It has been 12 years now since Pakistan has been facing the worst kind of terrorism. So far, approximately 50,000 civilians have lost their lives. Around one-third of Pakistan Army is engaged in fighting terrorism and has suffered more casualties than in wars with India. Waziristan is the centre of all the terrorist activities in Pakistan and is known worldwide because most of the terrorists caught anywhere have some link with North Waziristan. South Waziristan was cleared by the army in 2009, but somehow North Waziristan Agency was left out at that time.
North Waziristan became the hub of all the activity during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jihadis from all over the world converged onto Pakistan to fight the Soviets. The CIA set up the largest headquarters ever outside the US in Peshawar during the 1980s. From funding to distributing jihadi literature, the CIA was able to take revenge of the Vietnam defeat but left behind a region full of guns, missiles and people who were only happy to use them. After the establishment of the Taliban government there in the late 1990s, fighters who had left after the Soviet withdrawal found Afghanistan to be a safe place for them again and returned. Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda set up camps in Afghanistan, dreaming of establishing an Islamic Emirate whose capital was supposed to be Bajaur and would cover the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan up to Mianwali. Training was imparted to Uzbeks, Chechens, Tajiks, Chinese and Pakistanis to form a formidable army in different countries. After moving from Yemen, bin Laden established his camp in Khost which is adjacent to North Waziristan.
The effects of camps and the Taliban government started showing in Pakistan, and Taliban groups appeared in many parts of Pakistan, then called as ‘Muqami’ (local) Taliban. This was in 1996. In August, 1998, US missiles fired from ships off the Pakistan shore hit his camp but OBL survived. All missiles passed over Pakistan’s airspace without prior permission. The then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, remained silent about the whole episode.
After the Nato invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban vanished. Some top leadership moved to Pakistan. Al Qaeda, too, found it safe to have refuge in Pakistan. The Americans let bin Laden cross the border when he was trapped at Tora Bora. Instead of following him, they outsourced his capture to local Afghans of Jalalabad. Al Qaeda settled in South and North Waziristan.
The Pakistan Army moved to Khyber and Kurram Agencies in November 2001, to North Waziristan in December 2001 and to South Waziristan in April 2002. The aim was to stop the influx of al Qaeda. However, a vast porous border could not be managed by the troops available at that time. Live coverage of American bombers carpet-bombing Afghanistan created sympathy for Afghans and al Qaeda. Young army officers and soldiers were no exception. In June 2002, two officers and eight soldiers of the Pakistan Army were killed by Uzbek Tahir Yaldashev at Kaza Panga in South Waziristan. For the first time, the realisation dawned that al Qaeda has to be taken as an enemy. However, by then they were well-steeled. Locals provided them homes, some out of sympathy, and some for the heavy amount they paid as rent in US dollars. They started influencing Pakistanis leading to the creation of Pakistani Taliban who since 1998 were active in K-P but their activities were restricted to the burning of CD shops. Al Qaeda was successful in bringing the war on terror to Pakistan.
After Maulvi Nazir fought and drove foreigners out of South Waziristan amid widespread charges of moral turpitude, most of the Uzbeks and Tajiks settled in and around Mir Ali in North Waziristan, in mostly Dawar-populated areas. The formation of the TTP by the Mehsuds in 2007 gave importance to their subversive and destructive activities.
The Pakistan Army, which was overstretched from Swat to South Waziristan Agency, found it preferable to get into agreements with local Taliban. This established and entrenched Taliban in the area. The biggest loss Pakistan suffered was through this. The Taliban opened their offices called ‘islahi committee’ everywhere. And those became centres of Taliban activities. A parallel state was established which eroded the authority of the political agent. All notables — strong people of the area including the Maliks — were killed, thus effectively restricting the political agent and governor to their respective offices. A new order was established in the agency where the Taliban were the rulers. The Army was restricted to its camps and was in a reactive mode.
The Army had planned an operation in NWA in 2010, which was postponed at the last minute. Then, in 2012, the Army decided to clear the agency. Additional troops were sent to undertake an operation but again due to fear of backlash, the operation was never undertaken. Now that the decision has finally been taken, the operation has to be finished in a professional way. Ample time was available to modify and improve upon the 2010 plan. Three areas will need specific attention. Mir Ali and its surrounding villages will be the toughest because of the presence of large numbers of foreigners. These foreigners settled there after moving from Afghanistan and their numbers increased after Maulvi Nazir pushed them out of South Waziristan. Villages are heavily-populated and closely-knit. A large number of Mehsuds are also living here after moving from South Waziristan as a result of the 2009 operation. The advantage to the Army is that most of the area is tankable. Miranshah’s surroundings, too, will be very tough and heavy fighting is expected there. The terrain is mountainous and ideal for ambushes. Villages in close vicinity of the army headquarters like Chashma Danday Drapa Khel Maachis could offer tough resistance. Shawal and Data Khel may be neutralised through air power. With most of the al Qaeda leadership taken out by drones, the Haqqanis will relocate to Afghanistan. The rest will try and fight but mostly go to Afghanistan or give up for a ride back. A lot of them will go to our urban areas. That’s where the real fight will be and the outcome depends a lot on intelligence agencies but also on the police.
If from 2010 till today, the acts of terror are counted, we did not gain by not clearing North Waziristan. The terrorists have been cutting us piece by piece. Over time, the conspiracy theory found footing that the Army was keeping the ‘good’ Taliban safe and that was why action was being avoided. North Waziristan became a matter of life and death for TTP sympathisers. The PAF had been bombing Bajaur, Khyber, Swat and Orakzai without much notice by Pakistani media and politicians. The moment the operation in Waziristan is talked about, stiff resistance is offered by political parties who are supporting the TTP. On the other hand, some people think that by clearing North Waziristan, terrorism in Pakistan will be eliminated. It will not, because terrorism is part of our society now. Our cities are infested with terrorist sleeper cells. Yet, this operation in Waziristan will reduce terrorism to certain extents. It will break the command and control centre of terrorists. The Waziristan operation may take few weeks or months but the battle against terrorism will have to be fought in the whole of Pakistan and it will be a long war.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2014.