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Can Pakistan's new military campaign end militancy?

Haroon Janjua in Islamabad
July 1, 2024

Pakistan has announced a new military operation against armed groups, but observers fear it could exacerbate tensions with the Taliban rulers in neighboring Afghanistan.

Army soldiers and police officers clear the way for ambulances rushing toward a bomb explosion site, at the main entry gate of police offices, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023
Pakistan has witnessed a dramatic increase in violent attacks over the past two yearsImage: Muhammad Sajjad/AP Photo/picture alliance

Pakistan has launched a new military operation aimed at stamping out militancy and tackling a surge in armed violence.  

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's government named the new operation Azm-e-Istehkam, meaning Resolve for Stability in Urdu.

It is the latest in a series of operations that Pakistan's military has launched against militant groups.

The South Asian nation has witnessed a dramatic increase in violent attacks over the past two years.

The attacks have claimed the lives of at least 62 soldiers, including two officers, so far this year. The military said it killed 249 and arrested 396 terrorists in more than 13,000 intelligence-based operations.

Most of these attacks are claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan — an umbrella group of Islamist militant outfits known by the acronym TTP — which has been waging a war against the state to try to overthrow the government.

The TTP wants to run Pakistan as an Islamic state governed by its own harsh interpretation of Islam.

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More cross-border strikes?

The group is ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban, who seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in 2021 as US and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.

Islamabad has since repeatedly accused Kabul of providing them a safe haven on Afghan soil, an allegation the Afghan Taliban has denied.

The mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has long been a hive of Islamist militant groups, including the TPP and the local chapter of the "Islamic State" group.

The TTP unilaterally ended a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in November 2022.

Pakistan's new plan is, therefore, expected to focus on fighters crossing over from Afghanistan.

Defense Minister Khawaja Asif has warned that his military will not hesitate to launch attacks on the territory of Afghanistan. "Nothing is more important than Pakistan's sovereignty," he told a foreign media outlet when asked about the possibility of launching cross-border attacks in Afghanistan to contain militants.

"Indiscriminate action will be taken against the terrorists. Operations will be conducted against anti-state anarchists and religious fanatics, irrespective of their sect or religion," a senior security official, who asked not to be named, told DW.

Maria Sultan, a defense analyst based in Islamabad, told DW that the campaign aims to ensure stability in Pakistan. "The purpose of the operation is to keep the resolve to maintain stability in Pakistan and to address the challenge of increased  acts of terrorist activity in Pakistan."

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Worsening Af-Pak tensions

But some fear the latest military operation could further exacerbate the tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban rulers in Kabul. 

"The timing of this new counter-terror operation reflects a few factors: Pakistan having reached the end of its options when it comes to talks with the TTP and asking the Afghan Taliban to pressure the TTP," Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told DW. 

She pointed out that the attempts to talk to the TTP and put pressure on the group haven't worked.

In March, Pakistan launched rare airstrikes inside Afghanistan, targeting the suspected hideouts of Pakistani militant groups.

The strikes killed eight people and prompted Afghan forces to return fire on the border.

Afzal pointed to the Taliban's assertion that they would view Pakistan's attacks on Afghan soil as "a violation of their sovereignty."

"This will exacerbate tensions with the group and make Pakistan's western border increasingly troubled," she noted.

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Ex-PM Imran Khan opposes military operation 

Not everyone in Pakistan is in favor of the military campaign.

Pakistan's jailed former prime minister, Imran Khan, said last week that he opposed any new military operation in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the country.

He also directed his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to stand against it.

The PTI currently governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the provincial level.

"Imran Khan opposed any new military operation in any part of the country, and he directed that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government would not become part of any decision related to the new military operation," Ali Amin Gandapur, the province's chief minister, told reporters outside the jail, after meeting Khan on Monday.

A senior PTI leader, speaking to DW on the condition of anonymity, said the military would find it challenging to carry out the operation.

"The real issue is: Will the military be able to create a consensus on this?" the PTI leader said. "Apparently, the whole leadership of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa rejected the military operation, so it would be difficult to execute it."

Osama Malik, a political commentator and constitutional expert, sounded skeptical about the campaign's potential for success.

"In a province where the military already has a very low approval rating, this could lead to the operation failing its objectives," he said. 

"The lack of support from the PTI government could also mean that the federal government may have to impose governor rule in that province," Malik said, "which could also lead to political workers coming out onto the streets to protest, causing further chaos."

But Sultan, the defense analyst, stressed that "a push at the federal level is required and is likely to be accepted by all provinces as the aim is to secure the people of Pakistan against terrorism."

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Chinese pressure on Pakistan?

Some observers say attacks targeting Chinese nationals and investments in Pakistan prompted Islamabad to launch the latest military campaign.

An assault on a convoy of Chinese engineers in March killed at least five Chinese workers and a Pakistani.

It came less than a week after Pakistani security forces killed eight Baluchistan Liberation Army separatists who opened fire on a convoy carrying Chinese citizens outside the Chinese-funded Gwadar port in the volatile southwestern Baluchistan province.

Beijing, one of Islamabad's key allies, has been pumping billions of dollars into Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which includes a multitude of megaprojects such as road construction, power plants and agriculture.

It's estimated that there are some 29,000 Chinese nationals in Pakistan, of which more than 2,500 are working on CPEC.

The project is a lifeline for Pakistan's cash-strapped government, which is currently facing one of its worst economic crises.

"There is pressure from China to 'fix' Pakistan's security situation, which is impeding progress on the CPEC. The joint Pakistan-China readout following the Pakistani leadership's recent visit to China emphasized the security dimension," Afzal said, referring to the China visit by Pakistani Premier Sharif and army chief Asim Munir in June.

"Chinese pressure, particularly with domestic security issues, has driven Islamabad to carry out a full-fledged operation on the militants who plan to target Chinese nationals working on the CPEC projects," Malik said. 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon