In the wake of last week’s attacks, especially in the Punjab, Pakistan’s new army chief has launched a new war. Is it necessary?
By Wajahat S. Khan
ISLAMABAD: Fortress Punjab has been breached, and it seems to have gotten its own operation.
On Wednesday afternoon, in an almost empty amphitheater filled with a select few generals in Lahore Cantt, General Qamar Javed Bajwa finally made a decision that was made for him many months go.
Kayani got to route his way in Raast & Nijat. Raheel got to swing the sword of Azab. Bajwa, who started off strong in GHQ with an expeditious spate repositioning top brass as he propelled a massive turnaround at Aabpara, has been greeted in turn for his first 100 days with the tumult of Sehwan, Charing Cross, Mohmand and half a dozen other attacks, nationwide.
Thus, he gets Radd-ul-Fasaad. And so, literally, he gets his shot to rid Pakistan of all evil. And maybe even bombing the Afghans.
But just as the new brand of war settled, on cue, less than 24 hours after the announcement of Radd on Wednesday last, not too far from the Lahore Garrison where Bajwa had his big rethink, the DHA blast happened on Thursday afternoon. Nine were killed in what some saw as a nose thumbing to GHQ and the Model Town establishment and their so-called Punjab Operation, while others obfuscated it as a gas cylinder explosion. The paranoia was so thick that a series of imaginary city-wide attacks followed.
So, why do we need a new urban anti-terror operation.
First, the politics: If you’re asking how could the Army launch a countrywide operation while the prime minister of the country was in Turkey, don’t stretch your imagination. Nawaz Sharif gave the all clear before he left (including permission to hit targets in Afghanistan, minus boots on the ground or air strikes); Ishaq Dar outlined the essentials to Senate on Tuesday, and the alacrity with which Shahbaz Sharif has been building the Punjab Rangers a sweet launching pad since his press conference last weekend is green light enough.
So, Bajwa gets to run this one, even though it may not be as ‘nationwide’ as it is sketched out to be. More on that later.
For now, some context: The Sharifs and Bajwa are not like the Sharifs and Raheel.
See, deep inside 2016, Raheel had been asking for something similar to Radd-ul-Fasaad, but he didn’t get it because he was Raheel, and essentially unbearable for the Sharifs by the time he was ready to officially go golfing.
Clearly, the Sharifs feared that a Punjab-centric operation would become more than a quick swan song for Raheel. It could well become a reason to stay on, and anathema for Raiwind. Thus, the Punjab Police and its Dark Justice were displayed as ample substitutes for a full-blown Army operation. Remember Malik Ishaq? That was Punjab’s Dark Justice, in motion, saying it didn’t need the Army, thank you very much.
But Bajwa’s a team player, and after what happened last week, he gets his Radd-ul-Fasaad, which, I’m projecting, will be nothing like Zarb-e-Azab optically but a natural follow up to that endeavor kinetically.
The thing is, around the time of its launch in the spring and summer of 2014, Zarb-e-Azab was initially the name of simply the ground clearance of North Waziristan. Soon, as enemy realignments happened, a part of it morphed into Khyber 1.
Then the Army Public School attack happened.
Then all hell broke loose.
And then the National Action Plan was born. Or still born.
As the NAP faltered, and the civilians kept on dropping catches, or were made to look like they were dropping catches, naturally, Zarb-e-Azab expanded.
In Karachi, it morphed into an “Anti-Terror Financing Op”, not just a “Targeted Operation” which was to be “Captained” by the zombie that was Qaim Ali Shah. With the Dr. Asim Hussain case and the Nine Zero Raid and then Anwar Majeed, it got stretched and politicized even further.
In Balochistan, Zarb-e-Azab became an eternal “IBO”, or a series of intelligence-based operations: Never a major assault that could get political, but slick, smooth hit jobs that you’d find out about weeks later.
In KP, the northwest’s settled-areas were outsourced to a tough police. Swat was normalized by cantonments, and FATA was essentially sealed off the by the FC and Army for ‘Combing Ops’, even as the PAF did the heavy lifting. Naturally, the IDPs – hundreds of thousands of them – were lost in the fog of war.
Frankly, all of this was great, and the parts which were not so great were worth trying. The statistics were grand: Pakistan was getting safer.
The real problem, really, was in the press. Zarb-e-Azab had essentially become the Raheel Sharif Show, complained Raiwinders. Gradually, they feared, so could CPEC.
That didn’t go down well with the Sharifs. CPEC was going to be their baby, they figured, and some infantry grunt on his way out wasn’t going to take it from them. That’s why there was foot-dragging on the NAP, lest that too became a Raheel-centric exercise. That’s why no extensions, and no further operations, provincial or nationwide, were the spirit of 2016. That’s possibly even why the Dawn Leaks happened.
That’s the politics. Now, the dynamics.
It’s logical to assume that massive military operations aren’t imagined overnight. Thus, it’s easy to assume that Radd-ul-Fasaad wasn’t conceived when Pakistan was taken by storm last week, and as easy to assume that the operation was on the books since the pre-Bajwa days. That’s how the Army’s Military Operations Directorate works…over months.
“It was expected. It was the weakness of NAP, as well as the security and intelligence agencies, to not be able to follow up in the wake of what the Army did in FATA,” said a senior security operative.
“When you kicked out the bad guys from FATA in Zarb, you interdicted their capacity to strike. They needed time, and last year was the time they needed to regroup,” he explained. “Regrouping was natural, especially as the finances from India and logistics from NDS were rolled out for them, as can be established from evidence around.”
In this analysis, disturbingly, what happened last week was to happen – had to happen – for this operation to be launched.
Now, as for operationalizing our brand new Radd-ul-Fasaad, lets keep it simple and try to understand what the ISPR is telling us in its press release:
- “Operation aims at indiscriminately eliminating residual / latent threat of terrorism, consolidating gains of operations made thus far and further ensuring security of the borders”: This means everything could change, if its really, truly implemented. ‘Residual’ means the bad guys left behind. ‘Latent’ means the not-so-bad guys who could become bad guys (these are the guys who are tolerated as ‘good militants’). It also means that the Army will go for what the Army wants – more Frontier Corps Wings raised specifically to seal the western border – and possibly the toughening up of inter-provincial border checks, which Shahbaz Sharif and now Murad Ali Shah are declaredly big fans of. But one must get some clarity about the Good vs Bad militants narrative here: a senior officer told me that the operation will probably launch in the Punjab against just the ‘bad’ ones first, but pressure and counter-attacks will naturally lead them to some — just some — of their former friends. That’s how wars are fought, I was told: in stages.
- “Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Navy, Civil Armed Forces (CAF) and other security / Law Enforcing Agencies (LEAs) will continue to actively participate / intimately support the efforts to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the country”: This means that Army will be in-charge and in the limelight, as usual. But expect unsung heroes, like Counter-Terror Departments of provincial police forces and Field Security units of the Rangers, to continue to perform and not be lauded enough.
- “The effort entails conduct of Broad Spectrum Security / Counter Terrorism (CT) operations by Rangers in Punjab, continuation of ongoing operations across the country and focus on more effective border security management”: This is jargon for what the purpose of Radd-ul-Fasaad really is: Harden Fortress Punjab. Bajwa’s given the Punjab Rangers a new Director General, liked for now by Lahore, and synched under the Punjab Police. And by the way, the new Rangers were given the green light to start the operation by the Punjab government hours before Bajwa’s announcement, so you can tell who’s trying to be in charge here. So what we have in the Punjab is a Shahbaz-led, Army-backed Rangers operation. This will be, hopefully, remarkably different from the Army-led, Nisar-backed Rangers operation in Karachi that was never really backed by those who matter there: the PPP or the MQM. Except for passive aggressive approvals and clenched-jaw smiles, Bilawal House and Nine Zero (now PIB Colony) never really signed on for that little op. We all know how the shortfalls of Karachi have evolved since then.
- “Country wide de-weaponisation and explosive control are additional cardinals of the effort. Pursuance of National Action Plan will be the hallmark of this operation”: Lets be honest. Pakistan is like Texas. Nobody will ever totally de-weaponize it, and will ironically be shot if they tried. Same for explosives: There’s just too much technology and too many unregulated materials out there to make Pakistan an IED-free zone. So lets stick to the low-hanging fruit: The key, really, is the reference to NAP. With RAF, Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif seem to have finally outsourced NAP, or parts of NAP, to the Pakistan Army. That’s what the ISPR statement reads like.
What can we expect the Army to do that others have not been able to do for NAP, via its latest project, this Radd-ul-Fasaad?
Here’s my projected checklist, and what may happen to NAP under RAF:
- Regulate Madrassa reforms? Yeah right.
- Empower NACTA? Dream on.
- Continue Karachi? Surely, but there’s the Zardari and Altaf factor, always.
- Bring back the military courts? Yes, please.
- Take action against terror and hate literature? Whatever.
- Administrative reforms in FATA? Already started.
- Crackdown against abuse of social media? The crackdown’s here (just ask the missing bloggers)
- Registration of refugees? Why do you think the Army’s doing the census?
- Eliminate sectarian outfits? If only, but lets give it a shot.
- Empower the Balochistan government to initiate peace talks? Not this caliber of government. Not yet. Not with CPEC on the cards.
END NOTE: For those in Lahore, Raiwind and Lala Land who think this is a great moment for civ-mil parity, here’s a heads up to the Punjab: You’re in the Army now, because the Army’s in you now. And just so you know, Bajwa’s war is older than it seems.