August 30, 2012

Info-War Preempts North Waziristan Operation

Perhaps Operation Tight Screw is unfolding before our eyes.

The conventional reaction to Zahir-ul-Islam and David Petraeus's high-profile meeting followed one of two narratives in the Pakistani media: knee jerking against a "joint" U.S.-Pakistani campaign or welcoming enhanced coordination against the country's resident militants. As a whole, the Pakistani populace has reversed course from the Bush era and now supports the elimination of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network. However a sizable minority still throws their weight behind the region's diverse network of insurgents and terrorists, whether out of genuine support or the secular belief that America instigates even more problems in their country. Other supporters approve on the grounds that Washington will eventually cross their border in larger numbers, leading the majority and minority to agree that Islamabad should solve "the Taliban" dilemma on its terms.

According to the latest Pew survey, support for comprehensive military action has also dropped 20 points since its high mark in 2009. This popular position, coupled with Islamabad's ongoing relations with various militant personalities and the unrealistic demands of a widespread campaign in the tribal areas, has stopped many alleged operations before they began.

In the weeks since the new ISI director met his CIA counterpart in Washington, the Pakistani and U.S. media has sloshed back and forth over Operation Tight Screw within a thick fog of war. Numerous Pakistani officials, including Chief of Staff Pervez Kayani and members of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's regional government, have downplayed the possibility of an operation into North Waziristan. Their motives combine the challenge of maintaining calm in the area and secrecy between the militants, and the need to blunt anti-American sentiment that casts Pakistan as a feeble servant. At this moment political forces within North Waziristan and Islamabad are mobilizing against a potential operation - with America serving as the natural lightning rod.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, a vocal opponent of U.S. policy, claims that his discussions with representatives of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) produced a consensus: "If you want to win the war against the militants, first disengage yourself from the American war and afterwards hold talks with the tribal people." His rhetoric was validated by Miam Iftikhar Hussain, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's Information Minister, following a provincial cabinet meeting in Peshawar. Keeping the influential Awami National Party (ANP) in mind, Hussain said that dialogue remains preferable to military action. In the likely event that "talks fail, then targeted action should be taken against militants, rather than launching a full-scale operation."

"I don’t think as a guest in your country, as a diplomat, I should be giving Pakistan advice about what to do about their own Taliban," U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland countered during a recent defense of U.S. policy in Pakistan. "I think Pakistan is very, very much aware of the danger that that poses. And, as I said, there are many this patriotic leaders in this country, both military and civilian, who know when it’s the proper time to take action."

Seen within this context, Operation Tight Screw could already be rolling out. On Washington's side, a flurry of drone strikes on high level targets has targeted the center of North Waziristan in preparation for a ground assault. Pakistan's army is also conducting operations against militant positions, although nothing on the scale demanded by Washington. At the info-warfare level, a media battle has broken out directly over the territory as each side attempts to manipulate the information sphere. The entirety of U.S.-sourced reporting is designed to increase popular pressure on Islamabad, a strategy that has yielded tangible results and thus triggered a counterreaction from Pakistani sources. After the AFP published a report on fleeing tribesmen and their families, Pakistani officials and tribal elders accused Western media of fabricating quotes and misrepresenting North Waziristan's situation.

“The media, particularly the western one, has been exaggerating things in Waziristan and portraying the people as terrorists," said Malik Shireen, one tribal leader involved preventing a large-scale operation. "It is the western media that has been prompting the government and armed forces to launch military operation in Waziristan."

Part of this murk may be attributed to TPP spokesman Ehnsanillah Ehsan, who announced that the group's "exclusive intelligence report” predicted an "imminent offensive" by August 26th. Government and military officials quickly responded via radio, promising that the government "has no plan to launch any military operation here." The TPP is presumably driving up fear as a means of increasing the resistance against an operation, yet how did so many "Pakistani officials"  become entangled in the story? Are they denying an operation in public while speaking privately on record, or is a third party fanning military flames into North Waziristan? Media manipulation is common in the region, but the possibility of Pakistani officials legitimately denying their quotes is statistically significant.

Meanwhile the only tangible sign of military action is taking place in Bajaur, a territory recently brought to U.S. attention after an airstrike killed its local TTP commander, Mullah Abdullah. These movements could indicate that Operation Tight Screw is already underway or, conversely, that Islamabad and Washington are both staging another show with smoke and mirrors.

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