South Asia | Two years later: Taliban still resilient despite Waziristan military operation

Two years later: Taliban still resilient despite Waziristan military operation

June 13, 2016 11:32 AM (UTC+8)

 

Part I

ISLAMABAD–Two years after the Pakistan Army launched a massive military operation in the trouble-stricken North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, Taliban-linked terrorism refuses to die down. The Islamic fundamentalist movement remains resilient despite claims to the contrary by the nation’s military leadership, as tragedy after tragedy keeps visiting the Pakistani nation.

Taliban fighters in South Waziristan
Taliban fighters in South Waziristan

Around 30,000 Pakistani troops marched into North Waziristan on June 15, 2014, after it became clear to the “pro-talks” Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad that the peace dialogue with Mullah Fazlullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was far from reaching fruition. But two years later, it seems that the Taliban-sponsored terrorist activities across Pakistan are on the uptick rather than declining.

Pakistan’s military  has repeatedly asserted that its ongoing anti-TTP offensive has turned the corner by nipping the menace of terrorism in the bud. However, the truth remains that around 250 innocent Pakistanis have been killed in 30-plus terrorist assaults across Pakistan through June 10, 2016. Pakistan has suffered a total of 724 terrorism-related fatalities since Jan. 1, 2016. The toll includes 376 terrorists, 247 civilians and 101 security forces personnel.

Official veil

It’s rather difficult to gauge the success of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab (Sharp Strike), mainly because statistics supplied to the public through media come from only one source — Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) of the Pakistani Army. There is no other reliable source of facts and figures, and no independent media organization has been allowed by the military to embed with the army units which are fighting the Taliban in Waziristan. Although the government and the military establishment claim that the backbone of the terrorists has been broken, terrorist attacks continue unabated throughout Pakistan. If intelligence-generated warnings are anything to go by, the threat of Taliban-sponsored terrorism in the urban areas of Pakistan has increased, especially after the March 26, 2016 suicide bombing at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, which killed 73 people, mostly school-age children.

Security at the national level did register notable improvement by the end of December 2015, with 60% reduction in the number of terror attacks. Thousands of intelligence-based operations carried out against the Taliban-linked militants had resulted in the deaths and arrests of hundreds. Certainly, dozens of terrorist plots were thwarted as a result of these overt and covert operations and most of the Taliban leaders were compelled to shift their bases to Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s ability to keep striking soft targets and inflict death and destruction in Pakistani nation has substantially increase since the start of 2016. This gives an impression that operation Zarb-e-Azab has failed to achieve its prime target — uprooting the command and control structure of the TTP — which has been shifted from the Waziristan region to the Afghanistan side of the border.

Pakistani soldier keeps watch for Taliban from mountain post
Pakistani soldier keeps watch for Taliban from mountain post

‘Want them to feel our pain’

After being driven out of their sanctuaries in the tribal borderlands of the Waziristan region, the Taliban commanders have found sanctuaries close to the border in Afghanistan, where they continue to train and send death squads to the urban centers of Pakistan to sow mayhem. The most lethal of them is Commander Khalifa Omar Mansoor Naray — a former activist of the anti-US and anti-Shia militant-cum-sectarian outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), who operates from the Naziyan district of the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Omar heads his own group within Mullah Fazlullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and had claimed responsibility for the atrocious Army Public School massacre in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014 which killed 141 people, including 132 school children, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age.

The TTP had claimed responsibility for the school attack, describing it as revenge for operation Zarb-e-Azab. TTP spokesman Muhammad Omar Khorasani said in a Dec. 16, 2014 statement: “We targeted the school because the Pakistan Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain. It is a revenge attack for the army offensive in North Waziristan. The attack was coordinated by the TTP leaders operating from Afghanistan.” The spokesman issued yet another statement on Dec. 17, 2014 saying: “During yesterday’s school attack, more than 50 spawns of important army officers were killed after being identified.” On Dec. 18, TTP released a video showing Omar Mansoor, claiming he had mastermind the Peshawar School attack on behalf of Mullah Fazlullah.

Drone-proof?

The day after the Army Public School massacre on Dec. 16, Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Shareef rushed to Kabul in a bid to seek Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s help in erasing terrorist sanctuaries in Nangarhar, Kunar and other places. But President Ashraf Ghani wanted reciprocal measures against the Pakistan-based Haqqani militant network, which is led by the ISI-backed Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who often claims terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Therefore, while wows were exchanged and promises made during General Raheel Shareef’s Kabul visit, nothing tangible could be done against the top TTP leadership which continues to operate from Afghanistan. While Pakistan has repeatedly asked Washington to drone Mullah Fazlullah, American military officials contend he was hiding in a dingy terrain which was out of their reach.

Mullah Fazlullah
Mullah Fazlullah

On the other hand, on the eve of the completion of the military operation’s second year, General Raheel Sharif had claimed while addressing the corps commanders’ conference in Rawalpindi on June 2, 2016 that the Zarb-e-Azab military operation has entered its final phase. His address was an agenda-setting speech for the remaining part of his tenure in office during which he would be concluding his various undertakings. The general is retiring in November 2016. Even though Raheel Shareef has not yet given any time frame to conclude Zarb-e-Azab, the prevailing sentiment is that the completion of the operation must be announced ahead of the end of his term in office. In fact, the final phase of operation Zarb-e-Azab had been launched in the Shawal valley of North Waziristan in January this year. The deep and forested ravines of Shawal valley are frequently used as infiltration routes by the militants.

According to Pakistani military spokesman Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, the last phase of the military operation in the Shawal Valley, which was meant to clear the last remnants of Taliban from their hideouts in the forested ravines, proved to be a real success. Before the start of the operation, there were around 2,500 terrorists in the valley, which shares a 100 km volatile border with Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

Khan Saeed Sajna group and Sheryar Mehsud group of the TTP, accompanied by over three dozen foreign fighters, were the most prominent insurgents who had to flee to Afghanistan. According to Lt Gen Asim Bajwa, the number of terror attacks in Pakistan has fallen to 70% due to the military action against the Taliban bases along the Afghan border. He said the Waziristan operation had ousted the Taliban insurgents from their most prized tribal sanctuary of Waziristan.

Over the border and far away

However, these claims have already been described as overstated by critics. Noted Pakistani defense analyst Ahmed Rashid observed during his March 11, 2016, lecture at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, titled “Continuing search for stability: Pakistan and Afghanistan”: “The success of the Waziristan military operation is stymied by the fact that around 1,500 terrorist leaders are still alive after having crossed over to hostile territories in Afghanistan where there is no mechanism or will to take them to task and from where they are running their terrorist networks effectively.”

Afghanistan-PakistanIn fact, FATA continues to be highly insecure which has seen 311 fatalities, including 201 terrorists, 58 civilians and 52 security forces personnel [till June 10, 2016]. The worst terror attacks in the FATA during 2016 include the Jan. 19 strike, where 12 persons were killed and 40 others sustained injuries as a suicide bomber targeted the tribal Khasadar Force in Karkhano Market of the Khyber Agency; and the Feb. 17 attack, where at least five Khasadar force officials were killed when terrorists targeted a Khasadar check post on the Mohmand-Peshawar Highway in the Pandyali area of the Mohmand Agency. The insecurity overflows both from and into the area as well.

Christians targeted

During the current year, Pakistan has already documented 724 terrorism-related fatalities till June 10 which included 376 terrorists, 247 civilians and 101 security forces personnel. But the March 26, 2016 suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore was the worst one which killed at least 73 people, mostly kids. The powerful blast ripped through massively crowded area of the leisure park housing swings and other attractions for children. The crowd consisted of a large number of the Christian families celebrating Easter. TTP Jamaatul Ahraar claimed responsibility for the carnage, saying the group intentionally targeted the Christians on the Easter Sunday. “The target was Christians,” said the TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, adding: “The Jamaatul Ahraar wanted to send a clear message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore – his home town. He can do what he wants to but he won’t be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue to carry out such attacks.”

Scene of suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore
Scene of suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore

The terrorist group also posted an Urdu communiqué on its Facebook page claiming the attack and releasing a photo of the suicide bomber, identifying him as Salahuddin Khorasani. The Lahore park attack actually underlined the evolving and expanding strategy of TTP as per which the terror group is lately going after soft targets including schools, colleges, universities and public parks. The Pakistani Taliban still have a well-entrenched network with huge manpower at its disposal.

Soft targets favored

Ever since its creation in December 2007 in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid military operation in Islamabad, the TTP has mainly launched terror attacks at a steady frequency, targeting security establishments and law enforcement agencies. In the last few years, the Taliban elements have expanded the scope of their targets. In the beginning, they didn’t target the general public and their focus was on military and its affiliated establishments and personnel. But as things stand today, their strategy has clearly changed and they are openly targeting not only schools, parks and innocent children but also mosques, tribal jirgas as well as religious minorities.

Ever since the launch of the Waziristan operation, the public has been constantly fed the narrative that Pakistan is safer now. But the grim reality is that the terrorist keep striking at will in every nook and corner of Pakistan. Hence, the million-dollar question raised by the typical Pakistani remains, “how long can we continue to live like this amid the rhetoric of a fight back at all costs.” They also ask: “Do we have a guarantee of eventual success of the military operation?” Part of the answer lies in the Taliban’s continued resilience even when they are divided and on the run. To tell the truth, the Pakistani military enjoys authority that would be unthinkable in many other countries. It has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians to the tribal areas as it hunted militants and created its own court system that allows quick hanging of terror suspects.

Taliban’s reset button

However, all it takes to restart the cycle of terrorism is a resolute Taliban commander, a few willing fedayeen attackers and a list of accessible targets — all of which the different factions of Taliban retain, along with experience in mounting such ferocious attacks. While analyzing repeated claims of the Pakistani military authorities about the success of operation Zarb-e-Azab, it is a fact that the Taliban have been driven out of the major stronghold and last sanctuary in the tribal region of North Waziristan and Tirah in Khyber tribal region.

But it is also a reality that Taliban pockets remain in the region between North and South Waziristan, a portion in Shawal and small valley of Tirah called Rajgal bordering Afghanistan. Then there are some splinter groups of the Pakistani Taliban here and there in the Tank district of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province. This is in addition to the “sleeper cells,” despite a string of successful sting operations by the security forces across the country.

Waziristan_map_2008

The most vital question is: have the Taliban militants really been defeated? The military authorities insist that they have almost been defeated, but not finished yet. Having been driven out of their sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA), the Taliban have moved across the border in Afghanistan from where they continue to organize and execute attacks inside Pakistan. Going by the input of the Pakistani security agencies, different groups of militants are now operating from their bases across the border in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces with the knowledge and sometimes tacit approval of their Afghan hosts. It was from those sanctuaries that the militants affiliated with Omar Mansoor Naray group had planned and executed the attacks on the Army Public School in Peshawar and the Bacha Khan University in Charsadah on Jan. 20, 2016. He is also responsible for the September 2015 suicide assault on the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) camp in Badabair near Peshawar.

These terrorist attacks brought home the point that the Taliban still have the capacity to commit terrorist activities despite the launching of Zarb-e-Azab which had caused a major dent in their capabilities, freedom of movement as well as freedom of action. The implementation of the Nation Action Plan (NAP), devised by the Pakistan government and the military leadership after the Peshawar School tragedy, somehow lacks official enthusiasm and resolve. Progress in terms of administrative steps is termed satisfactory by officials monitoring its implementation when it comes to the execution of convicted terrorists and setting up of the military courts and special trial courts. The military had set up 11 military courts, 142 cases were referred to it, of which 55 cases were decided, with 31 militants having already been convicted while 87 cases are still in process.

Taliban leadership unscathed

Sharing successes achieved since the inception of Operation Zarb-e-Azab in the first 18 months, Director General ISPR Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa claimed on Dec. 13, 2015 that 3,400 terrorists including 183 “hardcore” ones were killed by the military. In messages posted on Twitter, he said that 837 hideouts of terrorists had been destroyed in North Waziristan tribal region. He said the army has achieved phenomenal successes in the Zarb-e-Azab as last pockets close to Pakistan-Afghanistan border are being cleared at the moment. The army spokesperson stated that terrorists’ backbone has been broken as their main infrastructure has been dismantled and nexus with sleeper cells is largely disrupted. But in reality, the military has not been able to arrest or kill even a single wanted Taliban leader ever since the launching of the operation two years ago.

And probably due to this very reason, the Pakistani military leadership has already decided that the troops would stay on in North Waziristan till 2019 – and possibly afterwards. The purpose of this presence will be to prevent the return of terrorists who have fled across the border into Afghanistan, and also to ensure stability in a militant-run region. The military will also obviously be eager that its sacrifices do not go wasted given the fact that it has lost over 500 army troops in the ongoing fight in North Waziristan. The continuation of the operation Zarb-e-Azab is additionally important to prevent the incursion of supporters of the Taliban and the Islamic State or Daesh through the Afghan border. Therefore, as the monster of Taliban continues to haunt the general public, Pakistan continues to face serious internal security challenges.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and “The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.”

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