The audacious terror strike on June 8, 2014 at Pakistan’s Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, which killed 36 people — including 10 terrorists of the now Mullah Fazlullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who staged the assault — was perhaps the tipping point that propelled the Nawaz Sharif government to shed its reluctance to mount an all-out counter-offensive against one of Pakistan’s major terror conglomerates. That Prime Minister Sharif conscientiously strove for peace talks with Pakistan’s main terror “tanzeem”, the TTP — considering that his political formation, the PML-N, allegedly had durable links, since years, with some Pakistani extremists — was understandable. That a majority of these fundamentalist elements, especially in Punjab, electorally assisted the PML-N in the last general elections is hardly a political secret.
On the other hand, the Pakistani army and its notorious handmaiden, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — themselves formidable practitioners of the art of exporting terror to neighbouring India and Afghanistan — were persistently demanding strong action, exclusively against the TTP, for it had been striking at will against army assets all across Pakistan, including the daring and devastating attack on the strategic naval air base at Mehran, Karachi in May 2011. Meanwhile, the Pakistan army and the ISI, for decades, have conveniently disregarded other equally lethal extremists in anti-India terror groups, such as the Hafiz Saeed-led Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, as also the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda elements, which it considers its “strategic assets”.
Till last year, the Pakistani army had mounted only half-hearted attacks in the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including the rugged Waziristan regions that have been a haven for terrorists of all hues — both indigenous Pakistanis and foreign militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan on both sides of the Durand Line. Most casualties inflicted on terrorists in the North and South Waziristan sanctuaries can be attributed to the US drone strikes since 2008, which have caused many deaths among both extremists and civilians. However, this year, under pressure from the Pakistan government, the US has resorted to only the odd strike. That Washington, with its planned draw-down in Afghanistan, has pressured the Pakistani military machine to up the ante against terror groups holed up in the Waziristan belt would be stating the obvious. Presumably, with Pakistan’s economy in the doldrums, coupled with an alarmingly deteriorating internal security situation and generous financial doles promised by the US, the army would have agreed to bite the bullet at long last and resolutely go after the TTP and, ostensibly, the other terror groups too.
In February this year, Pakistan formally unveiled its National Security Document that laid out, in some detail, Pakistan’s anti-terror policy. Despite a few off and on peace talks and ceasefires between the unyielding TTP and the Pakistani establishment, PM Sharif finally gave the green signal for the Pakistani armed forces to mount an all-out offensive against all terrorists in the North Waziristan belt. Thus Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched with all ferocity on June 15, employing nearly 30,000 troops. The operation is significantly named after one of the Prophet’s swords, “Azb”, which he had used in the battles of Badr and
With Pakistani F-16 fighter jets pounding militant hideouts in North Waziristan, tanks also rolled through the streets of Miramshah, North Waziristan’s main town. Thousands of civilians of this town and the neighbouring villages have fled to safer areas to avoid the impending ground offensive. The army has also liberally employed lethal multi-barrel rocket launchers, heavy artillery and attack helicopters, unmindful of the collateral damage that could occur. Media reports point to over 200 militants having been killed in the first 36 hours of the offensive, including Uzbek terror kingpin Abu al-Manni, who reportedly had masterminded the Karachi airport attack.
Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, vowed to destroy terrorist sanctuaries “without any discrimination” — a reference to the selective anti-terror operations the Pakistan army has been accused of. Meanwhile, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid immediately retaliated, saying that, “By God, we will soon shake your palaces in Islamabad and Lahore and burn those to ashes.” The Pakistani establishment, expecting violent retributive acts by the Taliban, has deployed large numbers of security personnel to guard sensitive assets across the country.
The otherwise delayed anti-terror offensive has closed ranks, perhaps for the first time in many years, among Pakistan’s major political parties and civil society. Even Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the hitherto recalcitrant opponent of offensives against the TTP, has welcomed the government’s decision as have other major parties, including the PPP and MQM. If Pakistan can truly discard terrorism as an extension of state policy — against both India and Afghanistan — and not be selective in combating terror groups, India will wish it all success in ridding itself of the scourge decimating its vitals. Pakistan today stands at the crossroads of its destiny. Only its sincerity of intent in endeavouring to eliminate terror in all its manifestations can help it.
The writer, a retired lieutenant general, was India’s first defence intelligence chief