On 8 June, 2014, Pakistan’s largest international airport in Karachi was stormed by terrorists from various outlawed outfits, including foreign Uzbeks, in what is considered the biggest attack on a high security installation in the country. With thousands of passengers stranded in grounded aircrafts, the air-field became a battleground as rangers, airport police as well as army commandos took to the scene.
The death toll was 36, including 10 highly trained attackers. More than 1200 passengers were safely evacuated from the premises, and there was not a single civilian casualty. However, this unfortunate event proved to be a catalyst in implementing a drastic change in the country’s foreign policy. The tribal region of North Waziristan, bordered by Afghanistan and a renowned safe haven for extremists became the target of Pakistan’s armed forces. The consequent operation, Zarb e Azb, popularly dubbed as Pakistan’s own “War on Terror” was going to be elemental in the security of the region .
Operation Zarb e Azb, as was dubbed after the name of the sword of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in Islam, seeks to clear out the region and to re-establish the writ of the state in a hostile, disenfranchised region of the country.
As of now, more than 900 militants have died in this operation, with a plethora of ammunition factories and propaganda materials being uncovered. What this billion-rupee war, coupled with the creation of one million IDPs means for the region remains to be seen formally, yet it does warrant an insight into how this operation has affected the prospects of international security throughout the region. This article explores the historical overview of Zarb e Azb and Pakistan’s struggle with terrorism, before outlining the possible consequences of this operation on the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as Afghanistan itself.
Pakistan, Catch 22: Where it all began
The month of May, 2013 was a time of hope and resurgence for the country. Following the monumental elections, which marked Pakistan’s very first transition from one democratic regime to another, there was a mutually agreed perception that things were going to take a turn for the better.
The elections themselves were a gruesomely bloody affair, with 2 major left-wing parties unable to cope with a series of terrorist attacks on their personnel and ideology. Right and centered-wingers faired relatively well, but the populace of Pakistan stood firmly against the notion of terrorism, if not entirely in favour leftist parties. The lives of the 50,000 or so civilians, who had died due to terrorism in the country, would be avenged.
A fresh party, led by legendary cricketer-turned-philanthropist, Imran Khan, had broken in the ranks and had won the popular vote for the country – forming government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). This troubled province, neighbouring Afghanistan to the West, with a wide tribal region that is often considered the hotbed of terrorist activities across the world, is fundamental to the entire region’s security.
Terrorism in Pakistan is dynamic and multifocal phenomenon, one that resulted from both the nation’s own dynamic foreign policy options as well as foreign militants continually transiting the extremely porous border with Afghanistan. The creation of local extremist forces to counter the Soviet threat in Afghanistan, and the consequential pouring in of Afghan refugees from the Afghan-Soviet war has deeply impacted the demography of the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhuwa. Many rural areas, particularly near the Durand Line became havens for mercenaries and extremists. The disenfranchised and neglected citizens of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas – a smaller region that formally falls within KP jurisdiction and is closest to the Durand Line), who bank centrally upon the local Pashtun identity far more than relating to the federation of Pakistan, soon found themselves in a perpetual hostage situation, where their fundamental rights were denied by the militants. From this region, particularly the hills of the district of Waziristan, commenced the hosting and planning of terrorist activities that were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians across the country, and billions of dollars-worth of damage to local infrastructure over the course of the last 10 years.
Amongst this historical grievance, the new government of KP, quite apologetically, pushed forth for negotiations with the terrorists now firmly occupying the regions bordering the Durand Line especially centred in the FATA. Reports suggested they were deliberately given a safe haven by the Pakistan Army in this region, while others pointed towards the historical disenfranchisement of FATA citizens in allowing these vagabond factions to take control. Either way, there was historical denial of rights for Pakistani citizens in this region. The aim of the new government was to immediately negotiate a ceasefire that would protect the citizens residing in FATA, even if it meant sharing political space with banned extremist outfits. From a period of December 2013 up till May 2014, a series of meetings in between the government, presided over by Mr Khan himself, were undertaken.
The claim put forth by Khan was a simple one – there were Pakistani citizens involved as well, long alienated by the state and left to battle with these factions alone. Something must be done to guarantee the safety of their lives and protection of their interests. The message was clear – the wanton killing of Pakistani civilians will not be ignored now.
Thus commenced a period of peace, extending from January to May, 2014 – providing locals with a false sense of security which ultimately proved too good to be true. The TTP (Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan – an umbrella terrorist banner under which various terrorist factions rally), was seen to be splintering – as the various groups within the conflicted TTP threatened to desert, or worse, execute the parties that wanted to negotiate with the Pakistani government. Local news agencies reported as many as 100 fighters dying as militants fought one another over what course of action to undertake in the light of the offer of these negotiations.
It seemed like a well-orchestrated, if controversial and dangerous, scheme of divide and conquer – the decision to negotiate with the enemy was justified by the splintering of the enemy itself.
The strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan, the influx of economic investment and free aid pouring in from friendly nations and most of all, a very obvious decrease in terrorist attacks across the nation all aided in creating a perception of betterment for the embattled nation. However months later, the TTP had had enough of their own desertions and infighting, initiated indirectly by the government. Consequently, they prepared to execute a final attack to remind the government of Pakistan of the degree of their power. In doing so they revealed why negotiations with non-state actors is elementally unacceptable: sharing political space with such parties undermines the legitimacy of the process entirely.
The attack on Pakistan’s largest international airport in Karachi in early June this year, complete with TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU – a foreign-based TTP faction), a virtually nameless organisation taking responsibility, served as a grim reminder. The aggressors themselves were surprisingly, Uzbeks. It was not about one area alone, the writ of the state throughout the country was being challenged in the brashest manner.
The peace talks were permanently suspended, to neither party’s surprise. However, the undertaking of a military operation to clean up the North Waziristan agency in FATA – the proverbial home of the TTP, marked an unprecedented move for Pakistan. It was a rare moment where the elected government and the ambitious Pakistani Army decided on a coherent policy of cleaning up NWA of any and all terrorists, even of factions that were once utilised as a tool of extended foreign policy by previous military dictators.
Afghanistan: In the Line of Fire
This operation has been perceived largely negatively in Afghanistan. Experts and analysts on both sides of the border predicted that the militant commanders of TTP and other factions would easily escape from the porous Durand Line into Afghan havens, before making the journey back once Zarb e Azb was over. Given the war-like situation in North Waziristan, it is impossible to independently confirm these notions presently; however, the rise of terrorism activities in Afghanistan following the commencement of this operation is substantial enough to support this point of view. The present interim government in Afghanistan, in accordance with this view, protests and alleges Pakistani support behind the attacks on Afghan territory, whilst the latter continue to pursue Afghan help in protecting and sealing the Durand Line from their end.
Afghanistan itself is in the process of making its first transition from one democratic regime to another amidst a gory period of elections that had cost the locals their lives. Yet the situation in Afghanistan, particularly the role of its local security forces in establishing the rule of law, cannot be compared with Pakistan’s. For a country that is ravaged by decades of continuous warfare, the local security forces neither have enough capability nor resources for undertaking tasks as ambitious as Operation Zarb e Azb – to clean up their own proverbial backyard.
Despite the intent and hope of a new tomorrow, the harsh reality of the weak, fledgling nature of the Afghan armed forces remains a crucial factor in the realisation of a peaceful Afghanistan at least in the short run. There is a dire need for mutual co-operation in between both the Afghan and Pakistani governments in eradicating the threats to their stability. Given the US/NATO withdrawal from the region, the option of co-operating appears all the more desirable despite the conflicting ideals of between both the countries. The situation, however, appears bleak on this front.
USA: Closing Down the Front
Alternatively in the US, this operation was lauded and encouraged by the authorities – citing that not only was Zarb e Azb the need of the hour, but would be extremely beneficial in promoting stability in the entire region . Pakistani-US relations, historically, were aligned in matters of regional security – even if that once meant reducing Afghanistan to a lawless buffer state The war in Afghanistan had specifically made Pakistan the most important non-NATO ally in the region – and its cooperation was crucial in upholding peace. However, the popular sentiment in Pakistan for the US, especially after the Raymond Davis and Salala incidents, remains extremely negative.
The bilateral relationship revolved around the critical supply route running through Pakistan that supplied NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan had often threatened to (and once did) blockade NATO supplies transitting through the region. Particularly after the Salala incident, where NATO forces mistakenly opened fire on two Pakistani border patrol posts that killed twenty-three soldiers, the government was able to close down the NATO supply line for 6 months until the US had provided an apology for the incident.
With the US/NATO withdrawal from the region, the Pakistani authorities would find themselves deprived of what could be termed as a central nerve point in the US-Pakistan relationship – the decision of closure of the NATO supply lines. This leverage remained a sore point for the latter as it undermined the proceedings on an active battlefield.
The role of Zarb e Azb highlights two notions that seem to underline the US’ role in the entire region. Firstly, the operation would not affect the regional balance of power or tip it entirely in favour of Pakistan, to a great extent. The rationale behind this is that even if the US is not militarily committed across the border, the continual aid to both Pakistan’s armed forces as well as the civilian government may allow a certain degree of influence to be exercised in terms of evaluating and implementing the necessary foreign and defense policies in the region. Secondly, the withdrawal would provide an opportunity for the countries directly afflicted by extremist non-state actors to come together to resolve their issues, as well as combat the threats effectively. The commonality of fresh democracy is present in between both Afghanistan and Pakistan – which could provide a solid ground for these states to engage in mutually beneficial dialogue, supported by the required groundwork by way of a military operation, to not only protect their own interests, but to also promote regional stability. This, should it happen, would be an achievement for the US and NATO – as it would allow them to close down the battle front in Afghanistan on a positive note.
Without a doubt, the implications of Operation Zarb e Azb are far reaching and are likely to be extremely significant in the future of the region’s security and stability. While not discussed in detail presently, this military operation has also been lauded by China, Pakistan’s historical ally. Despite the mixed response to this operation, the media reports emerging from areas already cleared by the Pakistan Army in North Waziristan illustrate the depth of penetration of extremist factions on Pakistani soil. Experts and analysts conclude that even if key figures and commanders responsible for planning and executing extremist activities across the country and in the region have escaped to safe havens in Afghanistan, then at least the infrastructure and organisational facilities laid down by them, including ammunition houses and training compounds have been laid to waste by the Pakistan Army. The rhetoric of “re-establishing the writ of the state” whilst may do little to change the balance of power in the region entirely is a positive step, and together with the strengthening of democracy in Afghanistan bodes well for the future of the region.
- “Press Release No-PR125/2014-ISPR,” Inter Services Public Relations, June 15, 2014. Available:
- “Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif seeks Taliban talks despite attacks,” BBC News Asia, January 29 2014. Available:http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-25943669
“Pakistan steps up operation to clear Taliban ‘safe haven’ from its border” The Guardian, July 1, 2014.
“US fully supports Zarb e Azb” Business Recorder, 15 September 2014.