Pakistan announced Wednesday that it was ending its 7-month-old policy of trying to reconcile with its Taliban insurgents and vowing to answer each terrorist attack with military strikes on the militants’ strongholds in northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
But the government stopped short of abandoning its attempts to engage willing Taliban factions in a peace dialogue, underlining that Pakistan’s national security policy remains focused on restricting attacks within its borders, rather obliterating the militants altogether.
That means that militants who use Pakistan for a staging base to attack U.S. and Afghan forces in neighboring Afghanistan will still be allowed to operate, as long as they observe a cease-fire in Pakistan.
Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, outlined the government’s policy toward insurgents in a 110-page document that he presented to Parliament but that has yet to be made public.
One of the document’s three sections, covering operational details, has been classified top secret, but will be shared soon with the heads of Pakistan’s political parties, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said.
The document makes it clear how the government intends to proceed with a widely expected military strike on insurgent forces in the country’s tribal areas, where the Pakistani air force has been conducting strikes with U.S.-built F-16 warplanes and Cobra helicopter gunships since the government called off talks with Taliban-nominated intermediaries on Feb. 18.
The Pakistani Taliban are usually referred to as the TTP, the initials for their Urdu-language name, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The main focus of the likely military strike is the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan, where most of the TTP’s estimated 2,500 guerrilla fighters are based, along with a similar number of foreign al Qaida members, whose nationalities range from Uzbeks and Africans to Arabs and Westerners.
A second area expected to be besieged is the Tirah-Sadda region, where three tribal areas – Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai – converge, creating a strategic conduit between the northern and southern tribal areas as well as adjacent areas of Afghanistan to which TTP fighters have fled previous Pakistani military offensives.
Pakistan’s Cabinet approved the new policy document Monday, but Sharif’s determination to move militarily against the TTP has been known for the past month after word leaked that the government had conveyed its plans to international allies – including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States – in January.
Sharif made his decision after the TTP refused to halt terrorist attacks in response to the government’s offer of peace negotiations. Sharif had suspended military operations against the TTP in September and persuaded the CIA to halt drone strikes in November. But the TTP stepped up attacks instead, killing at least 460 people and wounding 1,264, according to a briefing reported by Pakistani news media last week.
At talks in Washington, Pakistan asked the U.S. to help by securing the Afghan-side border of Pakistan’s pre-identified conflict zones. The State Department acknowledged that the request had been made on Feb. 17.
That day, the TTP released a video that showed the decapitations of 23 Pakistani paramilitary troops, who’d been held hostage in Afghanistan since 2010. That and other murderous attacks infuriated Pakistanis, and prompted the government to announce Feb. 18 its withdrawal from talks.
Operational arrangements with the U.S. were discussed Feb. 19 in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city and the headquarters of the military, with Gen Lloyd Austin, the chief of the U.S. military’s Central Command. CIA director John Brennan was briefed Feb. 21.
Political analysts said the national security policy unveiled Wednesday offered an easy way out for militant factions that wanted to disassociate themselves from the TTP, however: They simply have to stop attacking Pakistani government forces.
That makes it likely that Pakistan won’t take any military action against the Haqqani network, an ally of the Afghan Taliban that controls significant territory in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal agencies.
The network is a major source of friction between Pakistan and the United States, which previously has accused Pakistan’s security services of complicity in several of the network’s high-profile attacks on Afghan government and U.S. targets in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Widely viewed as a projector of Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan, the Haqqani network has distanced itself from the TTP during the Taliban group’s six-year insurgency by signing peace agreements, fronted by the local Wazir tribe, that predate the 2009 launch of counterterrorism operations.
Accordingly, it won’t be targeted by the Pakistani military as long as it doesn’t side with the TTP.