Our security forces have been fighting a war against the Taliban in the tribal areas that has now extended beyond that troubled zone into our cities and towns. The tribal regions for decades have provided the safe havens to the militants of various creed and nationality from Middle East to Central Asia. The social, religious and ideological linkages with this region go back to the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
A great variety of militants from so many countries were encouraged, financed and equipped by the United States, leading European and Muslim countries. The Soviet debacle in the Afghan war encouraged the Islamist militants to undertake new ventures, mostly against their national states. The events of 9/11 and American intervention in Afghanistan entirely changed the strategic calculation of the militancy. Some of these militants have turned their guns on Pakistan; some for extending support to the U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, others for capturing the state in Pakistan; Since the resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan around 2005-7, Pakistan has been confronting a similar outfit called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) with so many chapters in different agencies of the tribal areas.
The militants have consistently attacked the security forces of Pakistan and ordinary citizens for well over a decade now causing more than fifty thousand casualties. The country has suffered perhaps unprecedented damage in loss to international image, loss of business, and investment opportunity that is estimated close to hundred billions dollars. The militants, both ethnic in Balochistan and part of TTP groups, have backing of Pakistan's adversaries.
Unfortunately, the political parties and the public at large have failed to understand the threat, militants have posed, or to the colossal damage they have caused. They appear to be confused owing to conflicting narratives that have emerged. There has been a lack of clarity on what do the insurgents want and why have they taken up arms against the state? This question produces confused answers that don't stand the test of any logic or reason. For instance, the Taliban and their supporters portray themselves as 'holy warriors' fighting for the enforcement of Islamic law and defenders of Pakistan. One important lesson of history and strategy is that enemy enters deep into the society and may survive because of camouflaging. For any nation, the first clarity it needs is who the enemy is, what his objectives are, whom he is aligned with and what means he is likely to apply?
After fighting so many battles over a decade and suffering so much, there is no ambiguity left about our “internal” enemies – the TTP and Baloch insurgents supported by external powers. Both must be defeated by whatever means necessary to reclaim the territory and writ of the state.
The Zarb-e-Azb is our final battle, a battle of national survival to eliminate the TTP and its allied groups in North Waziristan Agency (NWA). Sadly, what has been happening in the frontier regions for decades is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a larger and more complex project of capturing the state by eliminating its authority, starting with regions where its presence has been weak. Religious groups throughout the country extend support to the militants in many ways such as attacking the state in the media for “provoking” trouble. If that is not the case, why have religious groups, religious political parties and their spokesmen who are vocal on every other issue, not condemned the insurgents and their brutalities against our security forces? Their silence is a political statement of latent support to this so called religious insurgency. In a convoluted logic, they often blame security forces and the government for the conflict situation more than the violent armed groups that have committed and continue to commit unspeakably cruel acts.
It is not difficult to understand this silent, latent support of religious groups to the insurgents, but what is hard to grasp is the silence of some of the mainstream political parties, intelligentsia and other opinion-making sectors for a very long time. With very few exceptions, most of the parties remained ambivalent on the issue of religious violence. Some of them took perverse pleasure in watching the Musharraf regime being challenged by religious extremists and their armed fronts. It is not hard to see how political opportunism clouded their judgment on the issue of religious violence and Talibanisation for almost a decade. In building national consensus against militants we lost a lot of time, opportunities and precious lives.
Gladly, things have changed now. There is a general consensus among all the political groups and parties that the TTP militancy must be defeated. The government and the political parties gave fair chance to a negotiated settlement to succeed, but as many skeptics rightly feared they would fail, the only option left was to launch a military operation that is underway now. One remarkable thing that has happened is that the public opinion has turned against the militants and those parties that have apologetically defended them. Operation 'Zarb-e-Azb' is not only a military operation but a symbol of national resistance against terrorism and religious extremism.
In understanding the Islamist militancy and thinking of means to defeat it, the starting point is this question: what has gone wrong with our society where religious intolerance, hatred and conflict have increased? While being aware of what is happening in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and the violent play of religion and sect there, we need to look more closely at our domestic roots of religious conflict and terror groups. We need to raise this question: did religious violence in Pakistan start after the Americans intervened in Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power? Not really. The sectarian conflict, perhaps the worst in our history, that continues to simmer and burst out occasionally, started in the early 1980s. The sectarian militias are still with us, lying low, and camouflaged. We have a great responsibility to develop nationalist narratives and make our society realize the dangers of this disguised enemy. Indifferent social attitudes toward religious violence have allowed Talibanisation to grow, taking a form of insurgency.
Nothing can be more distorted than the view that the war, our security forces are fighting, is not our war but one undertaken to safeguard others’ interests. This view is put forward only by elements whose interests are tied with the religious extremists and the Taliban, as the latter do not renounce war against the state if it is sanctioned by their religious beliefs. What they do not understand is that armed conflict against the state, no matter what the nature of grievances, is not justifiable under law, reason or even religion.
The civilian government and the security forces have taken the right decision to reassert state authority and regain sovereign control through whatever means necessary in the remain stronghold of militants – North Waziristan. If they were allowed to have their way and end up creating and running mini-states within the Pakistani state, other regions and areas of the country might have seen rise of similar elements. The war our security forces are fighting is our war, a war for the future of Pakistan. The state and the nation have finally made their resolve to counter and eliminate Talibanisation that presents a grave threat to national security.
The writer is an eminent defence/political analyst and regularly contributes in print/electronic media. Presently he is Director General at Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad
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