ISLAMABAD - The state of civil-military relations is a perennial question that swirls around in Pakistan. After the military announced launching of the offensive in North Waziristan last Sunday, the usual question inevitably surfaced again.
There was speculation that the military finally leaned on the civilian government. Some opposition politicians speculated that the civilian government was not fully onboard.
The fact that Prime Minister Sharif gave a policy statement about the offensive a day later was also construed as an indication of the civil government’s reluctant nod for the final go-ahead.
On Thursday, in a special briefing to editors and media owners in Islamabad, senior civilian and military officials stressed that the civilian government and the military were “on the same page” - and even though the government had shown preference for peace talks, the continued terror attacks by the militants and their incalcitrant demands forced the breakdown of the peace process.
Senator Pervaiz Rashid, the minister for information, was especially emphatic about the point. “National security institutions are obedient to civil governments,” the minister said. “National security institutions have their own assessments, analyses and suggestions for solutions but the final decision lies with the political government.”
The minister for information, in an oblique manner, criticised media for creating an impression that the two institutions were continuously at loggerheads and that one was trying to dictate the other.
Background interviews with aides to the prime minister reveal that it was PM Sharif who felt compelled to discard a dysfunctional dialogue process after the militants attacked Karachi’s international airport.
Finally, the patience of a usually patient prime minister had run out.
North Waziristan, the treacherous mountainous redoubt that has long been used to stage terror attacks inside the country, needed to be snatched from the trammels of the militants and brought back into the national fold.
“North Waziristan is the last hub,” said Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistani military, at the briefing. “It is the centre of gravity of the militants.”
The nature of the terrain, the 180-mile-long porous border with Afghanistan and the gradual decay of government writ in the region makes it a formidable challenge to the security forces.
Another challenge is the blowback that would be felt in the major urban centres when the fighting gets intense and ground troops move ahead to towns that have militant presence.
“I would call it a war,” Abdul Qadir Baloch, the minister for SAFRON and a retired lieutenant general, who was also present at the briefing, warned. “It will be fought in every corner of the country. The whole nation has to stand united.”
Mr. Baloch has been tasked by the prime minister to oversee the arrangements for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as they trickle out of North Waziristan, which has a population of roughly 500,000 people, into neighbouring regions.
“The security situation in the country remains uncertain with the possibility of blowback,” Maj. Gen. Bajwa said.
Military officials are averse to sharing operational details or timeline for the offensive but in a brief sketch point out that in the first phase of the operation, strangulation and encirclement of militants inside North Waziristan will be carried out. At the same time, counterterrorism operations (CT Ops) have been launched in major cities to arrest militant leadership.
“Ground clearance in North Waziristan hasn’t started yet,” Maj. Gen. Bajwa said.
Military officials stress that Pakistan Air Force jet airstrikes have been accurate and are being carried out with most caution, so as to avoid as much collateral damage as possible.
In the initial phase of the airstrikes, hideouts of Uzbek militants, who are mostly holed up in Boya Degha and Shawal valley, have been targeted.
“We are using minimum essential yet effective force,” Maj. Gen. Bajwa said and stressed that troops have been trained to ensure there are no human rights violations, perhaps mindful of the criticism that came after the 2009 Swat military operation.
Pakistani officials also emphasised that even though U.S. administration has urged for long to undertake North Waziristan offensive, yet the timing and the scale of the current operation was decided solely by the government here.
Western officials have long accused the Pakistani intelligence apparatus of providing support to Haqqani Network and it remains a contentious issue that continues to be an irritant in the relations with the United States.
Skepticism remains high whether the Haqqanis or other militants, who have signed peace deals with the military, would be targeted in the latest offensive and there are reports that much of the militant leadership has already melted away, making use of the time provided by the peace talks.
But senior Pakistani officials insist that no distinction would be made between local and foreign fighters and only those militants who lay down their weapons and renounce violence will escape the military dragnet.
“Terrorists of all hue and colour” will be targeted, insisted the army spokesman. “Once troops move in, you cannot afford any confusion and make any distinction.”
During Thursday’s briefing, Pakistani officials also stressed (again) that the renewal of U.S. drone strikes in the tribal region does not have the approval of the Pakistani government and is unrelated to the current military offensive.
“This does not help in our operation at all,” Maj. Gen. Bajwa said, referring to the drone strikes.
US drone strike last Thursday in North Waziristan targeted members of the Haqqani network and American officials have indicated that they would continue to target the Haqqanis.
“If they have to target the Haqqanis, they should do it across the border,” Maj. Gen. Bajwa said.
Pakistani officials said that they have reached out to the Afghan government to enhance security across the border. Another request has been made to block Afghan SIMs under the use of militants in North Waziristan.
The government officials also urged the media not to glorify terrorists. How media were doing so remained a moot point.
The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation, in Islamabad