawal has to be won whatever it costs, because without taking it back from the militants, the Operation Zarb-e-Azb remains incomplete. Obviously there are heavy battlefield casualties; the military losses include death of Lieutenant Colonel Faisal Malik who embraced martyrdom along with a soldier in a clash with terrorists. The militants’ losses are reported to be in many scores. Located as it is on border with Afghanistan, the control of Shawal Valley is expected to shut the back door on the anti-Pakistan militants who keep moving in and out at will fomenting trouble in the tribal areas. A day before this clash, the Afghanistan-based terrorists had launched a rocket attack on a Pakistani check post martyring four soldiers. Given probability of militants fleeing the military action in Shawal Valley to seek shelter in adjoining region of Afghanistan, the government in Kabul should undertake a matching military action on its side. Since the licence to crisscross international border is one of the militants’ potent weapons it is essential that appropriate steps are taken to enforce strict border control.

The nationwide campaign against militants, both enemy agents and religious fanatics, has entered the endgame stage, and it is succeeding. The networks of terrorists have been dismantled and presently no terrorist group is operating from the soil of Pakistan. In Karachi, all encompassing improvement of 70 per cent has been recorded. Though much still to be done, the efficacy of National Action Plan (NAP) has greatly helped improve the law and order situation in the country. As many as 1,444 terrorist attacks took place in 2006; these spiked to 1,936 in 2009. The number of such attacks came down to 695 in 2015. Not that focus on foreign-funded terrorism has diffused throughout the country, but some of the recent incidents of terrorism tend to suggest that religious extremism happens to be the most potent threat to public peace in the country. The religious political parties had succeeded in somewhat blunting the bite of the National Action Plan, but not anymore. Likewise, the political parties, too, are being made to accept that they should jettison their militant wings and stand miles away from criminals and terrorists who enjoyed their patronage.

Zarb-e-Azb caused an internal exodus of local inhabitants. Fortunately repatriation of Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs) to North Waziristan has started this March. A carwaan of 26 vehicles carrying 219 TDPs belonging to 62 families left Bannu for Spin Wam and Shahmeri in North Waziristan on the first day. Stringent security arrangements were made on the Miranshah road from the Mirzail checkpost to North Waziristan. Besides Pakistan Army, the political administration and the FATA Disaster Management Authority facilitated the process. About one million registered TDPs are living in camps and rented houses in Bannu district. Each family had been given 25,000 rupees as cash assistance and 10,000 rupees as transportation expenses. Food ration for six months and a kit containing non-food items would also be given to each household. Children under five years of age were administered anti-polio vaccines and under ten measles vaccines.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb got acknowledgement and praise from the various leaders and forums throughout the world. They appreciated the successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Pakistan's efforts for regional stability. Showing solidarity with people of Pakistan, armed forces versus any challenge, these leaders praised the success of Zarb-e-Azb and termed it a hard blow for terrorists without any discrimination. They also praised national consensus to combat terrorism, Pakistan’s resolve, efforts and sacrifices in fighting the menace of terrorism. The whole nation is behind our valiant soldiers and military leadership who made possible for us to shun the fear that terror cast on our society. The civilian government and military leadership are undoubtedly on the same page and reading from the same paragraph.

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