Some 18 months after the military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to flush out militants from the North Waziristan region, terror strikes continue to afflict the country. DW examines the reasons behind this.
In June 2014, Pakistan’s largest international airport in the southern city of Karachi became the target of a terrorist attack carried out by various outlawed outfits. That assault is still considered to be the biggest attack on a high-security installation in the South Asian country. It resulted in 36 deaths, including that of all 10 attackers. Banned militant organization Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
In response, Pakistan’s powerful army launched a military operation in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan renowned as a safe haven for terrorists. Operation Zarb-e-Azb – dubbed after the name of the sword of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad – aimed to clear terrorists from the region, destroy their safe havens and avenge the deaths of approximately 60,000 civilians who had died in the country in the last decade or so in militant attacks.
A lack of transparency
About one and a half years after the start of the operation, the army claims the terrorists’ backbone has been broken, their main infrastructure dismantled and the nexus between them and sleeper cells largely disrupted.
In its latest press release, the Pakistani security forces’ public relations agency, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), claims that a total of 3,400 terrorists have been killed and 837 hideouts destroyed.
In the past 18 months, over 13,200 “intelligence-based operations” (IBOs) were carried out across the country, in which 183 hardcore terrorists were killed and 21,193 were arrested, the authorities say. During this period, 488 soldiers also lost their lives and 1,914 were injured.
These figures cannot be independently verified as local and international media do not have access to the areas in which the operation is being carried out. ISPR therefore remains the main source of information related to the operation, and the agency releases regular updates in monthly briefings.
Unabated terror threat
Despite claims that Zarb-e-Azb has been a “phenomenal success,” Pakistan continues to face terror incidents. Recently, four gunmen attacked the Bacha Khan University in northwestern Khyber Pukhtonkhwa province, killing 22 people, including students and faculty members.
A leader of the TTP, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it revenge for the militants killed by Pakistani security forces. Mansoor was also the mastermind of the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, which claimed the lives of 141 people, most of them school children.
The university attack once again triggered a debate in Pakistan about the proclaimed success of Zarb-e-Azb.
Aqil Shah, a Pakistani expert and the Wick Cary Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the University of Oklahoma, says that there is a fundamental contradiction in the Pakistani military’s counterterrorism approach, pointing out that while the army goes after the terrorists who carry out attacks in Pakistan, it patronizes those who attack its enemies.
“The army has fought hostile factions of the TTP, but it continues to use other militant groups as proxies against archrival India,” Shah told DW, citing the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, which help maintain Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan, as well as Lashkar-e-Taiba (reincarnated as Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which fights Indian security forces in Kashmir.
A partial success?
While Pakistani analysts in general view Zarb-e-Azb as a partial success, analyst Shah argues that there appears to be a negative correlation between the army operation and terrorist attacks, which have gone down in 2015 compared to the previous year.
But the army has yet to capture or kill a senior TTP commander, Shah said, noting that the operation has reportedly driven the Taliban leadership to find sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan, from where they continue to plan terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.
The operation’s narrow geographic focus has also stoked criticism from various quarters, with many voicing concerns over the lack of action against militant groups in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
However, Ali Ehsan, a defense analyst and retired colonel in the army, believes the military cannot pick up fights on every front. “They have to consider the consequences of any sort of an offensive in the most populous province of the country,” he told DW.
Meanwhile, the partial success of the anti-terror campaign came at a high humanitarian cost, causing massive displacement of the local population. Experts criticize the government and the army for failing to provide not only proper compensation for material losses, but also adequate food, shelter and security.