Zarb-e-Azb: Skeptics and Believers

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By Mushfiq Murshed[1]


Ever since the launch of  Zarb-e-Azb there remains a dichotomy in analytical perception over the sincerity behind and the impact of this military operation.  One group believes that a paradigm shift in policy has finally occurred in Pakistan where old doctrines of ‘strategic depth’ through proxy warriors have been shunned and a new counter insurgency doctrine has emerged that will pave the way for a new Pakistan. The other group believes that the operation will be ineffective due to a strategic attempt to protect some militant factions that have historically received military patronage, i.e. selective targeting.

The paradigm shift, however, was visible much before the operation was launched.  Under the previous COAS, General Kayani, a new army doctrine supplanted India with homegrown and external extremist/militant elements as being the primary security threat to Pakistan.  This shift in paradigm was officially confirmed during the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting held on 19 March 2013.

The present COAS, Gen Raheel Sharif, is said to have played a crucial role in altering the mindset of the military top brass towards this direction.  In his capacity as Inspector General Training and Evaluation, the present COAS had been actively involved in developing new counter insurgency and counter terrorist doctrines.  It, therefore, did not come as a surprise when his ascendency to the helm of affairs brought a far more aggressive and proactive approach towards dealing with the militancy menace in the country.

An all-encompassing military operation was planned for North Waziristan.  It was to be launched in March 2014.  It was the civilian government that was actually responsible for delays in the operation as they maintained a week-knead approach of negotiations with the enemy.  They wasted the first half of 2014 in this futile endeavor.  Despite several outrageous moments, which included the release of a video by the TTP that showed them playing football with the decapitated heads of Pakistani soldiers, the political leadership did not budge from their stance to appease these extremist militants.  They remained steadfast in attempts to reintegrate these barbarians into mainstream civil society through negotiations.

It was not until the June 8-9, 2014 attack on the Karachi airport by the TTP that the initiative was taken out of the hands of the spineless political leadership.  A week later, on 15 June 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched.  This was a correct decision that was made exclusively by the Pakistan Army and the prime minister had no option but to go along with it.

This was the 9th military operation conducted by the Pakistan army since they joined the war on terror.  The core difference of Zarb e Azb from the previous operations was that for the first time the Haqqani network was included in the targeted groups which included Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Yet, barely a month into the operation and accusations were hurled at Pakistan from Afghanistan after a massive bomb blast in a crowded Urgun market.  Pakistan was accused of selective targeting in its operation in North Waziristan and of harboring the Haqqani network against Afghanistan.  This is not the only accusation.  The internet is replete with articles propagating a dual game being played by Pakistan.

The civilian Government remained its usual incompetent self when it came to countering accusations against the integrity of the ongoing operation.  Their approach remained that of a spectator, whereas, a proactive and pragmatic approach would have been to utilize the foreign office machinery to launch a global campaign in projecting the paradigm shift of policy that had emerged with the launch of Zarb-e-Azb.

General Raheel Sharif , therefore, took it upon himself to project Pakistan’s new policy towards the “rooting out of all militants”  in his visits  to the US, UK, Afghanistan and China.  In a hard-hitting speech at the Pakistani Embassy in the US he reiterated that Zarb-e Azb was not just a military operation but, “a concept to defeat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”.  He gave further reassurances that no group, including the Haqanni network would be sparred in this onslaught.  He said, “I would like to openly say that this (operation) is against all hues and colours, and it is without any exception, whether it is Haqqani network or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or anything.”

In addition, the current dynamics within the country do not allow any room for patronage to any militant/extremist group.  Skeptics of the operation are concerned primarily with one group and that is the Haqqani network.  This network, however, is not what it once was under the leadership of the aging Jalauddin Haqqani who has been a legend in his time.  With his retirement, the network that he had so painstakingly established is fractured.  In mid-October 2014 his son, Anas Haqqani, and a key commander, Hafiz Rashid, were arrested by the Afghan National directorate of Security (NDS).  The NDS spokesman, Haseeb Sidiqi, said that the arrests would have direct consequences on the network and their centre of command.”  He was not far from the truth.  The founder of the network had already lost three sons and control of the outfit has devolved on Sirajuddin Haqqani who is disliked and does not have the charisma of his ailing father.  Sirajuddin has provided assistance to Mullah Fazlullah.  As the network becomes weaker and more fragmented the alliance between them and the TTP will inevitably grow and as far as the primary agenda of the TTP is concerned we are all fully aware that it is to target the Pakistani population through terrorist attacks.  The 16 December 2014 attack in Peshawar substantiates this alliance. The carnage in Peshawar was conceived and planned by the TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah who was operating from the Haqqani network controlled areas of eastern Afghanistan..

Over and above this, an editorial in the Dailytimes states that “the IS has made a call to arms to almost all terror groups the world over, having them pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of IS. That is why many terror groups, from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the Boko Haram in Nigeria, all are rushing forth with pledges of loyalty to IS. What we see now is the bloody ‘blossoming’ of the IS franchise…” There are reports that the IS has not only contacted the TTP but the Haqqani network as well.   This leaves no room for selective targeting in the operation.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s delicate and potentially volatile geopolitical scenario is, by far, the most powerful argument against any form of support to any form of extremist/militant group.  As far as our geographical location is concerned, it is a blessing as far as economic potential is concerned and yet a bane due to the unstable and volatile relationships that exist with countries with whom we share a border, primarily: Iran, Afghanistan and India.

India has maintained a hypocritical approach towards Pakistan, whereby it accentuates tension on our eastern border through cross border skirmishes and it continues to exert its global influence to show the world that Pakistan may have a dual game in play as far as the present military operation in North Waziristan is concerned, while, simultaneously, extending an olive branch of cooperation and friendly ties.  Our policy of remaining silent to the blow hot blow cold approach that India has taken towards us is correct.

Pakistan’s relationship with Iran is almost as precarious.  Cross border skirmishes, a trust deficit between governments and the constant Saudi pressure make sure that an uneasy and unpredictable relationship exists which may tilt in any direction at any time.  The economic benefits of friendly relations with Iran are immense and the ongoing dialogue between the US and Iran could prove to be favorable for us.  We must wait and see the outcome.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the mere harboring of terrorists on either side of the border will only ensure that the vicious cycle of extremist attacks will continue with the culmination of a full-fledged civil war in Afghanistan as a potential reality in the near future.  With IS ambitions and invitations to militant organizations to join their movement, Afghanistan may be just a step away from plunging itself into a bloody civil war.  It is in the best interest for Pakistan to divert this possibility as the inevitable economic burden and security threat permeating from such a scenario will be devastating for the country.

This geopolitical scenario coupled with the internal chaos that demonstrated its vile potential on 16 December 2014 in Peshawar does not give Pakistan any leverage to consort with any unpredictable element whose affiliation and loyalty may be questionable.

The civil government can no longer maintain a cowardly silence, hoping that all the crucial decisions regarding the elimination of the extremist/militant menace in Pakistan will be taken by others.  As it is, till just four months back, even after the launch of Zarb-e-Azb, many amongst them remained steadfast in their view that negotiations were the only viable option. They need to now step up and assist their military counterparts in negating skeptic propaganda towards the operation through a global campaign.  They need to take ownership, otherwise, their relevance, which has already diminished, will eventually become inconsequential.

[1] The author is an editor of Criterion Quarterly. Email: