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The Politics of Military Operations

Every time the military high command has talked about the need to go after the militants in North Waziristan, apprehensions have increased in the political circles that, perhaps, this operation is being used as a means to create an unstable domestic situation in order to postpone the upcoming elections.

Such speculation has been particularly rife within the PML-N, whose fears of a silent coup have been reinforced by hardliners constantly harping on the theme that the army would do anything to keep Nawaz Sharif out of power. Another senior leader told me two months ago that he smelled ‘deep conspiracy in the talk of North Waziristan operation’ because, he said, ‘this has been deliberately timed with elections. They know that law and order situation can cause the election schedule to be disturbed. Even emergency might have to be imposed. Who knows what might happen then. Why do they (the army) want to do it now?’

No assessment of Pakistan’s present policy towards North Waziristan can be complete without factoring in the complexities of the army’s hot and cold relationship with the civilian leadership. These complexities have had a strong bearing upon the strange no-peace-no-war situation prevailing in this vital part of our western border.

Some domestic considerations that have held back a full-throttle military operation in North Waziristan are easy to describe. These relate to costs, both material as well as that which will inevitably come in the form of a blowback in the country’s urban centres as a reaction to military strikes in the Agency. It is amazing but true that most of the dozens of small and big military operations in Pakistan have never had budgets sanctioned for them at the federal level. There have been in-house assessments of the financial implications by the army, but no separate allocations approved by parliament and presented by the ministry of finance as a separate spending head. The government has always assumed that the army has the necessary flexibility of resources built into its existing defence allocation to roll the tanks or fly the jets against an elusive enemy. That is why, little or no documentation is available to show how much has been actually taken out of national resources to win these long drawn out battles in some of the toughest terrains of the world.

While the military carries its own budgetary exercise and bills the government for reimbursement, there is no special allocation named or claimed by the federal government in its annual budgets of the last five years. This means that while everyone has been shouting from the rooftop about ‘mortal danger’ to Pakistan in the shape of terrorism and the ‘inescapable need to fight terrorists’ there has been no real financial work done to fund the fight. Some of these money matters were resolved because of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) reimbursements, which typically came late, but still did not hold up operational planning because these were eventually paid, even if partially. In case of North Waziristan, funding has been a real issue. The CSF has become unreliable and the federal government does not seem to be in the mood to foot the bill of almost Rs. 40 billion, which could increase if the operation lingers on. Looking after the displaced population and compensating for material damages, lost lives, injured persons, rehabilitation and reconstruction would add more to the bill. Is the government willing to foot the bill? Beyond stale rhetoric of commitment to countering terrorism, no one gives a serious answer. In fact, this question is not even asked anywhere in the power corridors.

 The government has always assumed that the army has the necessary flexibility of resources built into its existing defence allocation to roll the tanks or fly the jets against an elusive enemy. That is why, little or no documentation is available to show how much has been actually taken out of national resources to win these long drawn out battles in some of the toughest terrains of the world.
 The second cost consideration is the TTP’s targeting of business and commercial hubs, assassinating political and religious leadership, besides blowing up vital infrastructure in a bloody spree of coordinated attacks and suicide hits. Can the country afford that? Is the political leadership willing to absorb massive retaliation from the TTP in mainland Pakistan? In private, most of the representatives of the parties that I have spoken with are unwilling to experience another bout of extremist terrorism in their midst. They want North Waziristan cleansed but not at the cost of ruining their homes and disturbing their peaceful lives. This across the board sentiment translates into big strategic impediment: a half-hearted political leadership cannot craft a national consensus on arguably the hardest and the longest of all Fata battles, and the army is unwilling to start the operation without a clear-cut direction and secure lines of public and political support.

In another country, these issues would have been categorised as usual matters of coordination between the civilian and the military wings of the state. After negotiations and adjustments, rough edges of the divergence could have been filed and a united front put in place. But Pakistan’s landscape is bumpy. Here, transparent and focused decision-making is permanently distorted by deep distrust between the civilians and the military. It was in June this year that all plans were supposed to be operationalised to move into North Waziristan but it was always doubtful whether unity of thought and action ‘of the sort that was witnessed in Swat, for example’ could ever be achieved. These doubts proved correct.

Lately, every time the military high command has talked about the need to go after the militants in North Waziristan, apprehensions have increased in the political circles that, perhaps, this operation is being used as a means to create an unstable domestic situation in order to postpone the upcoming elections. Such speculation has been particularly rife within the PML-N, whose fears of a silent coup have been reinforced by hardliners constantly harping on the theme that the army would do anything to keep Nawaz Sharif out of power. Another senior leader told me two months ago that he smelled ‘deep conspiracy in the talk of North Waziristan operation’ because, he said, ‘this has been deliberately timed with elections. They know that law and order situation can cause the election schedule to be disturbed. Even emergency might have to be imposed. Who knows what might happen then. Why do they (the army) want to do it now?’
 The conclusions that most PPP leaders have drawn are not different from those of the PML-N camp ‘apart from rounding up the TTP, the North Waziristan operation can potentially fold up the political system too.
 Such fears have been subdued in the PPP camp but eyebrows were raised, for instance, when on August 14, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani in his Abbottabad speech used unusually harsh language in describing the state of national affairs and in the same breath also spoke of the resolve to fight extremism. The conclusions that most PPP leaders have drawn are not different from those of the PML-N camp ‘apart from rounding up the TTP, the North Waziristan operation can potentially fold up the political system too. Now, whatever chances have been there for the civilians to back a North Waziristan Operation have all dissolved in the heat of suspicion and distrust of the generals’ intentions. The PML-N does not want to back the operation this year, and neither does the PPP for that matter’ an army which would be the final battle against the TTP. It is interesting to note that it is not just the civilians who have been speaking from both sides of their mouths on North Waziristan. The army, despite having prepared and positioned itself for the operation, has had its head in a cloud of doubts. And this is primarily because of the complex and contradictory nature of its engagement with Washington.
By: Syed Talat Hussain

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