The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's Taliban Offensive Will Fall Short

Pakistan's military is in the midst of an assault on Taliban and allied Islamist fighters in the rugged mountains of North Waziristan -- an offensive that the U.S. government has been urging it to undertake for at least a decade. The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that a North Waziristan sweep would clean out the last and strongest bastion of armed Islamic militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre -- most critically, the so-called Haqqani network of guerrillas fighting the U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan. 

 But even though this offensive seems likely to be the most ambitious Pakistani attempt in the past decade to control North Waziristan, it will, at best, fall far short of what Washington and Islamabad hope for.

One reason is that Pakistan still lacks any national strategy in which the government and armed forces together fight Islamist militancy and terrorism. In North Waziristan, the army is re-using the blunt force approach it has used before: clear out the local population, then use air strikes, artillery, and ground forces to clean out any insurgents that remain. This tactical, rather than strategic, approach means that the North Waziristan battle will not be definitive, but rather just another fight in Pakistan's inconclusive long war.

To build a national strategy, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government needs to bring the military out of what has been a long silence to share with the Pakistani public its vision of what will work. The government must then include the military's view in a way it has not so far. In February, for example, Sharif's administration released an embryonic National Internal Security Policy that had been prepared with no visible participation by the military and that has already hit snags in its implementation.

In North Waziristan, both the army and the government have been telegraphing their intentions, reducing hopes that the offensive might decapitate the Taliban leadership. Chances are that the leaders have already fled to Afghanistan or elsewhere in Pakistan. Cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, and Islamabad offer safe haven against U.S. drone surveillance and strikes. If the Taliban and their affiliates follow previous patterns, they will have left North Waziristan to be defended by Uzbeks, Chechens, and others who cannot blend in to Pakistani populations. 

While the army says its commander, Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister), has directed "that all terrorists along with their sanctuaries must be eliminated without any discrimination," it has not specified the targets of the assault. The Haqqani group, long a source of U.S.-Pakistani tension because of its attacks in Afghanistan from bases in North Waziristan, was not mentioned. (It is unclear whether Pakistan may have asked the Haqqanis to evacuate the area, or whether it will leave them untouched by the offensive.) Given the interlocking franchise arrangements among the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Punjabi militants, it is hard to imagine a successful operation that leaves any of these groups untargeted.

Regardless, the current operation could prompt some serious thinking on Pakistan's need for a unified, civil and military campaign beyond North Waziristan. The heartland of Punjab province, Karachi in Sindh province, and the southwestern province of Balochistan remain hotbeds of militant activity, and are often given the blind eye by officialdom for political reasons. Sectarian and ethnic violence permeate Pakistan's polity, too. Prime Minister Sharif should make a clear, concise statement to his people on the broad strategy of this long war, rather than leaving it to a restricted military operation in North Waziristan that may produce instant gratification, but that avoids Pakistan's larger internal security problems. If he deals in reality rather than rhetoric, the people of Pakistan may surprise him with their support. Most of them are fed up with the steady deterioration of their lives and the economy, as well as the apathy of the ruling class in dealing with insecurity.

A Pakistan that shows a willingness to fight a truly national campaign against militancy will need help from the United States and other friends to better track down terrorist networks, and to cut off their domestic and external sources of financial support. One of the least used domestic resources in that regard is the ability of the State Bank of Pakistan to track financial flows and to quarantine suspicious activities. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran could also help in curtailing the flows of funding from their countries that feed a proxy war between Shia and Sunni extremist groups in Pakistan.

In the end, Pakistani society must decide if it will hide its head in the sand or recognize the existential dangers of militancy and terrorism within its borders. The counterfactual to this is a steady decline that will make nuclear-armed Pakistan an even more dangerous place. 

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.