Let this be read and understood as a clear policy guideline and a military commander’s declaration of his military intent. The first policy statement on the all-important issue of the war on terror by the new army chief reflects on how the army in Fata will now fight under his leadership. Visiting the Corps Headquarters Peshawar on December 21, the army chief declared that the “military will not tolerate terror attacks and effective response will be given to the terrorists”.
A clear decision seems to have now been made about the circumstances under which the army will retaliate. With no breakthrough in the peace process and in the absence of a clear political commitment for initiation of a military operation, the deployed army in Fata cannot afford to act like a sitting duck.
With a change in the leadership of the army, will its strategy and method to fight this irregular war also change? This was an important question that irritated many minds. The clear deterrent message by the COAS suggests that the army, which so far was fighting a war of containment, will now respond with devastating retaliation every time terrorists attack it, something it has already proven by initialling the recent military action in North Waziristan.
Over the years, military deterrence faded away as our policymakers juggled with the prospect of holding peace talks with militants. The short-sighted policymaking that has been more tilted and focused on creating an environment for holding dialogue seldom took into account the prolonged deployment and the resultant vulnerability of our army. Resultantly, more troops of the army lost lives in defending against targeted attacks and ambushes than attacking and conducting combat operations against militants.
An army that was reluctant to retaliate to the killing of its serving general officer commanding in the recent past has hit back against those who targeted and killed five of its soldiers in an attack on a military check post in North Waziristan on December 18. If this is not a sign of the changed military doctrine, courtesy its change of leadership, then what else is?
What the army failed to achieve under the combined leadership of General Musharraf and General Kayani was to consistently degrade the enemy and weaken its capabilities. The current warning and retaliatory response by the army speaks of a renewed resolve in this regard. Retaliation against militants is not an initiation of a military operation. It amounts to implementing a different military strategy in an ongoing operation.
Launching an announced military operation will, in any case, create multiple spillover effects. There will be a large-scale political backlash by the right-wing parties led by PTI Chairman Imran Khan. He is already referring to the current retaliation by the army as the initiation of an army operation and asking the government to “take control and bear responsibility for any planned military operation in North Waziristan”. Accusing the government of “abandoning the All Parties Conferences- mandated option of dialogue”, Imran Khan’s statements are a reflection of our long-held political bankruptcy on reaching a consensus and giving a thumbs-up to the army to launch a military operation. Retaliation by the army is a militarily legitimate action, unlike an announced military operation that warrants political legitimacy.
It is up to the new COAS now to live up to his words. Having spoken them at an appropriate time, he has put himself on the spot. In the coming few days, we will all be able to judge the new ‘sipah salar’. Does his action speak louder than his words? Time will tell.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2013.