North Waziristan is under international spotlight for holing up of a large number of hardened militants, combatants, criminals and terrorists. It also houses a portion of the Haqqani network. The Haqqanis have never identified themselves as an autonomous entity; they present themselves as part of the Afghan resistance under their ‘Ameer’ - Mullah Omar. 

Alongside usual brinkmanship, America has been making a concerted effort for a face-saving rapprochement with the Haqqanis. The US is willing not only to engage the group in talks, but is also ready to accommodate it by giving it an important role in the future political setup of Afghanistan. It is also ready to hand over the control of three Afghan provinces to the Haqqanis, if they agree to withdraw their support for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. “Neither the Americans nor Pakistanis can completely defeat the Haqqani network.......We are ready for talks - but the problem is that the Haqqanis are really not forthcoming.......Therefore, we have no option, but to use force against them,” opined a senior American military official. This is not the first time that America wants to entice the Haqqanis. Following the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Haqqanis were offered top positions, however, they opted to go along with Mullah Omar. They are considered crucial for the success of the Taliban insurgency.

The top US military official has acknowledged that the network is posing a real threat. “The Taliban use IEDs, but the Haqqanis have the ability and capability to cause the maximum damage to the foreign forces in Afghanistan,” he said. The Americans acknowledge that Pakistan’s reluctance to go after the Haqqani network is linked to its fear of a strong backlash and not necessarily because it considers the group as its proxy.

The Pakistan Army effectively controls nearly 80 percent of Fata, 15 percent is still the contested area and remaining five percent (North Waziristan) is under the control of militants of all shades. As a series of military operations were conducted by Pakistani army in the adjoining areas of North Waziristan Agency (NWA), all those who could escape, have ended up in NWA.  They are a formidable force, well armed, committed and tightly organised. Nevertheless, to club together all that is in Waziristan and brand it as Haqqanis would be an oversimplification. Over the recent years, the Haqqanis have been incrementally consolidating their position inside Afghanistan. As of now, they have an effective hold over at least seven provinces. Hence, their critical dependence to hang out to North Waziristan has declined.

During earlier military operations by the Pak Army in Fata, the Isaf did not extend a helping hand by sealing their side of the border. Instead before each sub-operation, the Isaf was seen as reducing its presence along the Pak-Afghan border, thus allowing free and safe movement of militants into Afghanistan and back. This helped the militants to rest, re-arm and re-enter. This time Pakistan has communicated that the operation would be conducted only if the Nato/Isaf seals off the border, while remaining on their side. However, Isaf’s ability and will to deploy sufficient troops on the Afghan side of the border is rather doubtful.

Frenzy about military operation in NWA that had picked its momentum once again is nearing a fizzle. What started with US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s statement that he was pleasantly surprised that the Pakistan Army appeared ready to conduct an operation in North Waziristan was soon overtaken by the controversy of “joint” versus “coordinated” operations. Joint operations meant American boots on the ground! However, after General Mattis’ visit, it was explained that the US troops will operate on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, while the Pakistani army operates on their territory.

Nevertheless, due to the complexities involved, the pattern is of one step forward and two backwards. Reports of military operation in NWA caused a lot of panic among the locals, who began fleeing the area in large numbers, thus rendering thousands of people as IDPs. Though the army and the local political administration announced that there will be no operation, both did not have enough credibility to have their word accepted. Denials only added to confusion and fed the rumour mill.

The idea of joint operations also did not go down well with the public, therefore, the Pakistan Army has ruled out this option, while maintaining that an operation might be launched when necessary. Likewise, the American side has also pulled back from the brink. USA’s Deputy Ambassador Richard Hoagland has recently said: “We can make strong requests, we can give advice, we can seek cooperation, but we cannot make a demand on a sovereign nation.”

Even if a military operation actually materialises this time, it will only buy temporary respite and will cause more internal strife in Pakistan. At best, it would be a tactical success, as strategic gains would be neutralised by the losses suffered due to backlash in the heartland of the country. The safe havens will move and emerge somewhere else. The operation is likely to widen the war and engulf Pakistan in it more thoroughly and severely. The Pakistan Army has declared that it will abide by the directions of the government and national imperatives on this issue.

However, the opposition leader, PTI and JUI Chiefs have announced their staunch opposition to any military operation in NWA. This divide warrants that there must be a nationwide debate culminating to a consensus on how to proceed with this war from now onwards. The formulation of a withdrawal strategy from this open-ended war is long overdue.

All states party to the Afghan conflict concede that the war needs to end sooner rather than later. The difference of opinion is whether the end will come in the form of a decisive victory, or a ceasefire, or a complete withdrawal of the US troops. Victory parameters need to be specifically defined. However, for sure, the conflict will not end with a decisive win for any side. Whether Pakistan should launch military operation in NWA or not has long been a sensitive issue between the GHQ and Pentagon. 

During the ongoing ‘yes-no’ hypes about this military operation, one thing has clearly emerged - that there is no national consensus about the ownership of this war. Only a segment of leadership owns it, the remaining segment does politics on it; and the public does not even associate with it. Apparently, the effort is being put in without a clear vision, mission and strategy. The war is being fought on a day-to-day basis, with the emerging reality that ‘the only easy day was yesterday’.  For America, time for a negotiated settlement is running out fast. For Pakistan, entanglement is becoming suffocating. It is, indeed, an unfortunate state of affairs.

 The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.