So finally the military has launched its long awaited operation against extremists in North Waziristan. This is the largest military offensive so far in a war that has been raging for over a decade but which has been largely unrecognised as such by successive governments as well as society. After sustained precision targeted air strikes a ground assault is about to begin. The ongoing operation could be a turning point in this war. If the political leadership and the people of Pakistan rise to the occasion, it could also be a watershed in the history of Pakistan. In this article we will discuss the main features of this potentially historic moment and the challenges before the leadership, civil society and the military to actualise the great potential this moment offers.
Who are the extremist groups in North Waziristan that the military is engaging in battle? Reportedly there is a network of various foreign and local militant groups. According to Mr. Zahid Hussain the well known author and journalist, the foreign militants include the Al Qaida, Uzbek and Chechen groups, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement manned mainly by Chinese Uigher militants and the Libyan Islamic fighters. The local militant groups in a loose alliance, include the Taliban operating from North Waziristan, South Waziristan and from hideouts across the border in Afghanistan. (The assumption that "good and bad Taliban" are distinct entities that can be dealt with separately has been proved to be invalid.) According to recent newspaper reports, a large number of militants in North Waziristan have escaped and are escaping into Afghanistan which is why Pakistan's army Chief, is reported to have asked Afghanistan to plug the gaps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to prevent Pakistan based militants from finding refuge across the border.
This network of foreign and local fighters will now face the devastating power of one of the finest fighting forces in the world: the Pakistan army in conjunction with the Pakistan Air Force. In terms of professional training, the quality of leadership in battle and the commitment to sacrifice their lives for the homeland, the Pakistan military is second to none. The nation can be proud of them as they go forward to defend the country.
As the nation and its armed forces join battle it may be helpful to define the nature of the adversary as well as what is it that is being defended. The Pakistan Taliban conglomerate, have explicitly stated that they aim to overthrow Pakistan's Constitutional order, takeover the state and impose their own ideology on the people of Pakistan. In the pursuit of this objective they have over the last few years, in carefully planned commando operations attacked key military installations of each of the three armed forces of the country: the GHQ of the army, the Mehran airbase of the Navy and the Kamra airbase of the airforce. They have also attacked installations of the ISI (the Inter Services Intelligence), the civilian Intelligence outfit the IB (Intelligence Bureau) and the training academy of the anti terrorist police unit in Lahore as well as the army's elite counter terrorist commando unit headquarters in Tarbela.
Additionally the Pakistan Taliban have earlier assassinated senior military officers including the GOC in charge of operations in South Waziristan. In a recent grisly demonstration of their psyche they beheaded Pakistani soldiers as they prayed in a camp in South Waziristan and then subjected their severed heads to unspeakable indignities, later uploading a video of the whole atrocity on their website.
Extremist militant groups have during the last few years also mounted gun and suicide bomb attacks on political leaders of Pakistan with the most tragic being the assassination of the widely loved Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto that sent shock waves of pain and sorrow across the country. This was followed by a series of murderous attacks on leaders of the ruling Awami National Party in Pakhtunkhwa during the period 2007 to 2012 as well as the target killing of the Federal Minister of minority affairs.
The total casualties both military and civilian since 2003, have been estimated at 40,000 and the financial losses of terrorism, both direct and indirect, may be as high as 40 billion dollars according to one estimate.
At a strategic level the Taliban had over the years established control over North Waziristan, parts of South Waziristan and Mohmand agency. Not only had they effectively captured significant swathes of FATA, but had also penetrated some of the major cities of Pakistan with their armed cadres, weapons and ammunition storage sites and training centres. Karachi is a case in point where they have established no go areas, linked up with crime syndicates and are competing with armed wings of some of the mainstream political parties for control over resources and power. Such was their operational capability that they were able to mount a deadly attack on Karachi airport, attacking aircraft in airport hangars and conducting pitched battles on runways with security forces. (This attack proved to be the last straw on the camel's back and triggered the present large scale strategic counter attack by Pakistan's military).
At a political level the Taliban had won sympathisers in some of Pakistan's mainstream political parties and at an ideological level had penetrated or terrorised into submission some of the TV channels, print media and middle class strata in civil society.
In the face of this systematic attack by militant extremists on the state of Pakistan, their attempt to cripple its economy and terrorise its society no country can survive without bringing to bear all its human and material resources, civilisational values and an unshakeable national resolve to resist. This is why the nation must stand behind Pakistan's military as it marches forward to defend Pakistan and our way of life.
What is it that the nation and its armed forces aim to defend? In an immediate sense we are saving our homeland. At a deeper level and an integral part of the battle to defend the state of Pakistan, are the core values of the pursuit of self discovery through enlightenment (what Iqbal called Khudi), love, tolerance and humanity. These civilisational values shape our apprehension of religion, our forms of social life, our link with the past and our aspirations for the future-indeed they constitute the core of our experience of nationhood. These values also lead to the norms that underlie the institutional structure of Pakistan's democracy: the value of human life, individual freedom, justice, education and human welfare. It is of crucial importance in the present conjuncture, that our core values of pursuing knowledge, love, humanity are directly counter posed to the value preferences revealed by the Taliban. Their actions and modes of governance in the areas of Pakistan where they have established their writ demonstrate that they are driven not by knowledge of religion but ignorance of religion; theirs is the domain not of education but bigotry, not of tolerance but coercion of the other, not of the nurturing of freedom and creativity but of its violent suppression. It is not surprising that in their weapon of choice, (the teen aged suicide bomber), in their treatment of prisoners of war (beheading followed by subjecting the severed heads to indignities), the Taliban demonstrate not a value for life but its utter degradation. In their battle tactics as much as their strategic aims they indicate that they have extruded humanity from their being and wish to establish not a state based on religion but a demonic republic of fear, darkness and violence. They aim to create not a rule of mercy but of oppression. Thus in defending Pakistan against the Taliban our military and the nation is not just defending the territorial integrity of the state but also our human integrity, our very being as a nation.
This is a moment of reckoning. If the nation unites and shows a resolve to stand behind the military as our soldiers sacrifice their lives for all that we stand for, we will Inshaallah prevail. Ordinary citizens have made up their minds to stand with those who are defending the country. It is time for the leadership to do the same. This is no time for Mr. Imran Khan and Mr. Qadri to distract the nation from this war of survival by marching on Islamabad. They ought to put the interests of the nation above personal political interests. At the same time let the Prime Minister take leadership of this war, the war for the soul of Pakistan. Let him mobilise the will of the nation, to defeat the adversary not just in the hills of Waziristan but also in the cities. Let him recognise the heroes, the soldiers who inspire the nation with their deeds of valour. He should be giving medals to soldiers who distinguish themselves in battle. How many have outstanding achievements to their credit but have gone unrecognised publicly? Let songs of poets and singers echo in every household as they did in 1965 saluting troops and civilians for their resolve. Let Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif bring together the knowledge and love of his people to reclaim Pakistan by also defeating the ideology of hate, bigotry and brutality that is propounded by the Taliban. Both democracy and development require a state and the establishment of order within it. Let the lion roar by uniting the nation to wage this war, so that we may survive and prosper.