Pakistan’s military is, again, left to pick up the pieces

Pakistan's dependence on the military to respond to cries for help is a tragedy that affects the future of the country, writes Shaukat Qadir

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For years, the United States has been relentless in demanding a military operation in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA). Pakistan had two problems with responding positively to this demand. First, it was a physical impossibility for Pakistan to open too many fronts simultaneously. Far more importantly, though, if Pakistan undertook this operation at America’s behest, it would give credence to the narrative from the Tehreek-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) that the Pakistani state and military were merely tools of the US.

At the time this US demand began, NWA posed no threat to Pakistan but threatened only the US forces in Afghanistan. Were this operation undertaken at that time, TTP support in Pakistan could multiply and, therefore, seriously reduce Pakistan’s military capabilities as well as its influence among the Afghan Taliban. That would not have been in American interests either.

Pakistan was either unable to sell this to the US or the US refused to buy it at that time.

As other TTP bases were eliminated, the NWA began to be a threat to Pakistan. Other events also played a part: Pakistan was able to convince the US to change its drone policy; the impending US drawdown in Afghanistan reduced the “perceived” threat from the US; the peaceful and successful Afghan elections, and US-Iran rapprochement.

But, when the environment turned favourable for a military operation in NWA, the political leadership balked. Had it not been for the attack on Karachi airport, the military might still have been reined in. But the attack came and, finally, politicians took the decision.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb to clear the last den of the TTP in NWA began on June 15. The ground offensive began on the night of June 26, after air and artillery bombardment of specific targets including command, control and communication centres, known locations of TTP leaders and their foreign militant supporters, and factories producing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which pose the most insidious threat in such a war.

But the army had a more important reason for the 10-day delay in the ground offensive. Military spokesmen made it clear that, once ground offensives began, all armed people in NWA would be considered hostile. This period permitted the non-combatants among the residents of NWA to join the other internally displaced personnel (IDP). More than 450,000 people vacated NWA in those 10 days, not including 150,000 or so who had already left.

Pakistan is now engaged in two distinct kinds of war. One is counter-guerrilla operations of the type being conducted in NWA. These are, as they should be, entrusted to the military. The other is counter-urban-terrorism, and it is a policing function that is even more dependent on intelligence than counter-guerrilla ops.

The government is fully aware that many “sleeper cells” have been set up in urban centres, and that these would respond to the threat posed to their last bastion. Though they are woefully inadequate and ill-equipped, urban policing agencies have been put on alert. Intelligence agencies needed no warning.

Far more could and should be done, but that needs massive funding. Regretfully, politicians think they will get re-elected by undertaking mega-projects, like the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Service, rather than by winning the wars the nation is fighting.

So, instead of equipping, training, increasing and improving the country’s policing ability, funds are being diverted towards ventures that could easily have been postponed.

But there is worse. Ultimately, this is a war for “hearts and minds” to be won by good governance, not by the military. The military victory will be nullified if the IDP are not adequately looked after. That will decide the fate of the military’s campaign; and the government has, again, been caught with its trousers down. There has been no preparation to deal with the IDP.

In 2009, when the army went in to Swat and later, South Waziristan, the Pakistan People’s Party government was caught similarly unprepared. On both those occasions, the Pashtun of neighbouring areas and Peshawar lived up to their reputation of hospitality. Four-bed houses with six family members took in as many as 15 IDP.

Someone should have learnt a lesson, but that is too much to expect.

The government has set aside a woefully inadequate sum for IDP. Considering the weather – it’s a hot summer and the monsoon is approaching – not only accommodation and food, but hygiene and health facilities, water and electricity are required. And without adequate support, the suffering and casualties will be enormous.

Imran Khan’s demand for immediate allocation of 6 billion rupees (Dh225 million) – more than thrice the present allocation – is more realistic, but even that might not be enough. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and provincial chief ministers have opened bank accounts to receive donations for the IDP. It is, however, doubtful that they will collect a worthwhile sum.

But the people of Pakistan have responded. On every conceivable social network, they are volunteering in their hundreds of thousands to donate in cash and kind. NGOs are receiving donations and are distributing these through the army. The army is organising IDP camps and relief work. Support units of the army have been deployed on the periphery of NWA to receive and facilitate refugees.

As always, it has been the army that is called upon to respond to cries for help. And that is a tragedy.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired ­Pakistani infantry officer