Pakistan Moves Toward War in North Waziristan As Talks Falter

Publication Date: 25 February 2014
Edition: Volume I, Issue 4


Since last summer, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) government has remained committed to engaging the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Islamist insurgent group fighting Islamabad, in peace talks. During this period, terrorist violence by the TTP and other militant groups has surged. Since September 2013, 114 soldiers, 308 civilians, and 38 police officers, have been killed in terrorist violence, according to Pakistani military sources. The PML-N’s persistence putting the PML-N under pressure from some opposition parties, media critics, and likely also the military.

  • Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to have come closer to embracing full-fledged military operations in North Waziristan that could take place as early as March.
  • Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for attacks against the armed forces. What began as reprisal attacks by the Pakistani military in December has now become offensive strikes, softening the ground for what is likely to be an expanded military operation.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is closer to embracing full-fledged military operations in North Waziristan, though he has not closed the door on dialogue with TTP factions. The ruling party has gained tacit support for a ground war from members of the opposition who had been exclusively pro-talks.

  • The PML-N government has effectively suspended peace talks with the TTP through publicly-known channels. It has become more assertive toward the militant group, calling for a unilateral ceasefire and stating that talks cannot continue while terror attacks take place. Islamabad has not abandoned peace talks, but it appears to have decided that it will pursue talks from a position of strength.
  • The civilian government in Islamabad now speaks with one voice. Interior Minister Nisar, the cabinet’s most vocal proponent of talks, has adopted the government’s talking points calling for a unilateral ceasefire by the TTP. In early February, a strong majority of parliamentarians from the PML-N endorsed a military operation in North Waziristan. The major outliers were Prime Minister Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Subsequently, Prime Minister Sharif unexpectedly announced the formation of a peace committee to engage the TTP.
  • The opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has consistently urged the government to launch operations in North Waziristan. Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party has with each passing week come closer to giving qualified support to a military operation. The Jamiat Ulema-e Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) party, which has a strong presence in North and South Waziristan and adjacent districts in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, remains on the fence. But the JUI-F could offer passive support for military operations, which would still be beneficial for the ruling party.
  • The Sindh provincial government has stepped up security at its borders to prevent terrorists from flowing in along with civilians fleeing the upcoming military operations.
  • The PML-N-run Punjab provincial government has also enhanced security measures in recent weeks, launching a crackdown on illegal Afghan immigrants.

General Raheel Sharif has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for insurgent attacks against the military. Since assuming command of the army, the Pakistani military has engaged in retaliatory strikes against the TTP and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in North Waziristan. Those air strikes are now expanding to offensive strikes eliminating TTP and IMU compounds and training centers. 

  • In late December, a month after Gen. Sharif assumed command of the army, Pakistani armed forces have engaged in retaliatory strikes against TTP and IMU compounds and training camps in North Waziristan. It is unclear whether Gen. Sharif did this with the authorization of Prime Minister Sharif, however, the civilian government defended the military in December amid accusations of high levels of collateral damage in the strikes.
  • In February, as the TTP and TTP factions continued attacks throughout Pakistan, and Islamabad distanced itself from peace talks, the military expanded its strikes against the TTP, IMU, and other militants. What started as retaliatory strikes in North Waziristan has become offensive strikes in Hangu, the Khyber Agency, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan.
  • This month, the Pakistani Army began sending additional infantry troops and commandos from the Special Services Group into North Waziristan. Additionally, the army has increased its screening measures at checkpoints on the outskirts of North Waziristan, restricting population outflows.
  • As it is being confronted in FATA, the TTP and other anti-state militant groups will attempt to strike high-profile persons and locations in Pakistan’s urban areas, particularly in the Punjab province, which has been the least impacted by terrorism since 2010. North Waziristan is the last major bastion inside FATA for the TTP and other anti-state militants, though they have cells throughout the country. As it bleeds in FATA, it will seek to ensure the Pakistani state also bleeds proportionally in the heartland.
  • Civil-military convergence in counterterrorism strategy would reduce tensions between the PML-N government and the Pakistan Army. However, former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf could be indicted for high treason next week. The relationship will remain uncomfortable as long as Musharraf’s trial continues, but the army is in no position to further obstruct the trial or make a move against the government.
  • If a North Waziristan operations is successful, there is risk that plaudits from the media and political forces will be directed at Gen. Sharif, not Prime Minister Sharif. Gen. Sharif’s tenure has been marked by vigilance against the TTP, while Prime Minister Sharif has been seen as vacillating at best. Prime Minister Sharif will need to own the military operations by announcing their start in a national address.
  • North Waziristan is the epicenter of polio’s resurgence in Pakistan. The outward flow of internally displaced persons from the tribal area will increase the infection risk in areas, such as Dera Ismail Khan, Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and Karachi, which will receive IDP inflows.
  • TTP and IMU militants could flee into Afghanistan and escalate tensions between Islamabad and Kabul during the April presidential polls in Afghanistan if coalition and Afghan security forces do little to prevent Pakistani militant safe havens from growing in areas under their control. A low-probability, high-impact risk is that the Pakistani military feels necessary to engage in unilateral military strikes inside Afghan territory during or around the time of Afghanistan’s elections.

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