Has Pakistan Truly Tamed its Tribal Frontier?
Maligned as a bastion of extremism and a top terrorist safe haven, Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), along the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan, have endured a significant transformation in the last few years. Between June 2014 and May 2016, the Pakistani army launched operation Zarb-e-Azb, literally translated as “swift and conclusive strike,” which focused on clearing terrorist organizations such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Punjabi Taliban, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Haqqani network from the seven administrative units that comprise FATA. According to Pakistani military officials, at the start of the operation, approximately one-third of the FATA had been under “miscreant control” with the North Waziristan district earmarked as the key terrorist stronghold.
The operation commenced on June 15, 2014, one week after 10 TTP militants attacked Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, leaving more than 30 people dead. Overall, an estimated 3,500 terrorists were killed during the nearly two-year-long operation while 840 Pakistani soldiers died in combat. Additionally, approximately one million people were internally displaced, although Pakistani military officials maintain that they will return to their homes as soon as possible.
Today, Pakistani government and military officials contend that the entire FATA has been secured under army control and that the priority has shifted to rebuilding and developing the FATA region. Projects spearheaded by the army include building military schools, sports complexes, hospitals, community centers, and power plants. In addition, several energy projects relating to oil, gas and mining have been initiated, as have the construction of new roads to connect the FATA to key cities across the country. While spearheaded by the military, officials explain that each of these projects offers new employment opportunities for FATA residents.
Despite claims by Washington that Pakistan continues to harbor terrorist groups, Pakistani officials contend that Zarb-e-Azb is a clear sign of Islamabad’s willingness to fight terrorism and improve the lives of their citizens.
Below are two takes offered to The Cipher Brief – from top Pakistani officials, and a former CIA officer, with comments adapted for print.
Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States:
“Our biggest challenge in the last two decades has been terrorism. Sometimes, at the national levels and sometimes transnational terrorism. We were in the eye of the storm. It all started, of course, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when this whole concept of Afghan jihad was born. But when the Soviets left and the Americans left, the militants stayed back. And after 9/11 when Torah Borah was bombed heavily, they all sought refuge into the Tribal areas of Pakistan. They came there, settled, and honed in. When Pakistan became a member of the U.S.-led coalition, we became their target. And all hell broke loose. There was hardly a day when we were not targeted at one installation or the other.
“There was a time when we used to have on average 150 terrorist incidents per month through 2014. When the politicians got together and reached a consensus that terrorism and violence under any pretext is not acceptable, that enabled the Pakistan army to enter into North Waziristan, which had become the bastion for these militants who had created their safe havens, hideouts, training grounds, IED (improvised explosive device) factories, and whatever else they needed to perpetuate their evil designs. Two-and-a-half years down the line, the entire tribal areas was secured. The law and order improved, and it was visible. That average of 150 incidents came down to the fingers of a single hand. And we, Pakistani citizens, all benefitted from that improved law and order situation so we were very happy about it.
“Is our job done? No. There is a still a mindset that we need to tackle, which in the first place gives rise to extremist conduct and behavior. We need to do that. Many of the militants who fled have hidden themselves…in the urban centers or across the border into Afghanistan. Intelligence operations – more than 25,000 have already been conducted – will sniff them out of their hideouts and tackle them. And we will continue to do that because that is the course our country and our people have taken.”
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Nasser Khan Janjua, National Security Advisor, Government of Pakistan:
“Pakistani people who were friends of the Afghan Taliban were deeply hurt that we had sided with non-Muslims, that we sided with the U.S., and as a result of siding with non-believers and non-Muslims, they said that jihad against Pakistan is legitimate. So what was happening in Afghanistan, our siding with the U.S., angered our own people. They named themselves as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and they started waging jihad against their own country and against their own people.
“For Pakistan, it turned out to be a double jeopardy. One to fight TTP, the sympathizers of Afghan Taliban who had declared jihad against Pakistan. The second jeopardy was to prevent the use of Pakistani soil by Afghan Taliban. While the U.S. was doing one thing in Afghanistan, fighting terrorism, we were fighting two things – the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. The U.S. is blaming Pakistan for siding with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis, but TTP is fighting “Pakistan for siding with infidels. So Pakistan is in the middle of the blame. Is our enemy TTP mad if we are siding with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqnis? Why should they fights us? If Pakistan is supporting Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis, that means Pakistan is not siding with infidels and non-Muslims, but supporting Muslims. This also means that Pakistan, Afghan Taliban and Haqqanis are on one side, then why is TTP fighting with Pakistan?
“In the FATA there were areas that were under the full control of terrorists, there were areas where control was contested, and there were areas that were under government control. Gradually, with all of the efforts these were reduced. And then we had to conduct the world’s largest operation, known as Zarb-e Azb. As of today, we have cleared all areas. TTP has run away to Afghanistan where they find safe havens and sanctuaries, where they are hosted and they are used against Pakistan.”
“I guess we have to be thankful for every step in the right direction with Pakistan and operations against militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas are almost always something worthy of praise. We have been coaxing the Pakistan government to get tough in the FATA for over 15 years now, so when they actually go in there with a military operation – that’s a good thing.
“The great challenge for Pakistan is to see if they can be a sustained presence in the FATA and a force for good so that the locals come to think that they have a lot more to gain by supporting the government than by supporting militants like the Taliban, or the Haqqani Network, or al- Qaida. Right now, villagers face an immediate threat from assorted militants and the reality is that the central government is usually nowhere in sight. There is very little reach by the central government into the FATA to make the lives of the locals better with federal government largesse in the way of health care, schooling for their children, services, paved roads, community centers, etc. So a useful federal government that might help them is an abstract concept for many people in the tribal areas whereas militants threatening them is far from an abstract concept. The other big challenge for the Pakistanis is to slow down and stop the pervasive sectarian violence and extremism that is destroying the country.
“The Pakistan military has been undertaking operations in the FATA for about 15 years, since they first went into the Shkai Valley in 2004 and attacked militants and held territory. This foray into Shkai was the first real sustained operation in the Tribal Areas. Subsequently, there have been several other forays into the FATA, including operations in Swat, and including the response in the wake of the horrific attack on the military school in 2014.
“What the U.S. has always pushed for is more of a sustained effort that removed the FATA from being a place where militants find safe harbor where they can rest, recuperate, organize, train, and launch cross border attacks against U.S. and coalition fighters in Afghanistan. To date, the Pakistan government has proven unwilling, or incapable of bringing the FATA more under the control of the central government in Islamabad and the reality is that it might be more of the latter as a problem then the former. That is, they are more incapable than they are unwilling. The FATA is a famously lawless place that has defeated everyone from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Army and a lot of folks in between. It’s not easy in the FATA.”
By Bennett Seftel
Bennett Seftel is director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Research intern Frederick Ludtke contributed to this report.