Revenge as strategy

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Wednesday, May 28, 2014

IT is fighting season once again in North Waziristan, with air force jets and helicopter gunships pounding suspected militant sanctuaries and more soldiers dying in the battlefield. But do we have any clear strategy? These off-and-on military strikes have generated more confusion and exposed the prevailing disarray in our policy on fighting militancy.

It was the third military action against the insurgents in the volatile region this year. But like in the past the guns are silent again after a few days of fierce aerial bombings and artillery shelling killing a few dozen suspected terrorists and forcing residents to flee their homes for safer locations.

What next? No one seems to have any clear answer. The government maintains that it was just another retaliatory action by the military and there is no plan to conduct a full-fledged operation in the area.

The strikes, declared the interior minister, were a continuation of an earlier decision that “any act of violence or terrorism against civilian or military targets would meet a calibrated and measured response”. His faith in reviving the dead dialogue process, however, remains undaunted. There is no decision to call off the dialogue process, nor has any such demand been made from either side, he said.

This nonchalant stance lends credence to the impression that the government may not be fully on board on the latest military strikes, even though the authorisation must have come from the prime minister.

One is still not sure whether it is deliberate ambiguity on the part of the civilian leadership or pressure from the military that forced the decision. This makes the situation much more complicated. It seems to be a conscious move by the Sharif government to distance itself from the army action, while continuing to harp on the talks mantra. This approach is highly dangerous and undermines the battle against violent militancy.

Nothing depicts the deepening civil-military tension more than their differences over the policy to deal with the Taliban insurgency. The division has further widened with the dragging on of talks with the TTP, with no sign of them going anywhere. A Reuters wire agency report quoted a senior government official as saying that the military decided to take the matter into its own hands after running out of patience with the talks.

It may or may not be true, but this situation of no fight and no peace has taken a huge toll on our security forces generating frustration in the ranks. Many soldiers have been killed in the militant attacks since the start of the peace negotiations with the TTP. More than 20 of them are reported to have fallen last week alone. But there has hardly been any acknowledgement by the government of the growing number of casualties.

The latest offensive was triggered by the killing of nine soldiers in North Waziristan in an IED attack. Massive aerial bombing and heavy artillery shelling have now become almost a pattern following each attack on the troops. The claims of heavy militant casualties aside, such bombardments have their downside too. Collateral damage becomes unavoidable, further alienating the tribesmen.

What is most dangerous is that the revenge strikes are used as substitute for a well-defined counter-insurgency strategy. While this approach allows militant networks to regroup, it unsettles the lives of the tribesmen.

Thousands of families have reportedly fled to neighbouring districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some even taking refuge across the border in Afghanistan. There is certainly no contingency plan in place to help the displaced families. It is an extremely perilous situation as the civilian administration has abdicated responsibility.

It is not only North Waziristan, the eye of the storm. Attacks on the security forces have become more frequent in other tribal areas too. Several soldiers were killed in last week’s militant raids in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies that were believed to have been cleared of the insurgents.

In the absence of a comprehensive strategy, the situation is likely to worsen despite the deployment of troops in those areas. It is true that the ongoing factional fighting has weakened and fragmented the TTP, but the terrorist network still has the capacity to continue targeting the security forces. Sporadic revenge aerial bombings are certainly not the way to deal with the grave security challenges faced by the nation.

It has been almost a year since the Sharif government returned to power with a promise to formulate a comprehensive and overarching national security strategy. But there’s no sign yet of a policy taking concrete shape. There’s still no national counterterrorism narrative to mobilise public opinion.

No military can fight without the strong backing of the political leadership and public support. In the absence of public political ownership, military actions lose their effectiveness. What is most demoralising for the troops is the lack of recognition of soldiers and officers killed fighting the insurgents.

Last week, President Obama travelled across the world to meet the US soldiers in Afghanistan. But our prime minister, who also happens to be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has not even visited the injured, let alone visited the frontline where our soldiers are fighting the enemy in a most difficult terrain.

It is about time the civilian leadership took the ownership of this war and showed some resolve and capacity to lead. But, unfortunately, there is no sign of that happening.

Author Information

Written by Zahid Hussain

Author Information: The writer is an author and journalist.

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