When the operation in Swat and South Waziristan were conducted in 2009, the battlefield was restricted to these areas only. While the operations had succeeded in ending the domination of these areas by the insurgents, they had failed to prevent them from escaping to other Fata agencies and beyond. Adhering to the tenets of guerilla warfare, the insurgents avoided pitched battles and traded space for time to live to fight another day.

Having regrouped and reorganized, this is precisely what they did with considerable success – raids on GHQ, Mehran Base, Kamra Base, Police Academy in Lahore, Karachi airport etc., ambushes of security forces in Fata and outside. In the process they turned the whole country into a battlefield, despite the operations in Swat and in South Waziristan which were said to have ‘cleared’ these areas of insurgents.

In counter-insurgency, clearing an area implies that the threat has been eliminated, and the only way the threat can be eliminated is to eliminate those who constitute the threat. This, the two operations had failed to do, since the strategy employed in both was space- oriented, not elimination-oriented. Had the latter strategy been employed, the insurgency, and terrorism (employed as a weapon to create despondency and a sense of insecurity in people), could have been comprehensively eliminated.

In conventional war, the capture of the critical space of the enemy constitutes success. In counter-insurgency, elimination achieves that purpose. It is only then that the writ of the state can be truly established, but when the insurgents escape the drag-net, they constitute a ‘threat in being.’ In the event, the army would be drawn into a protracted war which the country cannot afford for a number of reasons. One, it would signify failure of the operation which could plunge the people into despair; two, the army’s image could take a nosedive; three, the terrorists would be seen as larger-than-life fighters; four, it could have an adverse effect on the soldiers in the same way a protracted guerilla war had on American soldiers in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, and Indian soldiers in Occupied Kashmir; five, it would have a detrimental effect on the country’s fragile economy which would invariably bring the people under greater pressure; six, it would provide opportunities to those powers who do not wish Pakistan well to exploit its tribulations.

It is to be hoped that the army command has resisted the tendency to fight the war in North Waziristan on the pattern of the last war in Swat and South Waziristan. The focal point of the strategy of elimination is the classic counter-insurgency manoeuvre, in which the area chosen for the operation, in a surprise move, is first isolated to prevent exit from and ingress into it, and then the main offensive is launched on a broad front, which is then followed by the two forces (isolating and offensive) alternating as hammer and anvil until strangulation of the insurgents takes place. It is the isolating phase that consumes maximum infantry.

History has proved time and again that under-resourced operations rarely succeed, least of all counter-insurgency operations- cases in point: the French in Indo-China, the Americans in Vietnam, and Pakistan’s Gibraltar Force sent into Occupied Kashmir in early August 1965.

On the other hand, indifferent generalship can make a mess of operations even though the requisite resources are available- cases in point: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Indians in Occupied Kashmir where they enjoy an overwhelming soldier-to-guerilla ratio of nearly 70 to 1; in 1965 the Indian 1 Corps had traversed only seven miles in 21 days in Ravi-Chenab corridor, in 1971, eight miles in 14 days, despite their massive numerical superiority; Pakistan’s counter- offensive by the First Armoured Division in 1965.

North Waziristan Agency (NWA) is 1817 sq miles in area – a mass of rugged hills and mountains, cliffs, ravines and defiles; the roads are few and moving on these is vulnerable to interdiction. It shares a 150 km border with the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktia. Among the nearly 600,000 people who mostly reside in the valleys (most of them now IDPs), lived thousands of insurgents of different hues, most of whom, due to loss of the element of surprise, have reportedly relocated to the mountains in the agency, in the adjoining Afghan provinces, and other Fata agencies; perhaps even in some urban areas, leaving small stay-behind parties in NWA to harass the army.

It is to be hoped that the reports about the relocation of the main enemy (TTP and affiliates) are wrong. One would like to believe the ISPR when it says that the enemy has been surrounded in NWA. What, however, is not clear is how the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, the Haqqani group, and the Afghan Taliban will react to the operation as it progresses.

While NWA would be a hard nut to crack, crack it will, and hopefully lead to the elimination of the terrorists once and for all. This of course, presupposes that the operation is fully resourced, planned and directed by skilled generalship, and carried out with a spirit of enterprise. And the soldiers of the Pakistan army are certainly enterprising.

Finally, the NWA operation is likely to be followed by a backlash in the country’s urban areas by the terrorists reportedly lying low in these regions. One would like to believe that the civil and military leadership and their intelligence services have absorbed the lessons of so many security failures in the past and instituted appropriate measures for the security of a multitude of Vulnerable Areas and Vulnerable Points across the country.

These, however, are defensive measures; the war must be carried to the terrorists in these areas by conducting intelligence based raids, spearheaded by elements of the SSG (specialists also in anti-terror ops), with the Rangers and the so-called elite police units in support. When a new front is opened, the rear areas have to be secured to free the people from despondency and instil a sense of security in them.

Fate has placed the destiny of Pakistan in the hands of its army. It has fought a brutal enemy programmed by religious pseudo with great élan in the past. It is now fighting a battle that will have to be comprehensively won – the battle for Pakistan.