OPINION: The two North Waziristans

Islamabad (Dawn/ANN) - Suddenly, everyone's got an opinion on North Waziristan.

But what the experts say and what they mean and what reality is are often very different things. Separating spin from substance has never been more difficult.

At least in the media, the Glocs-cum-apology deal reinvigorated the will-they, won't-they debate on North Waziristan Agency (NWA): will the army rumble into action in NWA or won't it?

Then the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief Zaheer ul-Islam's Washington DC visit turbocharged the debate, as both the American and Pakistan sides started leaking furiously.

The initial mistake - now slowly being clarified - is that everyone assumed there is one North Waziristan. But in this debate there are actually two North Waziristans: Miranshah and Mir Ali.

Loosely, Miranshah represents the American fixation: the insurgent Haqqanis. Mir Ali represents the Pakistani focus: the Pakistan-centric militants.

As ever, neither the American nor the Pakistani side is entirely truthful about what they want and why.

Start with the Americans. The story the Americans like to tell is of the Haqqanis as the devil incarnate. Much will improve in Afghanistan if Pakistan did something about the Haqqani sanctuaries in NWA, according to this tale.

The Americans aren't asking for the Haqqanis to be destroyed, just for them to be 'squeezed'. This to them means three things: slow the flow of funds to the Haqqanis; cut the information lines that keep the Haqqanis one step ahead of the Americans; and do something about Miranhah, the spiritual home and nerve centre of the Haqqanis as far as the Americans are concerned.

The why, as it's told, is rooted in two reasons. The Haqqanis aren't responsible for many attacks in Afghanistan but the ones they are responsible for are disproportionately high-impact. Haqqani attacks grab headlines, undermine the war effort and further erode the sliver of political support for the war in the US.

The other reason is the post-9/11 mindset: attack US interests viciously and spectacularly and the hammer needs to be brought down.

The truth, hard as it is for the Americans to swallow, is that those reasons aren't good enough for the Pakistan Army.

Within the framework of the security paradigm the army here follows - setting aside whether that paradigm is genuinely in Pakistan's national interest or not - the American reasons for squeezing the Haqqanis don't make sense. For there is an alternative: the Haqqanis can be dealt with on the Afghan side, if the Americans are willing to accept the existence per se of the Haqqanis is not inimical to American interests - which it isn't.

The Haqqanis seek to dominate Khost, Paktia and Paktika. They have no national ambitions. As luck would have it, the geography of those provinces is such that fencing them in is a very real possibility. If the Haqqanis still try and sneak out and hit Kabul - a red line for the Americans - they could be whacked.

So why obsess over the Haqqani safe havens in Pakistan?

The answer to the Haqqani-NWA fixation seems to have much to do with the dysfunctionality in the theory and practice of the war in Afghanistan.

The boys with the toys on the American side - the military and intelligence folks - sold the theory that the North Waziristan safe havens were the main problem in containing the Haqqanis, and that has been internalised across the American policymaking spectrum.

The army here knows this. It knows the American obsession is misplaced and that an alternative exists. So the core of the American demands against the Haqqanis in NWA is likely to be rebuffed.

That settles one of the two North Waziristans.

Turn to Pakistan. When the fight to recover Fata from the clutches of the Pakistan-centric militants began, it was always known that the Waziristan agencies would be the final battle for control of territory. The Waziristan agencies, for reasons of ancient tribal and more recent jihad history, present a challenge unlike any other agency or settled district.

Overall, the approach to recovering Fata has been fairly consistent: ensure adequate military resources are available for the fight; move to deny the militants physical space; and then consolidate the war gains by rehabilitating local security forces and the political administration.

That eventually the Pakistan-centric militants in NWA would have to be taken on was always known. That the army has understood and accepted this - as opposed to trying to bring rogue militants back into the pet jihadist fold - is also largely true.

Inside the army, the question is less if the Mir Ali version of North Waziristan should be taken on at all and more about when and to what extent.

Operationally, until central Kurram and Orakzai are consolidated, the Pakistan-centric in NWA militants will have another place to escape to - defeating the strategy of incrementally denying the militants physical space.

Additionally, for all the troops already stationed in NWA, they're busy with defensive duties, meaning offensive forces will have to be drafted in. That means freeing up military resources elsewhere first.

If all of that sounds straightforward enough - just a matter of getting the timing and resources right - that's precisely the message the army wants to put across.

Easy to guess, though, that isn't the full story.

Officially, the hesitancy of the army is in the final reckoning linked to blowback: how to prevent escalating attacks inside Pakistan proper and on security targets when the army goes after the Pakistan-centric militants in NWA.

The threat of unmanageable blowback is real enough to count as a genuine reason for hesitancy.

But what the army won't admit is another concern: the army's self-created and self-perpetuated image inside Pakistan as the only viable institution.

If the blowback from an operation in NWA is fierce enough, the Pakistani public may begin to question whether the army is all that it's made itself out to be, whether generals more interested in DHA plots and commercial interests have lost the security plot.

When everything else is in place - the right environment, the operational capacity, everything - the unmentioned fear may determine what will happen in North Waziristan.

Will the army risk its reputation in NWA to fight a battle it militarily knows it must fight but which could have unmanageable political repercussions for the army inside Pakistan proper?

On that question, more than anything else, may rest the answer to what happens in the other North Waziristan.

The writer is a member of staff.

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