For years, the U.S. government has pushed Pakistan to crack down harder on militancy. And for years, Islamabad has largely refused. Instead, it has dithered as extremist violence has spread across the country. Last week, investigative journalist Umar Cheema revealed that Pakistan’s previous government used a secret counterterror fund to purchase jewels, rugs and even sacrificial goats.
Yet the tides may be turning.
Last week, Pakistan was rocked by a rapid succession of bomb blasts—including attacks on consecutive days that killed Pakistani soldiers in the northwest and near military headquarters in Rawalpindi. In response, the military launched air strikes in North Waziristan—a tribal region bordering Afghanistan that shelters the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP (which attacks the Pakistani state), as well as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network (which attack the Afghan government and U.S. troops in Afghanistan). Pakistani troops have waged limited operations in other tribal areas in recent years, but North Waziristan has largely been spared.
Initially, Islamabad described the North Waziristan strikes as retaliatory in nature, and not a precursor to a larger offensive. Yet in recent days, Pakistani media reports have revealed that the government and military are planning a full-scale offensive in the tribal areas in March.
These developments would represent a dramatic turnaround for Islamabad, which has largely called for talks, not war, with militants. On January 27, a majority of parliamentarians from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party voted in favor of a military operation against the TTP. On January 28, a top PML-N official, Rana Sanaullah, declared that the country was “on a war footing.”
But then, the very next day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of a committee to take another look at peace talks with the TTP. He insists that he won’t authorize an operation in North Waziristan “without consensus of all stakeholders”—even though many opposition leaders, including the fervently pro-talks Imran Khan, have said they’d throw their support behind an offensive.
What’s going on here? The government may be trying to pick a fight with the Pakistani military, which is less enthusiastic about negotiations. Perhaps officials want to launch talks on the assumption that they will fail and therefore help generate more public support for military action. Or maybe Islamabad is just confused, indecisive, or scared (PML-N candidates refused to condemn the TTP during last year’s election campaign, and party officials have even asked the TTP not to attack their Punjab province bastion). Yet one thing is clear: If Pakistan does ultimately implement a more muscular countermilitancy strategy, don’t plan on it being a rousing success. On the contrary, it may create more problems than it solves.
Consider the timing of a North Waziristan operation. The good news is that a March start would enable Pakistani forces to fight after the worst of the brutal Waziristan winter. Yet by announcing the operation at least a month before it’s meant to start, Pakistan has also given militants an opportunity to prepare—and to flee. This may well be intentional; the military has no desire to target the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. Pakistan’s security establishment regards them as strategic assets that contain Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials have stated their intention to go after “anti-state” groups, a qualifier that essentially rules out operations against not only the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, but also vicious Punjab province-based organizations with ties to the Pakistani state—including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which targets India, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which takes aim at Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority.
Telegraphing the operation in advance gives North Waziristan-based assets ample time to migrate across the porous border to Afghanistan. Tipped-off TTP forces will also flee there (others will migrate to different tribal areas). Afghanistan is where TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah was based for several years before he replaced Hakimullah Mehsud as the organization’s leader last fall. And it is where, according to Pakistani intelligence and some analysts, the TTP receives state protection. A North Waziristan operation could worsen already-icy relations between Islamabad and Kabul.
This is all bad news for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. With international forces leaving the country, Washington is desperate for some semblance of an orderly, peaceful withdrawal. This won’t be easy with masses of TTP fighters coursing into Afghanistan from Pakistan—and also with Waziristan-based TTP operatives surging into nearby Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where they could attack NATO supply vehicles that pass through the area.
Another troubling thought is TTP fighters and their allies fleeing to Pakistani cities, where the group already wields tremendous influence. Even now, according to the journalist Ahmed Rashid, “it may not be far off” when the TTP takes control of swaths of Karachi, Quetta, or Peshawar.
Islamabad, to its credit, has anticipated this problem. It has pledged to wage operations across the country to ensure that jihadists fleeing military firepower in the tribal areas don’t find havens in settled Pakistan. However, such operations could send the country into paroxysms of the very violence they would be meant to eliminate. Attacks on militants would surely beget more attacks by militants.
More ominously, thanks to new counterterrorism legislation, the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO), security forces will be given legal cover for their use of force. This is particularly troubling for residents of Karachi, where the city’s paramilitary forces have a reputation for brutality, and of Quetta, where the Pakistani military has waged a bloody campaign against Baloch separatist insurgents—including abductions and beheadings—that invariably affects civilians. Little wonder prominent Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir has warned that the PPO could turn Pakistan into a “security state.”
As always, it’s Pakistani civilians that would suffer the most. Urban residents could be targeted by the swelling ranks of city-based militants or victimized by armed forces operating with impunity. In the tribal belt, locals will suffer from military assaults, which are often indiscriminate and frequently displace civilians (according to tribal elders, 70,000 people have already fled from North Waziristan in recent days). International human rights groups have also accused the military of detaining people without charge and of staging extrajudicial executions during previous military offensives.
Ultimately, this more-robust-but-still-limited countermilitancy policy would fall short. Not only have extremists entrenched themselves throughout Pakistan, but their ideologies have as well. A truly effective strategy would need to target not only Pakistan’s wide array of extremists—including those the security establishment has long regarded as the “good” fundamentalists—but also their ideologies and sources of funding. This would entail an enormous effort that ends, once and for all, any state sponsorship of militancy; that revises educational curricula and textbook language; and that stems the growing influence of hardline Wahhabi and Deobandi Islam—and the Saudi financing that helps propagate such views.
These steps, while essential, are overambitious. A more practical and effective strategy—particularly if accompanied by police reforms—would emphasize better law enforcement and fairer justice: terror attacks should be thoroughly investigated, and perpetrators promptly prosecuted. Militant leaders such as Hafiz Saeed of LeT and Malik Ishaq of LeJ may never receive lifetime prison sentences (they currently live free in Punjab). Yet it’s essential that Pakistani officials respond to the savage attacks orchestrated by these men’s organizations with more than mere verbal condemnations or compensation packages for victims’ families.
Of course, given Sharif’s decision to revisit the peace option, plans for a more robust countermilitancy policy could be jettisoned. Yet the stakes have never been higher. With alarming frequency, children are blown up, polio prevention workers gunned down, and religious minorities massacred. Reportedly, capital flight is rampant and elites are sending their kids out of the country. Conditions are so bad that officials in Peshawar recently cancelled a public launch of Malala Yousafzai’s book.
In the words of Margaret Thatcher, this is no time to go wobbly.
This article originally appeared on The Diplomat.