After months of inaction, Pakistan's government authorized a significant military offensive against Taliban militants in North Waziristan, a tribal agency along the Afghan border. It may be the largest such campaign in 2009, when the military targeted the Pakistani Taliban in adjacent South Waziristan. Pakistani airstrikes over the weekend and on Monday killed about 160 suspected militants. Authorities reportedly ordered the evacuation of thousands of civilians from North Waziristan before sending in ground troops into populated areas.
The operation, named after a sword wielded by the prophet Muhammad, is receiving far less attention than the crisis in Iraq, where the advances of Islamist militants threaten to implode the whole state. But the importance of Pakistan's war with the Pakistani Taliban should not be understated. Here's why.
Pakistan may finally be confronting the enemy
For years, critics have accused Pakistan's civilian and military leaders of not doing enough to excise the cancer in their midst. In the mid-2000s, the Pakistani military even cut deals with prominent militant factions based in North Waziristan. It's clear that elements of the Taliban have, at least in the past, found sympathy and support from some wings of Pakistan's establishment, including its notorious military intelligence agency, the ISI. Last year, the recently elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, heeding domestic political pressures, embarked on an extended process of talks with Taliban leaders. But they bore little fruit.
The Pakistani Taliban, as explained here, is in reality an umbrella grouping of a host of militant outfits and tribal militias. The current offensive is aimed in particular at flushing out entrenched groups of foreign fighters, including, officials say, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs, Turkic Muslims who are fighting for a separate homeland in the far west of China.
Tired of all the bloodshed, some political parties such as the Movement for Justice, led by the charismatic former cricketer Imran Khan, have urged rapprochement with the militants and pointed accusing fingers at the role of the United States and its CIA drone program in inflaming tensions. But even Khan appears to have acquiesced to the current military operation; last week, with a clear nod from Islamabad, the United States reportedly launched its first drone strikes in more than half a year on targets in North Waziristan.
The drone strikes hit at militants belonging to the Haqqani network, a shadowy group involved in insurgent and criminal activities on both sides of the border and which is believed to have ties to the ISI. The U.S. has long pushed the Pakistanis to move against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan and while there is no current indication that Islamabad intends to target them, an operation of this scale in the Haqqanis' neighborhood presents an inflection point.
Pakistan now risks dangerous reprisal attacks
The immediate trigger for this operation was last week's glaring terror strike on the main airport in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city and commercial hub. The attack, though eventually rebuffed, was a sign of the Pakistani Taliban's remarkable penetration throughout the country, far from its supposed home base in the rugged tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A Taliban spokesman promised further retaliation, including strikes on foreigners and foreign business interests. "Our success in the tribal areas could quickly turn into losses in the plains of Punjab," a senior Pakistani military official told the news agency Reuters, referring to the country's most populous province. The whole country now may have to accept being on a war footing as the offensive continues.
Pakistan's fight against militancy is a bellwether for the region
The shocking gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq offer something of a cautionary tale for Pakistan. Obviously, the security and political challenges differ greatly in Iraq and Pakistan, but both countries face existential reckonings. "Non-state actors pose the foremost threat to the state in Muslim countries," writes Pakistani columnist Babar Sattar in Dawn, a leading English-language daily. "And when the state derives its legitimacy from religion and so do its non-state challengers, the resulting polarization as evident in our society is a natural outcome."
For too long, argue Sattar and other critics, the Pakistani state has helped incubate extremism, at times as a tool of policy. Its crackdown on some militant groups in the wake of 9/11 and quiet tolerance of others further muddied the waters. "We have a bitter history of creating non-state actors during the 1980s and 1990s that is still haunting us," Sattar writes. "We then pursued the disastrous good-versus-bad-terrorist policy post-9/11 that produced more destruction and confusion."
Now, as the United States prepares to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan has the opportunity — and, perhaps, responsibility — to start a new narrative. It may begin with tough action on militants in North Waziristan. But it can't end there.