After having stayed with the dialogue option for almost eight months, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has finally gone for the long-awaited operation. Cleared by the government, using airpower, regular troops, commandoes, intelligence, tanks and artillery, the military leadership believes Operation Zarbe Azb can destroy terrorist sanctuaries principally in North Waziristan. For at least a decade, first the military command and subsequently the political leaders avoided undertaking a large scale operation in the Tehreek-i-Talibaan’s (TTP) primary base.

Over the last couple of years, the political parties passed at least two consensus resolutions demonstrating political unity on trying the dialogue option with the Tehreek-i-Talibaan Pakistan (TTP). Finally, the June 8 attack on the old Karachi airport ended the vacillation on the question of a large-scale operation and struck the death knell for the consensus dialogue process. Instead of the if’s and but’s of an all-out operation, Zarbe Azb is underway.

Among the multiple challenges that confront Pakistan and the government especially with regard to the operation, four are noteworthy. Of the four key challenges , the political challenge of unifying political forces and the people on the need of the operation is key especially given the fear of blowback in urban areas. Pakistani people, hit by hundreds of attacks every year have remained skeptical of the state’s ability to provide security to its citizens. Mindful of both the terrorist threat and the skepticism regarding the government’s track record, only a clear articulation of the problem by the Prime Minister will give the people the confidence that the risks attached to this military operation are worth taking. The Prime Minister opted for the military’s public relations department to announce the operation instead of announcing it in a national address. But the operation requires complete backing by the government, and the Prime Minister’s support only now seems to be rolling in. He has addressed the National Assembly on the issue and visited the Corps Headquarters of the Peshawar Corps, which is leading the operation.

However, in the last ten days, between the horrifying killings of 20 PAT workers and the dramatic and disruptive arrival of self-proclaimed revolutionary Dr Tahir ul Qadri, grave challenges rose for the PML(N) governments. A worse political distraction at this critical point could have hardly been conceivable.

There is the challenge of protecting the urban areas where terrorists have shown their lethal presence through thousands of attacks over the last few years. Schools, shopping centres, mosques, churches, burial processions, dargahs, prime military, police and intelligence facilities have centres. Deadly attacks on politicians, generals and police personnel clearly signal to the ability of the terrorists’ presence within the urban centers. There is a red alert warning in our key cities. The government has deployed military and paramilitary forces in several towns. People realize that fool-proof security against terrorist attacks is almost impossible.

The third internal challenge is linked to the outflow of civilians from the from the operation area. In an effort to reduce civilian casualties, the government and the military are both encouraging civilians to vacate the operations’ area. More than five hundred thousands civilians are already moving out. Issues ranging from providing food and shelter as well as security, all require elaborate government arrangements. The chances of terrorists getting camouflaged within these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is also a serious issue.

Finally the challenge on the external front is the Afghan factor. With TTP sanctuaries in the areas of Kunar and Nooristan and the established routes to the north of Bajaur, TTP militants are using them to conduct operations in Pakistan. Already, militant leaders who escaped to Afghanistan after the 2009 Swat operation have settled in the Afghan sanctuaries ever since. Between Kabul and Islamabad, it has been the Fazlullah versus the Haqqani network contest. Islamabad has repeatedly complained against Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies aiding the TTP against Pakistani targets. Pakistan has conveyed its request to the Afghan leadership and to the ISF commanders diplomatically and politically. The Prime Minister’s special envoy leader Mahmud Khan Achakzai met with President Karzai two days ago. Pakistan is requesting that the routes near Bajaur be sealed and there be more effective surveillance. Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Shareef too, in a meeting with the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, has sought Afghan deployment to discourage the militants from crossing over to the Afghan sanctuaries once the operation is begun.

The operation is likely to go into full swing in the next couple of weeks. Until then, the focus is on cordoning the areas and ensuring civilians move out of the area. The corresponding and critical challenge which requires a collective national response, led by the Federal and KPK governments, is facilitating the movement and proving food and shelter for the IDPs. If soldiers are fighting on the frontlines, from Pakistan’s civilian ranks it is these IDPs who are contributing the most and sacrificing; those who left their homes for Zarbe Azb’s success. Meanwhile, all Pakistanis are waiting with caution and concern for the final move to be made, all the while hopeful that a more secure future lies ahead.

The writer is a columnist and senior anchor at Capital TV.

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