Image Courtesy: ISPR

Lahore: Pakistan is fighting a war against terrorism for a couple of years now. Various operations were launched to counter this menace in different areas of Pakistan. The Operation Zarb e Azb (Op ZeA), which was launched in Waziristan region of FATA after the Karachi airport attack of 2014, is the latest in this series; when in June 2014 the Army went for an offensive in North Waziristan to wipe out terrorists and their hideouts. The operation resulted in a large amount of weapons, explosives, propaganda material and suicide jackets being recovered, and a large number of terrorists killed and a number of soldiers embracing martyrdom.After the APS Peshawar attack on 16 December 2014, the action against terrorists gained momentum and the government arranged an All Parties Conferenceto make a National Action Plan against Terrorism. Although the NAP is still to be fully implemented, the Zarb-e-Azb is being carried out with full dedication and plan.

To find out about the current national political and military scenario, we interviewed Air Marshal (Retired) Shahid Latif a defense and strategy analyst, to solicit his views on this as the first year of Op ZeA has just passed. We also talked of his initial days in the Pakistan Air Force speaks and his career, how he sees ZeA and the future of this region.

We started by asking about his motivation leading to winning the Sword of Honor on graduation. Air Marshal Shahid Latif said that since childhood he was always an individual who would pursue his goals wholeheartedly and aimed for reaching the top. He is aself-made man, and no one from his family was in the armed forces before him. He dedicated himself to the task at hand, kept working hard and ultimately achieved nearly all his goals, which he attributes to hard work, Allah’s blessings, and parents prayers. This led to his not only getting the Sword of Honor but also performing outstandingly well in academics, the two areas where cadets are judged. He thus not only got the Gold Medal in BSc in the PAF academy, but also walked away with the Sword of Honor, the two big awards one can achieve at the time of graduation.

When asked about his various important positions in the PAF, especially as the Vice Chief of Air Staff, and how his decisions had an impact on the force and the nation, he said that before being appointed the Vice Chief of Air Staff, he was the Chief Project Director the proud project that Pakistan handled called the JF 17 Thunder Project, as we know this is a fighter aircraft that Pakistan made in collaboration with China and he led this project from the Pakistani side.

He continued to say that today the JF 17Thunder aircraft is the pride of the nation. It was a national project and it was run on national funding and national support, just like Pakistan’s nuclear project. As PD he had the power to run it autonomously, independently and in a record time of two and a half years a fighter airplane was put in the air and it is now considered the front line aero plane in the world, and is participating in all the air shows. A few customers have booked the plane and it is going to make a huge contribution in the economy of the country. He said no Air Force in the world had ever participated in an aircraft design and development program, so this is an exception. He said his second very important assignment was as Deputy Chief or Air Staff (Operations); which he considers was even more important than the VCAS position. In this position some decisions are made (like the position of the CGS in the Army who virtually runs the Army show, including its operations and even its procurement). Similarly the DCoS (Operations) does the same things, and it is a very vital appointment.

Moving on the VCAS appointment, he said it operates at the national level, and the incumbent is included at the national leveldecision making, with contribution from the office of the Vice Chief, and office of the DCAS Operations. Since there is a lot of inter-services interaction that goes on from both of these offices, he said he was satisfied with the role and decisions that were made at the national level, and he was part of. He said made his contribution and by the grace of Allah, those decisions turned out to be successful.

About operation Zarb e Azb which is an important issue with factions in society which believe that talks and not operations should have been the way forward and also that when launched it was launched late. AM Shahid said, that those who feel that Op ZeA should have been launched earlier were forgetful of the fact a number of operations were launched in FATA areas for very a long time, and nearly seven out of those eight or nine zones were cleared. North Waziristan being the most difficult to operate in was intentionally pended, so that we could take care of some of the other zones and then finally deal with it and ensure our effort and concentration goes into this operation wholeheartedly.

He agreed that some conditions in NWA were deteriorating with the passage of time; the option to open up this big front along with the other fronts was better delayed than done earlier. This was also perhaps done as we did not have the resources to deal with all of the fronts simultaneously so I don’t think our decision to deal with it at this point in time was incorrect. He agreed that we suffered due to the delay yet these are some of the compulsions that one has to face in taking big decisions.

When asked if he was satisfied on the way Op Zarb e Azb was being executed and how much of the area has been cleared without discrimination he said, that one year down the line the Army stands tall in saying that yes they have handled it, and handled it successfully; the success has been of the magnitude that the whole world is now acknowledging this, and saying the operations were impartial, unbiased and Pakistan did not cater for any good or bad Taliban. This led to the dismantling of all networks regardless of whether they had a past with Pakistan or not; and the whole world has appreciated this. In the span of one year the biggest network of extremists and terrorists has been taken care of the, and hopefully this is going to pay dividends in the long run.

To a question about negotiations with the Taliban has been a controversial topic, which seemed at times to dividethe society drastically, he disagrees with those who thought that negotiations were the right way forward. He said that when the current government took over they gave full one year for negotiations and tried their utmost to bring the Taliban on the table. However it was seen that this was not going to work. He said that even then he was a very strong opponent of this approach, and kept saying that with people who have a very different mentality, no peace agreement can take place through negotiations, and only force is the answer; even if negotiations had to be held, the use of force to cut them down to size, soften them, condition them and them bring them to the table approach should have been used. However the manner of trying to bring them to the table made them appearbigger than the state, so it was bound to fail, and it failed. And ultimately today, it is proved that we just wasted that one year. He said that in his opinion if there was any waste of time it was that one year and not before that.

We then asked him about the use of the PAF in Op ZeA, as it is generally accepted that the air force is more of a strategic and area target weapon rather than for individual target acquisition, for which gun ship helicopters are better suited he agreed with this and said that individual targets are better handled by the gunships; however we should keep in mind that gunships are vulnerable to ground attack, surface to air weapons and now that it is known that the terrorists definitely had support from some foreign agencies; so being mindful of that and to avoid any attrition, the operations were led by the air force. Since the air force aircraft can fly and deliver their load from a high altitude he was of the opinion that the air force was used very well, very successfully, and the operation was mixed by using fighter aero planes and gunships helicopters to deliver.

The operational requirements have recently led to Pakistan putting in a demand for Viper helicopters from the UAS, which is better suited than the Cobra gunships we currently have, in such operations; the cobra helicopters can go up to a certain altitude, and above that are ineffective. So a wide area in NWA is at high altitude where these terrorists escape and hiding in, therefore to deal with those high altitudes we need a better gun ship, so the demand for procuring Viper helicopters. Also now we are using drones that are being fitted with battle hardware, and we have already successfully already carried out experiment of missile delivery by drones. That is a capability that the United States Air Force has; so with these drones coming into operation and Viper helicopters being procured by Pakistan the forces will gain mastery even in high altitude operations. So we see that the air force will always continue to play a leading role, as they are very effective, and lethal, the weapons that they carry are more effective than the gunship helicopters. Softening of the enemy will continue to play a decisive and leading role; and along with that with better gunship helicopters and drones the military will be better able to take care of any such requirements in future operations.

When asked about the delay in the ending of the operation and if the timeline had been extended in view of ground resistance etc, he once again replied in the negative and putting the record straight said that first of all, no timeline was given for Operation Zarb e Azb even when many people were insisting that on a timeline. So while there was a roadmap, there wasno timeline. Precisely for the reason that it was a very difficult operation, and done in a very difficult terrain, and not being sure of the capability that the terrorist had achieved and it was seen and discovered that there was a complete weapons manufacturing industry in those areas; there were tunnels dug underground for their safety and protection. So it has been a very tough operation, as such giving a timeline is such operations is not a very wise idea.However that one year down the line, nearly 80 to 90 percent of the area has been recaptured, speaks very high of the dedication and planning that went into conducting the Zarb e Azb.

He said Zarb e Azb actually has two parts, one is the military operation, and the second is the civil administrations part of resettling the IDPs. There were questions on this second aspect and if at all the timeline is getting long it is because of the civil administrations part, therefore everyone is saying that the government must come into action, and not only resettle the people, they have to take over the administration of the area. He said Swat is an example where even today the armed forces were performing the civil administration duties, which is incorrect as embroiling the troops in a task other than fight, evacuate the area, hand over to the civil administration, and have the civil administration establish its control. He said this is a weak area and here the performance has not been up to the mark, so he urged the government to take charge so that the complete timeline which obviously includes military operation, and resettling of the IDP’s, can be brought a little short, and ultimately the armed forces can leave the area handing it over to the civil administration.

Given the current political situation on the country, and the calls from different quarters for the Army to come forward and play a decisive role in creating a semblance of good governance and administration in the country he replied, that first of all he had never been a great supporter of military takeovers in Pakistan, and wanted to kill that right in the beginning, then having said that, he said if we look at the past and see when the military intervened, we see that it intervened when the civil or the political government failed to satisfy people the. That is sadly true today as well, and that at this point in time is also what is happening. He agreed that as for the conditions today there is a huge failure of administration, and governance in the country, there is corruption galore over here, the evil of terrorism was uncontrolled, which through military operations we are trying to overcome, there is nepotism here, facilities of life like water, like electricity, like education, like health facilities are missing, so there is a resentment among public and this is now being openly said that the government has failed in all the different facets of governance.

And this frustration ultimately leads to people coming out and openly saying that the armed forces of this country have a responsibility towards internal and external security. So when people are living a miserable life, they are not secure, they ask why are the armed forces are not taking action? So this is more or less being heard again.

He believes that take over by the armed forces is not really the solution and over the last two years; and even during the earlier five years of PPP’s government the armed forces remained away from politics, although the performance of the government was well below the mark and rather poor. The military did not intervene, and now in the two years of this current government the armed forces are sitting at a distance; yes they have been active in helping the governmentwhether it is during floods, earth quake, in areas suffering from drought like Thar, the armed forces have always come up and done things normally their work as all these tasks fall under the civil administration, but unfortunately when they fail, the armed come and fill that vacuum.

Even the operation in Karachi is not the domain of the Rangers or the armed forces; it is in the domain of the civil administration and the civil law enforcement agencies. But knowing the condition of the police who can hardly tackle any situation, you once again see rangers in action in Karachi. And the latest is that even their progress, is being hampered by political forces, and we know such operations suffer resistance from the political forces. So these are some developments that don’t look very healthy.

However he said that overall he still feels that the government must take charge; in order not to repeat our past history they must perform, they must deliver, and that is the only way that people will support them, otherwise just winning votes, coming to power, spending five years, mot looking after people, is not the way to support democracy.

He was of the opinion that this is not democracy, it may be called democracy, but actually we are not helping people, we are not looking after them. So this was a dangerous situation, in the past it did not yield good results, and if the government does not take charge it might again lead us towards that side.

Since Air Marshal Shahid is invited by various TV Channels as a defence analyst on various TV talk shows, we asked him if he was satisfied with the standard of the debate on these TV shows, and if there should be some sort of training for the Talk Show panelists like it is in many western countries? He said that agreed with this opinion and most of our talk shows were a waste of time as the people who represent different political partiesjust come on the show to defend their own positions; often there are attacks and counter attacks, blaming the others of corruption and the other talking of the corruption of those that have questioned then; they are more interested who was involved in the bigger corruption scandal, bigger mismanagement, bigger inaccuracies, and this makes rarely makes the talk shows meaningful. He agreed to our contention that panelists on the talk shows must be trained, be representatives of the party, and must make the whole activity meaningful. As things stand now they hardly discuss matters in the true spirit and they never give any solution. While the talk shows are expensive in terms of finances, air time and so many premiums, these are actually wasted. He said the media should frame some rules and regulation governing the conduct of the participants and the panelists, and those who do not come up to the agreed level or do not have the reputation of meeting those requirements, should not be invited to the talk shows.

Our final question was to ask Air Marshal Shahid to say something about the conditions prevailing in the country and what message he would like to give the readers. He started the answer by referring to the fact that he would like relate the national situation to the international situation, as we do not exist in isolation. Anything happening in the world today is connected with other events. He related happenings far away from Pakistan to the situation that prevails inside the country. This is true as Pakistan today is faced with a very precarious situation; with the threat of terrorism for over a decade, our fighting a war against terrorism, slowly and gradually, Pakistan has come to be termed as the hub of terrorism; not only that there are international agencies involved in fighting a proxy warfare on our soil. Pakistan’s eastern neighbor being number one in that race, and now there are open statements to prove how RAW has been involved in funding various organizations here, and in training people to spread terrorism and to kill people in Pakistan.

Today Pakistan stands at a very dangerous juncture. On the other hand there are some openings for Pakistan to do better in all spheres; the biggest one of them being the China-Pakistan cooperation in terms of a trade route that is being built through Pakistan towards Gawadar. That is a huge push development and we talking of something like 46 billion dollars of investment; he asked where that investment would be made? Obviously no would gamble in a place with law and order problem and lacks peace; and such a huge investment can go waste.

The prerequisite for that and any other investment is that we become normal, regain peace in the region, and actually eliminate terrorism; we improve our governance, the people should be satisfied with the way the government is performing, because if that doesnot happencan be protests etc., leading to a replay of the sittings by two parties mainly PTI in Islamabad for long which was a state of protest and the business of the whole country suffered.

So all of these issues must be addressed, and as he said Pakistan is passing through a very crucial phase, on one hand there are huge opportunities and openings, while on the other there are internal challenges that are equally challenging and hard. Therefore it is incumbent upon the government to handle these in the larger national interest so that Pakistan can benefit from those opportunities and once and for all take a gigantic leap towards improving its economy, which has always been a question mark; improving law and order situation; and taking a huge step in terms of progress and development for Pakistan.

The message is that we must look at the overall situation, relate it to the national and international scene, and accordingly work out an agenda both internal and external and follow it strictly so that we can take out Pakistan from the so called mess, the word that we used in our question.