Operation Zarb-i-Azb was supposed to be the stroke of a magical wand, by which the military was to go into North Waziristan Agency and clear it of militants, including the Haqqani Network and other non-Pakistanis, who were to be killed while their local backers were to surrender. Instead, the public impression has been of the conversion of the population into Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The sheer scale of the problem, with as many as 500,000 people being displaced, has created a myriad of problems, the first being the armed forces needing cooperation from the civilian population on a scale which may well rival that needed during a war. Another problem is that the same people who were worst affected by the militants’ presence are now being made to suffer the brunt of the operation.

The flood of IDPs was not unexpected. However, the scale was not predicted. There were food distribution points set up, but it is safe to say that though the military did engage in meticulous planning, refugees were not a priority ahead of working out how best to defeat the militants. That the creation of IDPs cannot be ignored, was already revealed during the Swat operation, which took place two years ago and is long over, but which has still left IDPs in camps. These people are left genuinely without resources, and have absolutely no alternative to the government’s camps. It seems a safe prediction thus, that the IDPs created by Operation Zarb-i-Azb will not return home for some time.

The underlying concept of the ‘nation in arms’, under which the military operates, requires that people back the military. This may include offering men and resources to the military in times of war. The military is supposed to help people in times of peace, such as during earthquakes and floods, but it has also maintained a kind of veto over security policy, and thus it has kept the civilian arm away from military policy. However, there is need for civilian support in the shape of help for IDPs. This explains why the armed forces have been emphasizing the need for civilian support.

At the same time, there does not seem an agreement on who the IDPs are. Are they accomplices of the militants? Their victims? If the latter, it seems they have paid the price for the entire nation twice over. It was to free them and the rest of the country, that Zarb-e-Azb was launched. However, the operation was preceded by a reversal of policy introduced after Partition. After expanding into the Punjab, the British Raj had spent its energies trying to keep the North-West Frontier quiet. This westward expansion from Calcutta was paralleled by the Russian expansion eastwards, into what are now the Central Asian Republics. The Raj did not absorb Afghanistan, but it wanted to control its foreign policy, most notably by stopping Kabul from receiving any Russian influence. Not only were the tribal areas administered by the central government at Calcutta (later Delhi), rather than the lieutenant-governor (earlier the chief commissioner) at Peshawar, or the governor at Lahore. The Army had a North Western Command headquartered at Rawalpindi. The new country’s Army established its GHQ there, and ultimately the national capital followed suit. One of the two areas accepted by the RAF for imperial policing after World War I was India’s North-West Frontier, with the result that the area was bombed mercilessly. The RAF established an infrastructure in the area which became Air Headquarters, and which has been retained by the PAF as its Rear HQ after its shift to Islamabad. The PAF did not just revive memories in North Waziristan of the USAF, which bombed Afghanistan ruthlessly in 2000 prior to the ousting of the Taliban, but also of the RAF’s attacks on the area before Partition.

Now the operation has entered the ground phase, indicating that the prior use of the PAF was not merely to provide air support, but to act as aerial artillery. One of the biggest powers the Raj had faced in this terrain had been the movement and deployment of artillery. Air resolves that. Air power will not vanish, but will now be used in closer coordination with ground forces, which will now be in a position to call down strikes as required.

The operation’s timing, some months before the US and other NATO forces complete their drawdown this year, and just before the declaration of the result of the Afghan presidential election, indicates that the armed forces are in something of a hurry. The US requires the operation to release aid. Pakistan not only sees it as a requirement to keep the aid flowing, but also as an opportunity for asking for donations. So far, only the UAE has contributed, but the government has turned this too into an opportunity for earning foreign exchange. There could not be a less dignified approach to what is a national tragedy.

It must not be said that the creation of IDPs was an unforeseen cost of the operation. However, is it enough to stop it? It seems it is not. The operation is supposed to be supported because it is conducted by the armed forces, and only after that, is the national interest to be considered. Thus the armed forces have once again regained control of the definition of national security. The question of civilian control becomes a little academic. The men and officers of the armed forces are to carry out the operation because the armed forces have decided that it is necessary. Is it necessary because the militants have struck at Pakistani targets? At military targets? Or because they have been attacking Americans?

The government must balance the interests of its citizens in the operation. Though it cannot stop peaceable citizens being displaced, it has a duty to make sure that the IDPs are not discriminated against on suspicion of having militants in their ranks. It’s bad enough being rendered homeless.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk