Operation Zarb-e-Azb is the twenty second mentionable military operation against the insurgents and terrorists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It was unleashed on 15th June 2014 with a serious intent to annihilate the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan TTP and its affiliates, which held large swaths of FATA. US drone campaign was already taking care of the al-Qaida and its foreign associates in the same area.
Prior to the operation, the newly elected government of Pakistan exhausted the option of serious negotiations with TTP, which failed and the emboldened terrorists adopted a more brutal and lethal approach of destruction. In fact following a terrorist attack on Karachi airport, government’s peace talks with TTP came to an end and Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched. The government and political forces gave a unanimous go ahead to the military to finish off the menace of terrorism once for all.
Military went in with full might and fury, employing all the tools at its disposal, like artillery and airforce. The COAS General Raheel Sharif led the fight from the front with a clear mind and clean heart. The stated aim of Zarb-e-Azb was to strike at all terrorists without any distinction of good or bad Taliban. As expected, very soon, the terrorists started crumbling under army’s relentless onslaught. According to ISPR at least 2,763 militants, including some known commanders,have been killed in ground operations and air strikes so far.It added that 837 hideouts have been destroyed and 253 tons of explosives have been recovered. In the process 347 military personnel have also lost their lives during the operation.
The positives of Zarb-e-Azb are very obvious. The command and control structure of TTP and many networks of terrorists have been destroyed. They are on the run. Their ranks and files are in disarray. After a year 90% area of FATA has been purged of the terrorists, as claimed by the Defence Minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Muhammad Asif. Prime Minister of Pakistan has stated,” The operation Zarb-e-Azb has successfully destroyed terrorists’ hideouts and networks.” To top all, according to US state department report Pakistan has topped the chart of countries where the number of terrorist attacks has decreased. The short term plan has been achieved.
There are of course downsides of the operation which started from the planning and launching stage and are visible till now.The operation was launched after a month long open debate over it which was keenly covered by the media. Thus vital element of surprise was lost which enabled the terrorists to take preemptive measures. The top leadership of TTP fled away to safe havens of Pak Afghan border or inside Afghanistan in Nooristan and Kunar provinces. Replicating the strategy of Afghan Taliban most of them melted away under initial military onslaught but have managed to fight back after sometime.
We don’t know how long the insurgents can stick to their guns and manage to create mischief in the country and elsewhere. Obviously it might be a long drawn battle. Some experts are of the view that prolonged military operation within own country can be detrimental to the image of military and to the well being of the people as well.
Though Kh. Asif confirmed that the military offensive had entered its final phase, there is no end in sight. Though 90% area has been reclaimed from the militants, some areas in treacherous terrain of North Waziristan where hideouts of the militants are located, need to be cleared. It will take relentless military efforts to clear them therefore this last phase might take long time to achieve desired results. As these areas are located near Afghan border, the support and cooperation of Afghan government would matter a lot in this phase. Long term objectives might not be achieved very soon.
Moreover it is a point of concern that the information of successes, failures, deaths, arrests etc of the operation are provided by the military source only. There is no independent source to authenticate it. It also highlights absence of civil oversight over the military offensives in FATA. COIN is a complex and difficult campaign which can become controversial politically. People of the area can stop distinguishing between the operational forces and the militants. Therefore it requires continuous monitoring, evaluation and assessment by the civil government.
It is a painful fact that almost one million internally displaced persons are still languishing in camps or have taken shelter at different places. These IDPs or TDPs, as they are called now, are facing endless miseries and are at mercy of vagaries of extreme weathers and inhospitable conditions. Social fiber of North Waziristan and FATA is severely shattered. How long will it take to come back to normalcy? Or will it ever?
Is Op Zarb e Azb a success?
It has achieved short term objectives. But ultimate success in counter insurgency takes a long time. It is quite difficult to totally eliminate insurgent activity.So much more needs to be done. It would be considered a successful operation if TTP, its leaders are co-opted, marginalized, or separated from the population. Further more the yardstick of success should be if they have dissolved or been demobilized, or reintegrated into the political, economic, and social structures of the country.
Operation Zarb e Azb is primarily a counter insurgency (COIN) campaign. It is a fight against asymmetrical warfare, which the militants fight under an ideology, and motive to bring so called political and social change. The US COIN model suggests that establishing security is not a precursor to economic and governance activity: rather security, economic and governance activity must be developed in parallel. So far all emphasis is on security aspect whereas the other two aspects are being ignored. In long term this gap would boomerang as the local population might get fed up and many might start siding with the insurgents.
In short, as suggested above the economic and governance activity must start immediately without waiting for end of military operation stage. Everything, including the military operations, ought to be done under civil oversight. Now most area of FATA has been reclaimed, there should be strategic change in the operation and more emphasis should be on intelligence led operations to strike at top tier of the insurgents. As this engagement might continue for years, it is advisable to raise a counter insurgency force to gradually replace armed forces to avoid protracted engagement of military within the country.