In his first public statement since the Pakistani military launched a blistering attack against militants in North Waziristan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the Karachi airport assault last week was the tipping point that caused the government to abandon peace talks and authorize a military offensive.
“We did our best to make talks result-oriented,” Sharif said in a televised address from the Parliament floor Monday, referring to peace talks he launched with the Pakistan Taliban in February. "On one hand we were pursuing dialogue, and on the other we were being targeted…. From the Islamabad courts to the Karachi airport, we were attacked."
Mr. Sharif’s comments signal that the civilian government, having tried and failed to negotiate a peace deal, supports the military’s launch of a “comprehensive operation” against militants in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. That the military is starting such a large-scale offensive – despite years of resisting US pressure for just such an operation – shows that the strategic priorities of the military may be shifting, analysts say.
The Army “feels that the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban are cooperating with each other and so the tribal belt is becoming a liability that they no longer can afford,” says Hasan Askari, a Lahore-based security analyst and author of "Military, state and society in Pakistan."
However, the timing of the operation is not necessarily linked to the failure of peace talks and the recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, including the one at the Karachi airport.
“Pakistan feels that as Americans and NATO forces leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, the Pakistani army needs to have primacy over the tribal belt next to the Afghan border. This will ensure that if Afghanistan descends into chaos, the violence does not spillover into Pakistan,” says Dr. Askari.
Pakistan’s military says 177 terrorists have been killed so far. There is no independent way to verify the military’s claims since the region is effectively sealed off.
Fighter jets carried out airstrikes in different parts of North Waziristan, where it claims foreign militants and Pakistani Taliban were hiding. Local media has reported military cordoning off all known militant bases; however, this is seen as impossible given the mountainous terrain.
In an emailed response, the Pakistani Taliban warned of revenge attacks, including against foreign companies in the country. "We warn all foreign investors, airlines, and multinational organizations that they should suspend their operations in Pakistan and prepare to leave the country, otherwise they will be responsible for their own loss," spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said.
Six Pakistani soldiers were killed Monday and three injured after their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in a town near the Afghan border.
Residents flee offensive
According to the Tribal Development Network, an independent non-governmental organization providing humanitarian aid to the area, close to 90,000 people have been displaced since last November when the Pakistani Air Force launched a first wave of airstrikes. The military hasn’t given a time frame for the current operation; Pakistani media have speculated that it would exceed three weeks.
The Pakistani army has launched operations in the past in other parts of the country, including the tribal belt and the Swat Valley in the adjoining province since 2009. But it has not handed over any of the controlled areas to civilians, for fear of these former strongholds falling under Taliban control again. “They managed to push the Pakistani Taliban out to other areas of Pakistan. But from those places like Punjab, and Karachi, they continue to operate,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst.
While the army is keen to go after the Taliban in the tribal belt, it allegedly turns a blind eye to militant groups based in Punjab province bordering with India and active in Kashmir, which is disputed territory with the neighboring arch-rival.
“Until and unless the military [abandons] the Kashmiri assets like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the Pakistani state continues to use for its strategic purposes, the menace of home-grown terrorism cannot be completely eradicated,” Siddiqa says.
Lashkar-e-Taiba now goes by the name of Jamat-ud-Dawa. It and other similar banned militant organizations recently rallied across Pakistan in support of the military after it was accused by Geo TV of orchestrating an attack on Hamid Mir, an outspoken journalist.
Analysts say Punjab-based militants have backing of the military but also sympathy for the Taliban. “They provide the Taliban and their affiliates support in settled mainstream areas of Pakistan. And although the Pakistani military cannot fight on so many fronts, if the country wants peace in the long term, the policy to support Kashmiri militants will have to change too,” Askari says.