On 15 June – one week after the attack on Karachi’s international airport by the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (UMI) – the Pakistan military announced its ‘comprehensive’ Operation Zarb-i-Azb in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). From their bases in North Waziristan, the statement announced, militants had ‘waged a war against the state of Pakistan’ and the military had been ‘tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.’ Although the press release insisted that ‘these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere across the country’ the epicentre of the operation was and remains North Waziristan.
There are reportedly 60,000 troops in the region, and the main Pakistan military installations in North Waziristan are shown on the map above (taken from the AEI spinoff site, Critical Threats), but the prelude to ground operations was a concerted attack by the Pakistan Air Force on eight targets linked to planning the assault on Karachi airport.
‘Operation Zarb-i-Azb’ refers to Mohammed’s sword, and its political imagery is artfully dissected by Afiya Shehrbano Zia:
‘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.’
There’s much more of value in her commentary, but – as Zia also acknowledges – the genealogy and geography of the offensive is no less complicated (my map comes from Dawn, 20 June 2014; green circles are Pakistan military land operations; blue are Pakistan Air Force strikes; red are US drone strikes).
First, it’s not clear whether the Pakistan military finally has the Afghan Taliban in its sights too – regarded by Islamabad as the ‘good Taliban’ because, far from threatening the state of Pakistan, it has long been used by both the military and (particularly) the intelligence service as a counter to any Indian influence over Kabul once US and ISAF forces complete their withdrawal. And it is of course the Afghan Taliban (along with the Haqqani network) which is the principal concern of the United States.
Second, the Pakistan military – and especially the Air Force – has a long history of offensive operations in the FATA, as I’ve discussed in detail before: see here and here. Now other commentators have noticed this: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tracked 15 Pakistan Air Force strikes carried out by helicopter gunships and F-16 fighters between 19 December 2013 and 15 June 2014, which killed 291-540 people (including 16-112 civilians).
The significance of this is not only that it precedes the current offensive but also that it coincides with the so-called ‘pause’ in CIA-directed drone strikes against targets in the FATA. Chris Woods notes that PAF strikes are ‘generating casualties far in excess of any caused by CIA drones strikes’, and one resident of Mir Ali recited a grim military timetable:
“It’s like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday… They start the day with artillery shelling early in the morning. Gunship helicopters come for shelling during the day and jets strike at around 2:00-2:30 in the night.”
The military denies all reports of civilian casualties but this beggars belief, and the Bureau reports that some residents have even concluded that the drone strikes were preferable:
‘The difference between the drone strikes and the military strikes is that drones target specifically who they want to target… the wanted terrorists… people are saying that drone attacks were good compared to the military strikes. Personally I agree, because I have seen drones, they are in the air 24 hours and they don’t attack as randomly… the place of the attack was always an area where the Taliban or terrorists were living.’
But whatever one makes of this – a calculation that would imply that the CIA had abandoned its anonymous ‘signature strikes’ – drones have not been absent from the skies over Waziristan. Pakistan has its own reconnaissance drones, and they have repeatedly been used to direct strike aircraft onto their targets (though with what accuracy it is impossible to know) and to support ground operations: the PAF boasted of their use in May, when hundreds of houses and shops were destroyed in Machis Camp and in the bazaar at Mir Ali. And – the third complication – the US resumed its drone war on 11 and 12 June when two UAVs fired six missiles at compounds near Miram Shah, supposedly killing ten members of UMI and the Haqqani network, and again on 18 June when three compounds near Dargah Mandi were hit. Whether these strikes were co-ordinated with Pakistan is unclear – the Foreign Office has issued its ritual denial, but it’s difficult to believe they were not connected to Pakistan’s own military operations, and here too there is a long history of what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘ between Washington and Islamabad that continued until at least the end of 2011. It seems highly unlikely that the dance has ended.
Finally, the shock waves from these various operations ripple far beyond their ostensible targets. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, some in advance of military operations (which had been telegraphed for months), many more when the military temporarily loosened its curfew on the region. As on previous occasions, most of them fled to Bannu, some to government camps (‘Only the poorest of the poor would go to a camp in such hot and humid weather‘) but the majority to stay with family members, while some refugees have even crossed into Khost in Afghanistan to seek sanctuary. The map below is an early trace (18 June), and it shows only those who are officially registered so it excludes those lodging with their extended families; but even this anticipates hundreds of thousands more displaced people to come.
There is also the real fear that, as Ismail Khan and Declan Walsh reported earlier this month, Taliban reprisals will focus on the Punjab, the electoral base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
All of this suggests the importance of unravelling the intimate connections between the political constitution of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the administration of military violence there. This is clearly not limited to CIA-directed drone strikes, and here Zia’s reflections on a question posed by a feminist friend are worth repeating:
‘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.
This doesn’t mean that military technologies are unimportant nor that drone strikes are of marginal concern (inside or outside an ‘area of active hostilities‘): it means that we need to direct our attention to the larger matrix of political and military violence within which they are deployed, transnational and national, and to its genealogies and geographies.