Zarb-e-Azb headed to Punjab and Balochistan?
Journalists knew independent coverage of Zarb-e-Azb was out of the question, not just because of the logistics. And so far the army has not opted for the ‘embedded journalist’ option either, so managing information is exclusively the ISPR’s domain. So far its word has been taken at face value – even though it went silent as popular attention turned to the dharnas in their first two weeks – except for the odd editorial suggesting more details would be helpful.
There’ still some confusion, however, about the need for independent journalists on the ground. It’s not primarily to gauge the military operation. Nobody doubted the military’s ability to ‘cleanse’ North Waziristan. It was their other claim, of going after terrorists ‘of all hues and colours’, practically all across the country, that called for a pinch of salt in most newsrooms, even if they, like protesting political parties, went along with it till events proved otherwise.
Talking to locals and observing the situation would have helped convince a very large number that doubted the turnaround. The military’s new position, that even the Haqqanis were fair game, would also have been authenticated, countering claims that they were allowed to slip across the Durand Line well in advance. Yet it is unlikely that media will be allowed lengthy coverage anytime soon, at least not till the IDPs are back.
But while the Waziristan part of the operation is being wound up, there is talk, from the highest ranks in the military, that it might indeed now aim at political and geographic blocs that enjoyed the deep state’s patronage until very recently. When Peshawar Corps Commander Lt Gen Khalid Rabbani said at the NDU that terrorism would not be defeated without intel-intensive operations across the country, especially in South Punjab and Balochistan, he wasn’t, of course, offering a personal analysis of the operation. It means the military has decided to take on the lashkars and jaishes spread across urban centres. And that means the proxy policy of the Zia mould is past its sell-by date, reprisal attacks notwithstanding. Or it’s just testing the waters.
Gen Gul advocates the policy of talk-talk and shoot-shoot to continue dividing the enemy, just like talks with the Taliban allegedly exploited cracks within the militant group to place the military on a stronger footing
But this is proving a more difficult sell than even ditching the good Taliban of the last many years, including the Haqqanis. Militant groups, especially in Punjab, are a spillover of the India policy, so turning the guns on them touches upon political sensitivities far beyond the insurgency debate. And there is still talk that expecting the military to suddenly walk away from the proxy project is asking too much. But since these proxies have been straining at the leash for a long time, to the extent of institutionalising minority persecution and murder in the wake of state protection, the army stands to lose credibility if these groups are not brought into the operation’s net.
“I’d say the problem goes far beyond S Punjab and Balochistan, it is spread across the country”, said Gen (r) Hameed Gul, former ISI chief and part of the Difa-e-Pakistan council, a grouping of centre-right parties with India-specific concerns high on its agenda.
“Karachi is also a very big problem, and militants need to be taken out everywhere. But does that mean we take the fight to every nook and corner of the country?”
Gen Gul advocates the policy of talk-talk and shoot-shoot to continue dividing the enemy, just like talks with the Taliban allegedly exploited cracks within the militant group to place the military on a stronger footing. “But remember there are good and bad elements in most of these groups”, he added.
Going after them lock, stock and barrel does not sit well with Gen Gul and the like. Internal problems should not be allowed to minimise the significance of the threat across the eastern border.
“The present situation in Pakistan is a godsend opportunity for India”, he said. Fata has compromised the army’s traditional presence and preparedness on the Indian front. Much of the military hardware, like Cobra helicopters that were meant as deterrents for the traditional threat, has been downgraded. And the Indians have capitalised by bolstering their presence on the Afghan border as well, after a carefully calibrated policy with Kabul. Pakistan is being sandwiched, so a rollback on some fallback options might not be feasible.
Such concerns play into critics’ doubts that hints about Punjab and Balochistan might be overblown.
“The Indian threat is still there, so is the narrative that New Delhi is stoking rebellion in Balochistan”, said Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the controversial bestseller Military Inc and a renowned socio-political analyst. “So why would the military suddenly wind up the biggest component of its India policy?”
Critics like Siddiqa believe any talk of the army abandoning these assets is false. “There are still training camps around Mansehra that the military is no doubt aware of. Abandoning the Haqqanis was not true, they were allowed to move. And chances of cracking down in Bahawalpur or areas of Balochistan are zero”, she added.
There is also chatter that hinting at Punjab and Balochistan was meant to test political waters before any such advances can even be contemplated at the GHQ. Gen Rabbani would not have mentioned such a crucial clause without the chief’s go-ahead. And the Punjab government, especially, has been known for its closeness to people very high on some outlawed outfits’ command chain.
South Punjab is far more complicated than North Waziristan. Places like Faisalabad, Multan and Bahawalpur are large population centres, and any action there will trigger blowback which will not be isolated like Waziristan
“Statements do not necessarily lead to actions in such circumstances”, said Salman Zaidi, deputy director at Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad based think tank. “They are more likely to test political currents, and since the media has picked it up, a public discourse will follow, which is timely”.
South Punjab is far more complicated than North Waziristan. Places like Faisalabad, Multan and Bahawalpur are large population centres, and any action there will trigger blowback which will not be isolated like Waziristan.
Then there is also the question about organisations that have made political ingress yet remain on the wanted list.
“Jamaat-ud-Dawa is an example. It has built a mainstream public narrative yet it is outlawed. It generates public support not only because of its political stands but also because of its charitable work, yet there is a strong case against it. So there are many combinations at play here”, Zaidi added.
In Waziristan, meanwhile, the military phase will soon give way to resettlement of IDPs, going by the ISPR. That is probably when journalists will also be able to obtain first hand information regarding the goings on of the last quarter. But from there the operation will have to confront militant presence outside FATA, one way or another. And it will not be possible to confine it to TTP elements, since there has been growing overlap between the Taliban and the more accommodated religious organisations over the last few years, especially the ’07 Lal Masjid operation alienated much of the extreme right.
Whether the military continues to make divisions between good and bad bad-guys remains to be seen. But if Gen Rabbani’s feeler was more than a simple test of political reaction, it will mark a major turning point in the military’s, and country’s, history. It would mean the madressa institution is no longer viable, implying that the strategic depth doctrine, too, will be finally replaced. But if the new generation of generals prefers to keep the mullah card like its predecessors, then the army risks losing credibility like the politicians and judiciary. Where Zarb-e-Azb goes from here will tell.