If Pakistan’s state structure is to survive, then Rawalpindi and Islamabad have no choice but to snap the establishment’s links with the militants

Whatever the differences in approach between the Pakistan Army leadership and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in tackling terror, these have been set aside for the moment as Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet) got underway on June 15.

After the post-9/11 anti-terrorist operations launched by General Pervez Musharraf and in Swat more recently, the announcement of an all-out operation against militant elements could be the most serious effort to deal with the menace.

Whether it’s the drive from Lahore airport or a journey around Islamabad, the ever-present security checkpoints tell the story of a country at the receiving end of terror and terrorism.

The driveway to my hotel in Islamabad has many security blocks popping up as I enter, a clear sign that the state wants to ensure that high-profile targets are kept safe following the sensational Karachi airport strike.

Enough is enough

After waiting for what appears to have been eternity, the Prime Minister and the Army, under a new chief Raheel Sharif, seem to have decided that enough is enough.

“Our places of worship, educational institutions, airports, military installations, markets and even our houses have become unsafe,” Mr. Sharif told Pakistan’s Parliament on June 16 while announcing the lauch of the operation in North Waziristan.

The Sharif government’s recourse to dialogue with the Taliban, now abandoned, was a signal to the terrorists that the Pakistani state was weak and effete, and unwilling and unable to take on the growing military clout of the Taliban.

Analysts in Islamabad told this writer that General Sharif does not share the reluctance of his predecessor Ashfaq Kayani, who was Army chief for six long years from 2007 to 2013, to take on the terrorists.

While it is still early to test the mettle of General Sharif in dealing with the Taliban, General Kayani was not one to meddle too much with the growing clout of the Islamist militia, which spoke peace and advocated war.

General Sharif, possibly aware of the Taliban’s deep roots, said while visiting his Army’s Peshawar corps headquarters on Monday that “all terrorists along with their sanctuaries must be eliminated without any discrimination.”

“The operation is not targeted against our valiant tribes of North Waziristan but against those terrorists who are holed up in the Agency and have picked up arms against the state of Pakistan,” he stated.

In Parliament, Prime Minister Sharif said there was an “understanding” between the Army and the civilian government on the launch of the operation. The decision, he said, was taken with “complete harmony and mutual consultation” with the Army.

For now, let’s take all this at face value. Quite apart from the fact that the Taliban are threatening the writ of the Pakistani state, the high tolerance levels for their actions were giving extremist elements a free reign of Pakistani society.

Casual conversations with ordinary Pakistanis would reveal that none of them want their airports, hotels, markets and schools attacked. Like every other citizen of the world, they would like to go about their daily business without attack and fear.

A Karachi airport-type attack, akin to the one staged by the now-busted LTTE on Colombo airport in 2001, raised the pressure on both the military and the civilian government to “do something.”

Now with that “do something” pressure leading to the North Waziristan operation, it must be said that if this cleansing is to go beyond optics, then a long, hard battle in more than one arena lies ahead for the leadership.

The marriage of convenience between the military and the militants must end. General Sharif, when he talks of eliminating terrorists “without discrimination,” must extend this logic to anti-India elements like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

One former General, in a conversation with this writer, pointed out that Jaish founder Masood Azhar was behind the assassination attempt on General Pervez Musharraf — all the more reason for persons like Azhar to be dealt with strongly.

Snapping ties

Encouraging some militants and taking on others selectively is a strategy that has boomeranged on Pakistan before. If the country’s state structure, however imperfect it may be, is to survive, then Rawalpindi and Islamabad have no choice but to snap the establishment’s links with the militants.

Given its mounting level of casualties at the hands of the Taliban terrorists, the Army must at least repay its debt to the “martyrs’” families — its soldiers felled by the terrorist bomb and bullet.

A political element to the military operation is a must. Mr. Sharif and his party must mobilise the political class to make this operation a reality. Also, there’s a need to stay the course for the operation to deliver results.

Given the ominous warnings from the Taliban after the Karachi airport attack, there’s every possibility of the extremist militia going after civilian targets in urban centres and beyond.

It would also be foolish to believe that by clearing North Waziristan, the menace of terrorism in Pakistan will end. These militants, as demonstrated in the past, will simply move into other areas, lie low for a while and then strike again.

If there is to be a “logical conclusion,” then there must be a two-pronged fight to the finish — one at the military level and the other at the societal stage — to end the sense that the establishment is “okay” with some terrorists and “not okay” with others.

Finally, there is a need to cleanse Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment of elements with links to terrorists.

All jobs are easier said than done. The course of Zarb-e-Azb will be closely followed, within and outside Pakistan.

amit.b@thehindu.co.in

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