Pakistani ground forces began their assault into the Shawal Valley, the final substantial militant stronghold in North Waziristan, in August. Shawal represents an endgame of sorts for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the large-scale offensive to clear the region of militants. It has successfully dislodged the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas face significant challenges as the operation draws to a close.

Pakistani army

By Daniel Bodirsky, ACD Analyst

Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched on 15 June 2014 following the breakdown of peace talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and an attack on Karachi’s international airport by TTP militants. The Pakistani military committed 30,000–60,000 ground troops to the operation, which quickly flooded into North Waziristan. The military began Operations Khyber I and II in October 2014, complementary offensives with a similar goal of clearing militant strongholds in Khyber Agency. Active combat in Zarb-e-Azb waned by September, but the massacre carried out by TTP militants at a Peshawar school in December 2014 triggered a renewed commitment by the Pakistani army.

By June 2015, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) stated that the army was in control of 80% of territory in North Waziristan. In mid-June, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif marked the one-year anniversary of Zarb-e-Azb by announcing that the operation had entered its ‘final phase’, and that the Tirah Valley – long a TTP safe haven in Khyber Agency – had been cleared of militants. Airstrikes continued in North Waziristan, but it was not until August that Pakistani ground forces moved into the final militant stronghold of the Shawal Valley. Lieutenant-General Asim Bajwa, director of the ISPR, announced on 27 August that after intense clashes leaving at least 200 militants dead, the Pakistani army had gained control of strategic mountains surrounding the valley, cutting off major supply lines to the TTP and other militants based in Shawal.

The entrance of ground forces was widely covered in the Pakistani press, however, the ongoing media blackout has made it difficult to accurately gauge specific details of the current progress of Zarb-e-Azb. All casualty figures are provided by the ISPR, which states that 2,763 militants and 347 Pakistani soldiers had been killed in the operation by June 2015. Verification of these figures has been impossible, because independent media have rarely been allowed to embed with active personnel in North Waziristan.

In spite of the blackout, consensus is growing that Zarb-e-Azb has begun to have a positive impact on Pakistani security. The Pakistani government released figures reporting a 70% decline in major militant attacks across the country since the beginning of the operation. Monthly attacks in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have dropped from an average of 49 per month to 12. Pakistani forces have regained nearly all militant-held territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), destroying most of the Taliban-affiliated groups’ safe havens in North Waziristan and Khyber Agencies.

As Pakistani forces look to conclude formal military operations in North Waziristan in the near future, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government will continue to face a host of challenges in FATA. The destruction of militant strongholds in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency has reportedly triggered an exodus of TTP militants to neighbouring Afghanistan. Taliban sources have claimed that as many as 80% of militants previously based in FATA have fled to Afghanistan. While this figure is almost certainly exaggerated, the Pakistani military itself has acknowledged that senior members of the TTP leadership have fled the Pakistani military advance. The TTP, while having been severely disrupted, has not been destroyed, and is likely to re-establish itself across the border. Without closer cooperation with the Afghan government, efforts at which failed earlier this year, a clear threat of a Taliban resurgence remains.

The thorny issue of FATA’s political future has also become a topic of heated debate. Political reforms for FATA will be required for any lasting victory over militancy, and the success of Zarb-e-Azb has created a groundswell of support to break through the political deadlock that has previously hampered such efforts. In November, Sharif formed a five-member committee headed by foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz to work on political and constitutional reforms in FATA. A proposed 22nd amendment to the constitution of Pakistan would involve the merging of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, doing away with the region’s autonomy and bringing it into the political mainstream.

The government also faces the immense task of rehabilitating the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) from FATA. A few IDPs from the northwest have begun to return home, but at least 700,000 remain in refugee camps across the country. Sharif has repeatedly pledged to prioritise the repatriation of internal refugees, a task estimated to cost US$753 million, but the government is likely to fall short.

As the TTP and its breakaway factions lose ground in FATA, some Pakistani officials have expressed concern that local affiliates of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) may gain sway. There is currently little direct threat of ISIS superseding the TPP’s influence in FATA, despite the group having declared Afghanistan and Pakistan to be its ‘Khorasan province’ (Wilayet Khorasan). Social media groups linked to ISIS distributed photos and videos in October 2015 of reported training camps in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan. Militant organisations based in FATA like Jundullah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have both pledged allegiance to ISIS, as have a handful of individual defectors from other groups.

Significant challenges await FATA as military operations wind down in 2016. The TTP and its offshoots, while dislodged from their long-established bases in the northwest, remain a potent threat and could well regroup in Afghanistan. Sharif will have to push ahead with political and constitutional reforms clarifying the status of FATA, as well as working to repatriate the people who have been displaced by the conflict in the region. The gains Operation Zarb-e-Azb has achieved will likely be squandered if a more comprehensive approach is not taken.

This post originally appeared in ACD News.

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