Why Pakistani air strikes on Taliban targets not a gamechanger

Pakistan's military has responded to Taliban attacks with air strikes in the tribal belt near the Afghan border. But it lacks a comprehensive strategy for combating the militant group. 

Zahid Mohammad/Reuters
A security official checks passengers travelling in a vehicle with their belongings and fleeing a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, January 22. Pakistani fighter jets and helicopters attacked suspected Taliban hideouts in a tribal area on the Afghan border on Tuesday.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines

This week’s Pakistan air force strikes against Taliban strongholds near the Afghan border were the first such strikes since 2007. Does that mean they signal a shift in strategy?

Not so fast. Monday’s bombing raids came as a surprise because the government has not ordered strikes in North Waziristan since it signed a peace accord with a Taliban faction led by a local commander from the area. 

But the latest attack doesn’t signal a full strategy shift just yet. Pakistan's government has denied that it is a full-fledged military operation. Moreover the government has long been unable to reach a consensus on the best way to deal with the Pakistan Taliban because of noisy opposition from mainstream parties and Islamist groups. This remains a stumbling block to any strategic rethink. 

A more likely explanation is that the strikes demonstrate that when Pakistan's military is hit directly, as it was over the weekend, the government and the military will sanction one-off retaliatory hits. In this case, the strikes came after the Taliban staged two attacks that killed at least 35 soldiers.  

Peace talks

The government is not ready to give up all calls for peace talks just yet, says Cyril Almeida, editor for the English daily the Dawn. "The government is still sticking to its talks-first policy because it wants to exhaust all options of engaging with any Taliban groups that may still want to talk,” he says.

The government claims that there are more than three dozen Taliban splinter groups operating in Pakistan and that some of them favor talks. It hasn't made clear how it would handle those groups opposed to talks. 

The federal government has been calling for dialogue with the Taliban since it took power last May. An all-parties conference called by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tasked the government to initiate peace talks. 

Others have called this week's airstrikes by the military ill-planned. Nizam Dawar, director of the Tribal Development Network, an NGO based in Waziristan, says that thousands of civilians have fled their homes in fear of further airstrikes or a ground offensive by Pakistan's military. 

“According to estimates that we are getting, more than 30,000 people are currently homeless after these airstrikes,” Mr. Dawar says. His organization has sought assistance from Islamabad.

At least 40 militants were killed in Monday’s strikes, according to the army, who said Wednesday that the militants killed included 33 Uzbeks and three Germans. The area plays host to a number of local and global terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban. The US military has conducted regular drone attacks since 2004 against what it calls high-value terrorist targets. 

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