March 4, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Diplomacy, Futility, and Pakistan’s Offensive in North Waziristan

• The slow start of exploratory peace talks between the Pakistani Government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), combined with a series of high-profile attacks targeting Pakistan’s security forces, has exhausted Islamabad’s patience for the diplomatic option
• The Pakistani air force has stepped up bombing raids on militant hideouts in the North Waziristan tribal agency since in recent weeks, with an estimated 100 militants killed in coordinated strikes by helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft
• Previous offensives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have failed to dislodge the TTP from its strongholds, with the senior leadership frequently avoiding capture.

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Pakistani forces conduct recent joint counterterrorism exercise


Talks With The TTP Collapse

Despite a historic and peaceful transfer of power last spring to the newly-elected administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, violence from a variety of Islamic extremist groups continued to plague the Pakistani state throughout the last six months of 2013. The TTP has redoubled its violent campaign to overthrow the Pakistani government through acts of indiscriminate violence—including bombings and shootings on a multitude of targets, from army checkpoints and police stations to civilian markets. 2013 saw an alarming series of suicide attacks against minority communities in Pakistan, including a massive February 16 bomb blast at a market outside of Quetta that likely targeted Shi’a Muslim Hazaras, with over 100 killed. While the attack was attributed to the Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, analysts have long speculated that Pakistan’s many Islamist groups often work together in planning and executing terrorist strikes.

The end of 2013 saw a slight increase in the amount of Pakistanis killed in acts of terrorism compared to the previous year, with the Pak Institute for Peace Studies registering 2,457 people deaths—an increase of 19 percent. In an attempt to de-escalate the violence racking the country, PM Sharif vowed that his administration would make negotiations with TTP a centerpiece of security policy. In a significant political boost, Sharif managed to gain support for his diplomatic strategy from Pakistan’s major party blocs, after which his government appointed mediators to reach out to TTP representatives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). 

Unfortunately, Sharif’s peace efforts with the Pakistani Taliban got off to a rocky start and quickly headed toward apparent futility. After one unproductive meeting between government and TTP-sponsored mediators that largely focused on preliminary issues, the government pulled out of talks in response to TTP’s grisly execution of 23 paramilitary soldiers, claimed by its Mohmand branch. Since that attack, PM Sharif and his national security advisers stated that talks would resume only when the TTP Shura Council ceases violence and announces an unconditional ceasefire. As of March 3, TTP representatives have catered to that demand, issuing a unilateral declaration of hostilities and a desire to continue negotiations. The peace process, however, remains effectively held hostage by internal violence, where an act of terrorism can return negotiations to a state of stagnation.


Pakistani Government Takes Military Action

Since the February 2014 breakdown in the peace process, Islamabad has executed a number of military operations in the North Waziristan tribal base intended to signal its displeasure and outrage over TTP’s violent tactics. Military operations thus far have largely been retaliatory, in response to TTP’s campaign of violence against Pakistani soldiers and police officers. An air strike on February 25, for instance, killed approximately 25 militants and destroyed ammunition sites and training facilities believed to be used by TTP fighters. Over the past seven days, the Pakistani air force conducted four raids in mostly North Waziristan and the Khyber tribal area. That fact that Pakistan’s forces for the first time are hitting targets in North Waziristan is a strong indication Islamabad’s civilian and military leadership are gearing up for a larger offensive.

Military action has been supplemented with a political decision in Islamabad to take the fight to the enemy. On February 26, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan unveiled the administration’s national security policy, a document that effectively promises swift retaliation for every terrorist attack that kills, injures, or targets Pakistani security forces and civilians. Sources close to the country’s civilian and defense leadership indicate that PM Sharif is intent on using military options against violent extremists that are either obstructionist or irreconcilable to the political process and peace.


Past Need Not Be Prologue

The Pakistani armed forces are no strangers to counterinsurgency warfare. Over the past five years, Islamabad has undertaken several major military operations in pursuit of militant hideouts in FATA, including two ground invasions in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan in the 2009-2010 timeframe. Hundreds of militants were reportedly killed in both assaults, with Pakistani generals claiming victory after only a few months on the offensive. Despite claims of success, TTP’s leadership (then headed by Hakimullah Mehsud) was able to escape into other tribal districts unscathed. The inability of the Pakistani government to adequately follow up with reconstruction assistance in both areas had the unintended effect of diminishing Islamabad’s legitimacy in the eyes of the very people they were fighting to protect. 

The Pakistani security forces have been efficient in clearing respective areas of insurgents, but often failed to hold their ground and build upon success after completing initial phase operations. If the Sharif administration is to have any lasting success after a full-scale foray into North Waziristan, it will have to learn from its previous mistakes by devoting enough men and resources to hold territory; transferring troops from the India-front if necessary; ensuring the population is protected and respected; and targeting all militant groups that consider North Waziristan their home, including the Haqqani Network and members of the Afghan Taliban. Without a vast amount of support from the US and other allies—in addition to a multi-pronged and unified effort on the part of Pakistan’s civilian-military leadership—an assault on North Waziristan will have only short-term, similar effect as previous assaults in FATA.


• Before ground troops are deployed to North Waziristan, the Pakistani army will attempt to “soften” TTP resistance from the air

• Any counterinsurgency campaign in North Waziristan or other districts in the tribal agency could prompt a swift and severe response from TTP fighters in Pakistan’s major cities, particularly Karachi

• Washington is likely to ask the Afghan National Security Forces to strictly enforce the Afghan-Pakistani frontier to prevent TTP, Haqqani, or other terrorist elements retreat to its side of the border

• It will be difficult for Pakistan to distinguish between militant groups it wishes to defeat (TTP, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda core) from groups it has supported or co-opted (Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban).



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