While much of the world seems to be fighting a losing battle against terrorism, Pakistan has adopted a strategy over the past 20 months that has achieved unprecedented results. Nation’s exemplary successes are attributed to Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, who has unleashed the Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet (PBUH)) on the extremists and terrorists. It is due to his great valiance and bravery that General has been the most-talked-about man in Pakistan during the past two years or so. His popularity has soared to such an extent that many Pakistanis are urging the government to give him an extension as COAS. Recently, the BBC reported that Sharif was the most popular person in Pakistan.
Terrorism has been the most festering nuisance for Pakistan in the recent decades. It has plagued the nation with numerous ills and has devoured the lives of thousands of Pakistani security personnel and the civilians alike. In the recent past, Pakistan was seen as a country that nurtures and provides safe havens to terrorist elements. These terrorists had used Pakistani territory to target its population. Although there has been a plethora of efforts and initiatives to rid the country of this menace, yet the most decisive blow to these bestial elements has been Operation Zarb-e-Azb. With the vision of and strategy implemented by Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, the country has seen a substantial decline in terrorist incidents.
It is Sharif’s effectiveness at getting things done, and his commitment to a “terror-free Pakistan”, that has won him accolades across the political spectrum. When he assumed the office of the COAS from his predecessor General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, General Raheel Sharif was faced with a monumental challenge in form of terrorism that had made the lives of the Pakistanis miserable. When he took charge, terrorist attacks within the country were at an all-time high, and prospective tourists to Pakistan were regularly issued warnings by their respective governments or travel agencies of the high risk of being kidnapped by the Taliban.
General Sharif took the initiative and started efforts to eliminate terrorism and extremism from the Pakistani soil. His plan of action would include a multi-pronged approach with a National Action Plan, supported by the political leadership of the country. At the heart of his strategy was Operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after the sword of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which was conceived as a concept, not only as an operation. Sharif issued guidelines for the military campaign that would be centred on the indiscriminate elimination of terrorists, which would involve the use of selective, yet effective force, including precision air strikes.
Independent media that was engaged with Sharif when he visited South Africa to speak about Operation Zarb-e-Azb last year and more recently that interviewed his spokesperson, Lieutenant-General Asim Salim Bajwa, in Islamabad who said, “Our objective has been to eliminate terror without discrimination and to attack the entire chain of the terrorist networks – from sleeper cells to facilitators, to financiers.”
“Our challenge remains that we share a border of 2600km with Afghanistan, and terrorists slip across the border, which requires us to improve our border management – which is not ideal, he added,” he added.
But despite the obvious challenges, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has achieved remarkable results, especially in the tribal agencies which harbour the highest concentration of terrorist networks. The first target of the Operation was North Waziristan (NW), an outlying area which is largely underdeveloped with rugged terrain, that became an obvious choice for terrorist networks to base themselves. Within less than two years, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been able to bring 89 percent of the area under control, and dismantle key terrorist networks such as the Haqqani network, Daesh and their affiliates, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The human cost totalled over 118 Pakistani officers and soldiers killed, 398 injured and more than 2 000 terrorists killed.
Last month, Sharif announced the last phase in Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, in order to “clear the remnants of terrorists from their hideouts”. The deeply-forested ravines in the area serve as the frequent infiltration routes for terrorists between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have remained, according to Sharif, the last bastion of terrorism in the area. The aim of the last phase of the operation is to isolate them and sever their links with abettors elsewhere.
The Pakistani military seem to have succeeded where 11 years of US drone strikes could make a minimal impact in eradicating terrorist networks. These strikes began during the administration of US president George W. Bush and have increased substantially under President Barack Obama. These attacks have been referred to in the media as “the drone war”.
The other area that has been a key focus of the operation is the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan connected through the Khyber Pass. Since September 11, 2001, the province has been a major theatre of militancy and terrorism.
Under Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military has managed to bring 87 percent of the territory under control and dismantled the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Lashkar e Islam (LI), Daesh and its affiliates. A total of 900 terrorists were killed in the operation.
While the casualties have been high, the military managed to recover 253 metric tonnes of explosives from both NW and KP, which had the potential to kill 134,000 civilians.
One of the criticisms of the operation has been that those apprehended are interrogated as a matter of course, and hardened criminals processed through military courts. There have also been significant civilian casualties, but supporters of the campaign say the sacrifices have been worth the significant reduction in terrorism.
The third major focus of Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, which was, in the recent past, infamous for its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. It is also the country’s financial capital of 23.5 million people.
The city has been ravaged by a criminal underworld and networks of Islamist militants who have engaged in targeted killings and extortion rackets. Sharif sent in the Sindh Rangers to address terrorism and crime in Karachi. The Sindh Rangers are a specialised paramilitary force of military officers who are better trained and equipped than the police and military forces.
Since June 2014, the Rangers have conducted 7000 operations and apprehended 12000 terrorists and facilitators. The effect of this successful campaign was that there has been a 70 percent decline in targeted killings, an 85 percent decline in extortion, a 90 percent decline in kidnapping and a 37 percent decline in murder and terrorism. While Karachi had been experiencing an average of 250 incidents a month prior to the operation, the current average number of incidents has been brought down to below 10.
The security crackdown on Islamist militants and criminals by the Rangers has brought recorded crimes down sharply. The resultant new-found confidence among home buyers has sent property prices in Karachi soaring. Property prices jumped 23 percent last year to a record high, outpacing the national average of 10 percent. The primary detractors of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Karachi have been the dominant political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), who claim the operation is a witch-hunt against them.
Posters and billboards have sprouted up across Pakistan with Sharif’s image, thanking him for his successful efforts countrywide. On social media, the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif has become so popular that the satirical publication the Khabaristan Times announced that it trended even in some small African countries.
While Sharif has not made any noises about entering politics in Pakistan, his startling success in making strides towards winning the war on terror in Pakistan may result in increasing calls for him to vie for political office. So far Sharif has shown great respect for the separation of politics from military affairs, even if some heads of state end up spending more time with him on state visits, as was the case in the recent visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.