Doubts remain about the belated offensive of Pakistan’s army in North Waziristan
FOR almost a decade American officials have moaned about the presence on Pakistani soil of an important safe haven for global terrorists, and the government’s stubborn refusal to do anything about it. A succession of American generals and diplomats have complained that the colonial-era anachronism known as North Waziristan is not just a command-and-control centre for fanatics attacking Pakistan. By providing a sanctuary for them, it has also made an outright victory against the Taliban next door in Afghanistan impossible. Pakistan has resisted all American demands to get to grips with a place that is the most likely home of what remains of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, the base for especially lethal Afghan insurgent groups and the site where jihadists hatched the most serious plot against the American homeland since 2001—the botched car-bombing in 2010 of Times Square in New York.
None of these reasons was enough, it seemed, to coax Pakistan to take its troops inside North Waziristan out of the bases where they were locked down. Frustrated, America resorted to drone strikes to tamp down the menace, making itself even more unpopular in Pakistan. Now, at the very fag-end of the West’s 13-year combat mission in the region, America is at last getting its wish, with the launch on June 15th of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after a sword of Koranic legend. Although this followed an especially provocative attack by the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on the country’s busiest civilian airport, in Karachi on June 9th, the operation had been in the offing for months. It was delayed only at the insistence of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, on exhausting an always improbable bid to strike a peace deal with the TTP. Mr Sharif, like many other politicians, feared terrorist reprisals in Pakistan’s ill-prepared cities, and perhaps especially in his home province of Punjab. Hostilities had in fact begun some time ago. The army prepared the way for a ground operation with air strikes against militant hideouts, which it rather improbably claims have caused no civilian casualties. Despite this, however, little had been done to prepare for the inevitable outflow of displaced civilians. Some 450,000 have fled, including many children who will be carrying the polio virus that has been rampant in North Waziristan ever since militants banned vaccinations in 2012. American forces grumble they were given just 72 hours warning—not long enough to put in place preparations to block the retreat of militants into Afghanistan’s volatile eastern borderlands. With NATO in the final throes of winding down operations, only air power is really available anyway. Had the operation happened years ago, Western officials sigh, foreign forces could have provided an “anvil”. The Pakistani hammer could have crushed the al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups from its own country and around the world that have come to call North Waziristan home.
Sceptics doubt how far North Waziristan will really be cleaned up even now. For all the international opprobrium it has brought Pakistan, it has also provided a base for Afghan groups regarded as useful allies in Pakistan’s decades-long effort to dominate its neighbour. It is feared many of these so-called “good Taliban” have been allowed to slip away or will not be attacked. So far, though the army has bragged of killing hundreds of terrorists, particularly Uzbeks and other foreigners, it has not boasted of strikes against groups that have never attacked Pakistan: the Afghan Taliban; the Haqqani Network; and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group. The army claims it is determined to eliminate all terrorists of all stripes. But the motivation for Pakistan’s change of heart is not the misery North Waziristan has brought to the world but its role in the terrible rise of domestic terrorism in recent years. Yet militant groups have infiltrated themselves across Pakistan’s heartland. So, even if it is effective, the cleansing of North Waziristan will not end terrorist atrocities elsewhere in Pakistan.