Since Pakistan’s involvement in the global war against terror, there have been quite a few large scale military operations in Pakistan’s troubled northern region. Though all the military operations were designed and targeted towards the local and foreign militants, particularly Al-Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and few other foreign militant groups, but still they all carry certain differences and significance along with similarities.
The list of military operation conducted by armed forces against the militants include Operation Al-Mizan, Operation Rah e Haq, Operation Zalzala, Operation Black Thunderstorm, Operation Raah-e-Raast, Operation Sher Dil, Operation Rah-e-Nijat, Operation Koh-e-Safaid and Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
The Pakistan military had planned an extensive operation against the militants’ operating in North Waziristan for March 2014, but it was delayed due to the peace talks between Pakistani government and the militants. A continuous failure of dialogue between the two parties resulted in a deadlock situation and a faction of militant groups resumed terrorist activities in the country. Meanwhile the militants attacked the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi and it impacted the security situation all over the country. This attack seemingly cancelled all sorts of dialogue and through a mutual consensus and approval by the government, support by the opposition and civil society an operation against the militants and their sanctuaries in North Waziristan Agency was initiated.
According to ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations), on 15 June 2014, armed forces of Pakistan launched a comprehensive operation “Zarb-e-Azb” against foreign and local terrorists and their sanctuaries in North Waziristan Agency. The targeted group includes Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Haqqani network. As one of the major operations so far, nearly 30,000 troops participated in this operation with the help of air force, artillery and tanks. Besides normal infantry troops, the Special Service Group (SSG) commandos are also taking part in this ongoing operation.
The most highlighting aspect of this operation until now is the targeting of the militants without any discrimination. It has been asserted that no terrorist on the Pakistani soil will be spared in this ongoing military operation. If this assertion is true then without any doubt this measure would be seen as a huge paradigm shift in the policy pursued by the security establishment. So the assumption that this ongoing operation might be selective has been dispelled by Pakistan Army. No operation before Zarb-e-Azb specifically indicated the targeting of the Haqqani Network, so this assertion makes operation Zarb-e-Azb quite exclusive and unlike from the past operations conducted by military against militants.
Unlike previous operations, this operation has seen less number of casualties on part of military forces, as PAF fighter jets were involved at the initial stage and the ground forces entered the area later. So the assistance by the aerial force provided great help to the ground forces for their clearing operation afterward. Ground troops were moved nearly after two weeks of airstrikes and artillery bombardment against militant hideouts and after evacuation of all civil population. Support of local tribes and elders was also witnessed at large during this operation
Up till now the total number of martyred army personnel operation Zarb-e-Azb is below 50, which is far below than the previous operation conducted by Pakistan Army. One can undeniably assert that due to the consistent training and preparation from past operations, increase in the sophisticated weaponry and aerial support from PAF has actually increased the effectiveness of the operations and reduced the loss of lives of the military personnel. Forceful and repetitive demands were made by Pakistan Army to Afghan security forces to handover Pakistani Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah, who controls his fighters from across the border from Kunar and Nuristan.
The first major operation by Pakistan military against the militant groups operating in Pakistan was Operation Al-Mizan from 2002-2006. At that time the army chief was General Pervez Musharraf. The force deployed in FATA was around 70,000-80,000. As this was Pakistan first major operation inside the country against the militant groups, so the force deployed was huge and the loss of security personnel was between 1,200 and 1,500 soldiers. This huge loss was mainly due to the lack of information about the methodology of the enemy and their hideouts and very less knowhow about the terrain. Full conveys became the target of the Taliban militants at the initial stages and military had to suffer a lot of casualties. Besides, regular infantry, Special Forces units of the Pakistan army, the elite SSG, were also directly engaged in fighting the militants. Operation Al-Mizan comprised of several smaller operations, such as Operation Kalosha II, which took place in South Waziristan. Lack of public and national support at that time also created hurdle for the smooth progress of the operation as compared to the ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb.
In operation Zarb-e-Azb, there is a huge displacement of local people from Waziristan. Nearly four million people fled North Waziristan before the ground troops started combat mission. Almost the same situation happened during Operation Zalzala whichwas launched in South Waziristan Agency in January 2008 against Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters. Roughly 200,000 locals were displaced by the Operation Zalzala, though it cleared most of the parts of SWA and security forces destroyed over 40,000 houses. The impact of Operation Zalzala was quite similar to the impact of operation Zarb-e-Azb. Also in Operation Raah-e-Raastwhich started in May 2009 and continued till July 2009, there was a huge displacement of locals from Swat that were later sheltered in camps and move to other cities.
Swat, Mangora, Buner, Shangla and lower Dir remained under heavy influence of Taliban and Operation Black Thunderstorm which started in April 2009 and continued to June 2009 was initiated to retake the Taliban controlled areas. Likewise, in operation Zarb-e-Azb, one of the main purposes to conduct this operation is to restore the writ of the state and retake the area with a stronghold of Taliban. Operation Black Thunderstorm also caused a refugee crisis but it was managed afterwards. Operation Sher Dil which started in August 2008 and continued till February 2009in Bajaur Agency also caused a huge displacement of the local and tribal people who flee the area and seek refuge in makeshift camps in other cities.
The methodology of Operation Zarb-e-Azb is also bit similar to the Operation Black Thunderstorm, Operation Raah-e-Raast and Operation Sher Dil. In all these operations aerial support came first followed by the advancement of ground troops. This helped the ground forces to move in the area with force and effectiveness. Locals were evacuated fromthe area,and then Army bombed Taliban positions using heavy artillery, jets and helicopters. After softening their positions, the military moved in with ground forces
In both Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Rah-e-Nijat that started in June 2009, nearly 30,000 troops participated, the former one is going on in North Waziristan and the later one was conducted in South Waziristan. The main aim of the Operation Rah-e-Nijat was to capture the ground lost to Taliban and the military was quite successful in this mission. This operation like the present operation Zarb-e-Azb caused huge damage to the Taliban fighters, though many have fled to the lawless areas of Afghanistan.
Unlike Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Rah-e-Nijat,in Operation Koh-e-Safaid conducted in Kurram Agency only 4,000 troops, supported by heavy artillery, armor units and airpower, participated. The operation commenced with infantry battalions from the Sindh regiment (SR) and the Northern Light Infantry (NLI), a specialized mountain warfare unit. Though, it also displaced around 100,000 residents of the agency, nearly one-fourth of the agency’s population.
So comparing the first operation from the last, there is huge learning process for our military as well. Besides being trained as a force for conventional warfare, presently Pakistan military forces have become well equipped and trained to fight unconventional warfare very effectively. The ground forces are well acquainted with the terrain, area and local tribal population. The last decade, though witnessed a huge loss of civilians and military personnel, but was the hardest and most effective training Pakistan army would ever undergo. There is a visible use of aerial support in recent operations as compared to the earlier ones. Besides, more sophisticated and precise weapons have been used by Pakistan military in the recent combat missions.
Among all the major operations, operation Rah-e-Rast was the most successful operation to date against militants in the sense that it effectively removed them from Swat, ensuring the return of displaced people back to their homes. We can hope that the Operation Zarb-e-Azb will follow the footsteps of operation Rah-e-Rast in the accomplishments in defeating and eliminating terrorists from the North Waziristan, bringing an end to a decade old war and facilitating the displaced people back to their homes. As (ISPR) Director General Major General Asim Bajwa stated that “Operation Zarb-e-Azb is the biggest and most well-coordinated operation ever conducted against terrorists” and it is a ‘war of survival’, so this operation hold the most significance among all the operation conducted so far.
Contributing researcher: Khoula Afzal Qamar
Discuss this topic on Defence.pk