Zarb-i-Azb was a transition from pure counterinsurgency to more complicated counterterrorism.
A vague new operation, a court judgment unknown — the only thing that felt real this week was the fear. Fake bomb, real bomb, Lahore confirmed that anxiety stalks the land again. A nascent trust in the state’s ability to protect has cracked.
Let’s work through the bits we know, and the few we can guess at. Military operations work. Where they are meant to recover territory, they do. Swat is steady and North Waziristan (NWA) no more terror central.
Where operations are meant to deny free movement to militants, they do. Bajaur, Mohmand, South Waziristan — none of them truly normal, but a long way removed from a decade ago.
Military operations don’t work. In none — zero — of the areas in which the military has gone in has the military been able to leave. Drawdowns, adjustments, tweaks to the mission — but nowhere an exit. That’s fine. It’s a long war. We can’t very well not fight it.
Zarb-i-Azb was a transition from pure counterinsurgency to more complicated counterterrorism. Because NWA was different — both a terror bastion and a hub from which Pakistan proper could be penetrated.
Look up a map. NWA to Lakki, Tank and D.I. Khan — and then all of Pakistan opens up: central and north Punjab and the triangle where Sindh, Balochistan and south Punjab meet.
It was terror’s dream. Dismantling the NWA hub and spokes took about two years — wrapped up in the sound of jets pounding NWA and the jargon of intelligence-based operations.
Zarb-i-Azb was the end of the plan. From Kayani and Swat and South Waziristan, the outline of the plan had been evident. Hesitatingly-methodically, like so much else here, the plan was executed. Sweep up and sweep down the map until you’re left with a concentration of militants in NWA.
Then smash them there and follow that up breaking the spokes that reached out into the provinces and the cities. It was roughly a 10-year plan, from the early days of Kayani to the last of Raheel.
Fasaad is the articulation of failure. From Swat to NWA, agree with the approach and the pace or not, you could see the outline of the plan. Now, worryingly, we’re stuck in a loop and maybe worse.
There was an obvious problem with the plan until NWA. Because it was a contingent problem, dependent on a bunch of other variables, it didn’t get discussed much: After NWA, what if the militants found sanctuary in Afghanistan?
You can see why it was never addressed — doing so would have meant a higher-level strategic shift and military operations don’t wait for ideal scenarios.
Now the problem has become real. The boys’ response has been to retool Zarb-i-Azb, but already it feels inadequate. From a hub-and-spoke model of NWA and penetrating into Pakistan proper, we have an eastern Afghanistan hub that is radiating into Pakistan.
But we can’t smash the Afghan hub like we could NWA. So the boys have chosen the next best thing: intensifying the dismantling of terror linkages inside Pakistan and doing more to interdict at the border.
Think of it this way: for a decade or so, we were slowly zooming in, pinching our fingers closer; now we’re zooming out, spreading our fingers apart. Doesn’t look like success, does it? Nor much by way of a plan. Fasaad is a return to confusion. The recent spike in violence will likely subside quickly.
A determined military with carte blanche and a country willing to look the other way as enemies are hunted down in whatever way usually produces results. It has in every instance before and there’s no real reason to doubt it won’t again. But much is muddled again.
Zarb-i-Azb ended with the risk inherent in the strategy — i.e. what would happen if eviction from NWA resulted in sanctuary in Afghanistan? — exploding without us having begun work on the next phase. Roughly, there are three categories of militants here: India-centric, Afghan-centric and anti-Pakistan. On each, the boys and the civilians have their differences.
The boys want the anti-Pakistan lot eradicated, but the N-League doesn’t see it as their war beyond maybe some of the sectarian stuff. The N-League wants the anti-India lot muzzled, but the boys won’t do it under duress.
And on the Afghan-centric bunch, the government wants a downturn in violence and blame heaped on Pakistan, but has struggled to articulate anything nearing a plan. But now there’s a new operation and most of the bandwidth for state action and dialogue will be taken up by it. This year, at least, is gone.
Next it’ll be 2018 and election mode and good luck to anyone, civilian or military, trying to find strategic security clarity in the middle of that. Fasaad is a return to whack-a-mole — never a good place from which to steer strategic change. Fear has a long memory. Militancy changed us, perhaps in a way that Pakistan is only just beginning to realise.
Look back to the terrors of 2009-2011 and this was a country dazed and battered. But because we had never seen anything like it before, it took an awesome wave of violence to plunge the country into chaos and fear.
This time, it took a lot less to send ripples of fear and uncertainty across the country. The enemy will have seen that.
By arrangement with Dawn