The beginning of Operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ in the early hours of Monday morning seemed a response to a militant attack on Karachi Airport a week before the fact. The attack had two elements that were particularly disturbing for the armed forces: not only did it involve an attack on a major communications’ centre, but the attackers included Uzbeks. Allegedly, Indian arms were also recovered, which was a huge red flag for the military.

The presence of the Uzbeks was the most dangerous in meaning. The involvement of foreigners in an operation in Pakistan meant that militancy had moved beyond a struggle between Pakistanis alone, and now involved ‘foreign fighters.’ Another factor, though perhaps not as important, was the possibility of a Turkestani link-up. The Uighurs of Chinese Turkestan have their own movement, which has been active within China, and Pakistan has found it a challenge to maintain relations with China while there have been active Chinese Turkestani militants in Pakistan.

Part of the reason that Chinese Turkestani involvement is feared is the peculiarly close link between the Pakistani military and China symbolized, but by no means limited to, the JF-17 fighter, which China jointly developed with Pakistan. Not only was the development primarily between the two militaries, but it was also China’s only joint project with another country.

It must also be noted that the operation is taking place at a time when the Afghan presidential election’s second round has taken place, and there is about to be a successor to Hamid Karzai taking office. Since the US is also withdrawing most of its troops this year, and both the candidates for President have promised the US the Status of Forces Agreement, it needs to keep troops in Afghanistan. The operation also demonstrates that the Pakistani Army will be able to do what the Afghan National Army might not do: fight and defeat the militants. Militant advances in Iraq show that national armies raised rapidly and tasked with defending national territory after American occupation, are not very effective against armed opposition. While in Iraq, the ISIS took some time to prepare itself for its advance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Taliban are ready to switch their focus from ousting all US troops to taking back the power they lost in 2002.

The Army sees the need for the operation because the talks since the beginning of the year have not yielded results. Apart from Waziristan remaining a hotbed of militancy, the presence of Uzbeks, Arabs and other foreign fighters is also an important factor. The militants do not acknowledge national boundaries, and thus see no problem with one Muslim joining another Muslim’s fight. This is against the very basis of the Pakistan Army, which sees itself as a national Army with a mandate to defend national territory. This is the part of the militants’ ideology, which does not accept the Constitution, because it is based on democracy. It is paradoxical that the Taliban, which is a very parochial body of Pakhtuns, mostly Kandahari Pakhtuns, should espouse such internationalist ideals, but it is virtually an inevitable consequence of adopting Islam as an ideology.

The military should also be satisfied at the support it has received for the operation. All sections of civilian opinion, including all shades of the political leadership, have expressly given support. This must be seen in the context of the military’s political role. Though the operation does not contribute directly to that political role, it does help the military build its image as the ‘saviour institution’ which it has always used to justify its interventions.

It is perhaps worrisome that the military only launched its own operation after the Karachi airport attack, as if it needed public opinion over the need for an offensive. It should not be forgotten that the operation was postponed the last time it was called for, because the military had asked for more time to prepare. Where the militants were using talks for their ends, so was the military.

The talks have not yielded the results sought by the government, which was a general pacification, a reduction in the terror that the government was blaming for the absence of the economic growth it promised to deliver during its election campaign. Will the operation lead to that kind of reduction in violence? There is the danger of a militant blowback, and it should not be ignored that that kind of violence may never be eliminated. Then, there is hostile terrain. The tribal territory was only controlled by the Raj at great cost in both money and fighting resolve. After the 1857 Mutiny, the British found that the Afghan Frontier cost it the most with the hardest fighting. This was because of the hostility of the terrain they faced in the tribal areas. The terrain is one reason for the bellicosity of the local tribes, and why foreigners have treated it as a sanctuary. While the state is ready to leave the locals in peace, it will no longer accept their acting against it out of newly adopted ideological beliefs. To this the tribesmen would say that they have not changed their beliefs at all; they resisted the British because of Islam, and it is Islam that is behind their resistance now.

The Pakistani state is having a difficult time. There is the constant pressure of the War on Terror, created by the US occupation of Afghanistan. So long as there are US troops there, such episodes as Zarb-e-Azb will remain necessary. There is a huge effort to convince Pakistanis that this is ‘our war’, and to a large extent, it has now become our war. Though there is a natural distinction made between Pakistani troops and militants, the fact remains that casualties on both sides are Muslims. That alone makes it ‘our war.’

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

maniazi@nation.com.pk