Sceptical silence: Pakistan’s operation in North Waziristan

Will the latest military operation launched by Pakistan against the Taliban in North Waziristan expose and loosen the ties between the military establishment and their jihadi protégés? So far a sceptical silence surrounds the operations, says Afiya Zia.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia
23 June 2014

Zarb e Azb is the title of the current military operation being waged by the Pakistani state against the Taliban in North Waziristan. It comes specifically in the wake of the Taliban attack on Karachi airport, and after a 6-month period of uneasy peace talks. It refers to the ('sharp/cutting') sword of the prophet of Islam and is a brilliant usurpation of the religious metaphor. It upstages the religious imaginary for which the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claim to be fighting. After all, who would dare to vanquish the Prophet’s metaphorical sword?

The appellation justifies its cause for the defense of the Islamic state, and quells the lesser purpose of the Taliban in one fell swoop. As in all cases in the instrumentalisation of religion as a propaganda tool, it also excites nationalists and seeks to rationalise another round of military operations, killings and displacements that will follow. On the other hand, while the sceptics are unconvinced of the possibility of military ‘success’, they are also not in agreement with each other.

Drone complicity

One of the main sources of the splits and ambivalence in Pakistan’s political classes has been illustrated through the debate on drone warfare against militants in its tribal territories. During Gen Musharraf’s regime (1999-2008) and the PPP rule (2008-2013) that followed, it was mostly the conservative parties and Islamist groups that protested against a complicit silence” about US drone killings of alleged militants. They accused these governments of being pro-US imperialist collaborators in the 'War on Terror' by allowing such drone attacks.

One of these anti-drone operations proponents was Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreeq e Insaf, who at one point promised to shoot down drones if he was elected as leader of the country. But none of these critics ever called on the Pakistan defense forces for clarification of their position or role in allowing drone warfare. While there was one protest demonstration during the entire decade, led by Khan and for which peace group, Codepink, flew in to support in 2012, none of these critics have ever staged protests in front of the army’s General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi. 

For that matter, none of these moral objections were ever directed at Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, or the army, when the Osama bin Laden operation (knowledge of which Pakistan’s defense forces completely denied) violated sovereign airspace and took place in the garrison city of Abbotabad in 2011. This, despite knowing fully well that historically it has been the Pakistan army that calls all the shots on foreign policy. At the very least, the former Jamaat e Islami leader had the courage to take a position in 2013 when he announced that the Taliban were true shaheeds (Muslim martyrs), for fighting against American imperialism (even if that meant the mass murder of fellow Pakistanis/Muslims), compared to the infidel Pakistani soldiers who were siding against the religious militants.

Taliban entrenchment

Historical amnesia is a defining characteristic of Imran Khan’s politics. Soon after his electoral victory in the affected province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (2013), Khan was bidding for peace talks rather than military action against the Taliban. He went as far as demanding that an office be opened for the TTP to ‘bring them into the fold.’ The riposte and impatience of analysts and political groups (who dubbed him ‘Taliban Khan’) was to be expected. Also, Khan seemed oblivious or in denial of the fact that not only can the local Pakistani Taliban presence be traced to a pre- 9/11 moment (in 1996 as part of the fall out of the war in Afghanistan), but also that as part of negotiations with local Taliban after 2007, the Pakistan army allowed them to  set up offices by way of local islahi committees (centres/bases).

These bases allowed the Mehsud led Taliban to entrench themselves in the Tribal Agencies after 2001,from which they launched their attacks on local tribal leaders (Maliks) who resisted them. Eventually the TTP, as the entity under which they organised themselves, was able to take advantage of the many ceasefires and delayed and staggered half-operations by the Pakistani armed forces, and went on to occupy the valley of Swat. Behtullah Mehsud, known by locals as the Butcher of Swat, was eventually killed in a drone attack in 2009.

Drone charades

Regardless of the history of religious militancy, Imran Khan, his ex-wife (anti-drone film-maker Jemima Goldsmith) and all the anti-drone proponents have a unique opportunity offered now by the current conservative government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif had managed to negotiate a tacit agreement from the US to halt drone attacks earlier this year, while the government set up a peace committee to broker a resolution with the TTP. These ‘talks’ took place in an uneasy environment with several breaches of the peace by terrorist attacks that were down-played or tolerated. Some reprisal attacks took the form of targeted (aerial) operations by the army against the Taliban strongholds in the Tribal Agencies. Still, there were no US drone attacks.

On 9 June, terrorist attacks on Karachi airport were claimed by the Taliban, who also issued threats that other cities should prepare for further attacks. On 11 June, the first US drone attacks after a 6 month hiatus were launched in North Waziristan, and were reported to have killed Taliban and Haqqani group commanders. More importantly, reports in Pakistani newspapers revealed that not only did the government approve of these, but actively intended to solicit such attacks as part of its operation in the wake of the Karachi airport attack.  

The Pakistan government had finally come out of the closet after a decade of playing drone charades. Much has already been said on this subject, but it leaves an interesting challenge to those who spent much energy arguing against drones as violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty and decrying the collateral damage these caused.

An eerie silence

The current alternative method of dealing with insurgency in the Tribal Agencies has been aerial bombings by the Pakistan air force. These have claimed hundreds of lives per strike, compared to dozens by the supposed calibrated precision of drones. Technological difference aside, there has been a blanket of eerie silence from the critics ever since the state decided to adopt drone warfare as part of its national policy (with the exception of the Jamaat e Islami). Khan’s reluctance to criticize the current operation has led to a complete volte face on his earlier anti-operation rhetoric, and he and his party now claim to throw their full support to the operation. As a conservative nationalist, his flip-flops are well documented even by PTI

However, what is even more interesting is the silence from those who consider themselves political radicals. Rather than documenting militant atrocities, or the army’s complicity with drone warfare, or their links with the jihadist groups, these (mostly) scholar activists expend their energies towards ‘exposing’ Pakistani liberals. Their criticism is reserved particularly for women’s rights groups, for their activism against religious militancy in the country. Their broader argument is that such activism against faith-based violations of women is misplaced, and feeds into the racialised stereotyping of Muslim men in the post 9/11 era. The implication is that such liberal activism invites or justifies imperialist drone attacks. 

Presumably the alternative would be to remain strategically silent when the Taliban hang, torture or kill men who defy them, women health and polio workers, dancers, singers, or shoot girls for going to school or bomb girls’ schools. Instead, it seems, blame should be allocated to an abstraction called "US imperialism". The apparent logic is that once US intervention ceases, then all acts and expressions of religious patriarchy will dissipate of their own accord.

But this does not answer the question asked by a feminist friend who has worked on conflict since the Afghan influx into Pakistan in the 1980s. She wonders, ‘why this obsession with drones?’ Obviously, the interest is due to a host of factors, but her query reflects the difference in modes of analysis. Her position reflects the views of women’s rights/human rights groups who consider specific military operations in one part of Pakistan as just one cog in a broader narrative about the source of the conflict. For them, this has been the cosy nexus and mutually beneficial relationship between the military establishment and the jihadi groups.

Those like Imran Khan, who foreground drones in their analysis of ‘conflict’, consider US intervention and occupation of Afghanistan as the drivers of conflict in Pakistan. But local progressive groups argue that even if militants in Fata are subdued, or US interventions are resisted, unless the policy of patronage and nurturing of jihadi groups in the rest of Pakistan is dismantled and buried, conflict at all levels will never end – drones or no drones.

The Liberal’s dilemma

This explains why civil society organisations remain cautiously noncommittal over the recent turn in events. Many didn’t support the peace talks, arguing that this simply bought time for the militants to regroup and resolve infights. Others rejected negotiations with “non-state actors” as a non-starter because the latter refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Pakistani state, and defiantly reject its Constitution. Some analysts even suggested that peace talks was a misnomer for the attempt to accommodate the Taliban’s pre-condition for talks which demanded that the already Islamic Republic of Pakistan must first pledge to something called ‘the Shariah,’ as defined by themselves.

In any case, given all these reservations, the ambivalent statements that are being issued by some organisations could be copies of those issued ten years ago - in any part of the world. They reluctantly offer conditional support for unspecified military force against terrorists, provided there is accountability and transparency, and insist that the government give full support to the Internally Displaced Peoples as a result of any operation. It seems they want neither peace nor an operation. There is neither clear condemnation, nor support of the operation itself.

Selectively, some members of these civil society organisations (who are dubbed  ‘liberals’) have been challenged by other (equally liberal) activists for being equivocators, pro-war, militant haters, Islam-haters, and even native informants and imperialist collaborators . However, they don’t clarify their own position on whether and what kind of military intervention is ‘acceptable’ beyond the balanced concerns already expressed by the cautious liberals. Khaled Ahmed explains why ‘the liberal arouses contempt’ by suggesting that, “the liberal at best can get pummelled from both sides of an extreme divide. He is despised for being what he is, a loser and a bit of a spoilsport, introducing shades of grey when the situation is Manichean. The latest development is the invention of an oxymoron for him: ‘liberal-fascist’.”

A difference in analysis

I suggest that the double bind that such progressives often find themselves in has less to do with liberal squeamishness (although that is certainly a factor), and more to do with the nature of the patriarchal state, which invites suspicion and mistrust -  particularly on the part of women’s rights activists. While harbouring such misgivings, at the same time many of these women activists recognize that in the face of local customary patriarchal codes and practices, it is only the state that theoretically (and sometimes in practice) offers refuge, recourse, individual rights, and symbolic strength to many women. That is why these activists continue to lobby the state, and attempt to challenge its collusion with local patriarchies, in order to ensure that it delivers on women citizen’s constitutional expectations.

Honour killings of women are marketed as the vengeance for the cultural dishonour of men. But in reality this is a cover-up for the routine patriarchal codes that demand women’s docility, and punishes them for exercising agency or for acting as free agents. So too, the Pakistani military hides behind its own role in using jihadists as proxies for national honour, but then exacts revenge when proxies such as the Taliban attempt to become free agents pursuing independent agendas.

It is this doubt over the clarity of purpose on the part of the state that causes ambivalence  and prevents many civil society groups from lending unconditional support to military operations against religious militants. Is the military establishment willing to sacrifice its ‘assets’ by way of armed religious militia, or even forego the agency and potency of other armed religious groups as partners in the domestic policies and plans of the security establishment? These proxies are too useful in manipulating control over separatists in Baluchistan, or managing the real estate interests of the army in Punjab, or maintaining a balance of the political forces of Karachi.

Yet these same skeptics do not actively oppose Zarb e Azb either, in the hope that if a political decision has been taken to launch a ‘decisive’ operation in the face of terrorist threats, then at the very least it is hoped this will lead to some degree of loosening, if not severance or unraveling, of the patronage and inter-linkages between the military establishment and jihadist groups.

Given that the state has now killed the romance of "imperial drones" by indigenizing the issue, one wonders how the "anti-imperialists" will recalibrate their analysis and strategies beyond the drone protest. Will they remain stuck like a broken record that repeats grand narrative clichés and hollow slogans, rather than addressing the specificities and complexities of a state that has wrong-footed its subjects all too often?

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