October 18, 2012

Pakistan Quarrels Over North Waziristan Operation

The near-fatal shooting that galvanized Pakistan's public into cooperative action against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has also rekindled the explosive debate over a military intervention in North Waziristan. Following the assault on 14-year old Malala Yousafzai, a youth activist of women's rights and literacy, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani reportedly informed President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf of an emergency meeting between the chiefs of Pakistan's three branches at Joint staff headquarters.

At this point Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, announced to reporters, "The government and military leadership will decide if there is a need for an operation in North Waziristan."

Fast forward a week. Instead of capitalizing on popular sentiment to finally enter North Waziristan, the possibility of a large-scale military operation continues to spin its tracks in the mud. Various sources of information (and common sense) speculate that the decision hinges on the unanimous agreement of Pakistan's cabinet defense committee and its military, which controls the final green light. Thus Islamabad's civilian and military components seek to exercise as much authority as possible while also splitting the responsibility of failure. To this end a resolution has been crafted for Parliament's approval as a means of unifying the government's decision, for better or worse.

Except the motion has now run into resistance with the oppositional Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), effectively sending the decision back into Islamabad's civilian-military showdown. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) currently has no plan to submit the resolution even though the group holds the necessary votes. If the PPP does proceed, it will do so after receiving the go-ahead from above.

“We wanted to have consensus over the issue, but we will not press you (the opposition)… however, it will not disseminate a positive message,” said PPP leader Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah explained, adding that the resolution contained no mention of North Waziristan. “We do not want to divide the nation, therefore, will not table the resolution."

“For the time being there is no plan for military operation in North Waziristan," Rehman said on Wednesday. "But if needed, the decision would be taken by political and military leadership of the country in harmony."

However much the majority of Americans disagree - and possibly Pakistanis as well - Islamabad's decision-making process isn't wholly irrational. For starters, the TTP's origins lie in Afghanistan's invasion just as the Taliban emerged from Washington and Moscow's power games; the lack of contingencies in regards to Pakistani militants mushroomed the problem throughout Iraq's war. Deep resentment towards the lack of U.S. responsibility still hasn't been addressed to this day, and perceptions take on real politico-military significance. The Obama administration has made little personal effort to reverse this situation and the past four years speak for themselves. Operation Tight Screw, the latest joint-proposal for North Waziristan, is no less applicable to Pakistan's government.

Washington and Islamabad share the exact toxic feelings about each other: "do more."

This relationship is only capable of producing intermittent achievements. To achieve lasting results in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan must employ a combination of political and economic resources with public approval (both locally and nationally) and foreign support. Missing ingredients will generate new instability in the tribal provinces and potentially reignite the TTP's urban campaign inside Pakistan. Unfortunately Islamabad doesn't possess all of the factors necessary to launch an operation on North Waziristan's scale. Hardest of all is the socio-economic fight after the military battle; Pakistan has never been able to clear, hold and build on a consistent basis. An asymmetric military operation can only buy time and space for non-military action, and starts to become a liability when it can't afford anything else.

Equally problematic for Islamabad is distinguishing true allies from foes. The Pakistani military does seem to recognize the need to uproot al-Qaeda's influence, the extremist Punjabi Taliban and other groups with regional agendas. Hakilmullah Mehsud, the TTP's de facto chieftain, has allied himself with these unpredictable elements. Yet the TTP's other commanders, several of which have challenged for the TTP's scepter, do not pose the same type of threat to the Pakistani state. In particular, North Waziristan's own Hafiz Gul Bahadur has upheld his end of a truce with Islamabad and concentrates on Afghanistan's front. The Haqqanis have instigated a large number of problems for local Pakistanis as they solidify their presence in the FATA, but they too are militarily concerned with Afghanistan's war.

For this reason Washington wants them disposed of, and naturally Islamabad has balked at enthusiastically throwing itself against them. It would prefer to bring these figures into a regional agreement with the Afghan Taliban and foreign capitals. Their forces represent the least threat to Pakistan and still fulfill their proxy uses, generating the accurate impression that Washington wants Pakistan to do its dirty work for cheap. Counterarguing that Islamabad should fix its own state will make no difference on the ground. The real cost of an operation into North Waziristan exceeds the billions in U.S. aid, and Washington lacks the forces to synchronize a long-term border campaign. The Trench has also reported on the Haqqanis' diversification beyond North Waziristan, expanding the battlefield accordingly.

With the bulk of NATO forces scheduled to withdraw by 2014, Islamabad isn't going to destabilize its Western flank any more than it already is. Not without delivered incentives, at least.

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