Following Washington's meet-and-greet with Lieutenant-General Zaheerul ul-Islam, Pakistan's new chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pentagon and CIA appeared to finally get their wish in the country's tribal areas. By the time ul-Islam completed his rounds earlier in August, including a summit with CIA Director David Petraeus, U.S. news sources were already reporting that "Operation Tight Screw" was headed to North Waziristan.
“They’ve talked about it for a long time," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters a week after the initial rumors surfaced. "Frankly, I’d lost hope that they were going to do anything about it. But it does appear that they in fact are going to take that step."
However nothing is as it seems between these frienemies, and their plan hit immediate turbulence upon entry into the information sphere. Billed as a joint-campaign rather than a coordinated operation along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which better describes Washington and Islamabad's intentions, Operation Tight Screw is already following its predecessors into the murk of U.S.-Pakistani relations. Panetta claimed that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the country's chief of armed forces, "did indicate that they had developed plans to go into Waziristan," but he "can't tell you when." His best indication is ”soon," opening a window that stretches from the end of Ramadan through America's election.
The reality is that Operation Tight Screw, if it actually exists, is oozing with friction and predetermined to miss its ultimate objective. Multiple news agencies cite tribal sources and local officials who claim to see no evidence of a large-scale ground campaign. Now General Kayani has since released a statement clarifying that he discussed military cooperation with CENTCOM's General James Mattis: “we might, if necessary, undertake operations in North Waziristan Agency, in the timeframe of our choosing and determined only by our political and military requirements.”
His final message to Pakistanis: any operation “will never be a result of any outside pressure."
By this time anonymous Pakistani officials had dismissed speculations about a joint operation as "baseless’ and ‘absurd." While the majority of Pakistanis now support operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the population remains acutely sensitive and highly intolerable of American breaches into Pakistan's national sovereignty. Some accept the need to take billions in U.S. aid, but most Pakistanis appear to believe that two sources of interference won't cancel each other out. Instead they question the motives of both Washington and Islamabad, driving up the suspicions hanging over their plans.
The Dawn wonders of Pakistan's leadership, "Is the drip-drip of leaks meant to prepare the country for a U-turn in policy on North Waziristan or is this just another game of cat and mouse with the U.S.?"
The News International's Mehreen Zahra-Malik attempts to explain "the North Waziristan U-Turn" by providing more answers than U.S. or Pakistani official are cleared to. One scenario posits an exchange of Coalition Support Funds (CSF), back payments that the U.S. dangles as one of many carrots to move Islamabad. The more ubiquitous theory expects U.S. military operations, both air and ground, to cross Pakistan's border with greater frequency as 2014 approaches - if Pakistan's military doesn't act first. Operation Tight Screw is a combination of both factors and many others, the common denominator being Washington and Islamabad's image to their own populaces.
Security cannot be the first priority when a large-scale operation into North Waziristan ignores the Haqqanis themselves. Their network has never existed in North Waziristan as described by U.S. officials. It's general knowledge that Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram serve as their base in Pakistan, although North Waziristan is still key territory, and that the father-son duo has their recent years diversifying along the border region. Move into any one Pakistani or Afghan sanctuary and they will shift to another. Accordingly, this nebulous reaction demands a wider campaign that neither Washington or Islamabad is positioned to sustain, politically or financially. Numerous operations to move east, including one planned by Petraeus, have already been torpedoed by Obama's troop cap, and the gradual withdrawal of NATO's coalition is further reducing the odds of an adequate operation. The Taliban's core is also likely to react in the south to any eastern concentration of U.S. forces.
Panetta himself says that he understands the target to be the TTP, not the Haqqanis
If true, competing personalities Hafiz Gul Bahadur (controller of North Waziristan) and Hakimullah Mehsud (the TTP's disputed head took refuge when Pakistani forces invaded South Waziristan in 2009) represent the primarily targets of a looming operation. Bahadur's primary focus on Afghanistan makes him a prime U.S. target, and a valuable Pakistani asset as a result; he no longer considers himself part of the TTP, but has threatened to order attacks inside the country in the event of an invasion. Hakimullah, on the other hand, has immersed himself within al-Qaeda's ideology and organized the double-agent suicide bombing at FOB Chapman. The Obama administration needs any trophy to show the American people as U.S. troops continue to fall in battle, but these targets aren't much more realistic than "dismantling" the Haqqani network.
Panetta could also be lying about the target list, or Islamabad has decided to sacrifice one asset to protect the other. Both assets could be protected by circumventing their main forces. Pakistan would still prefer to negotiate a political settlement that includes the Haqqanis as a co-signer, while Washington wants to kick the group out. This stalemate generates an excess of possibilities - perhaps Operation Tight Screw doesn't exist concretely, only as a media placeholder and bargaining chip.
All roads in North Waziristan lead back to Washington and Islamabad's self-interests, each focused on getting the other to do its work or else take the blame.