By Ifrah Waqar & Saqib Mehmood

Jun 2, 2014

zarbeazbOn June 15, Pakistan Army launched a comprehensive military operation against local and foreign militants in North Waziristan. This operation is aimed at rooting out Pakistani Taliban and their aiding trans-national violent organizations, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Al-Qaeda. According to official Pakistani sources, almost 25,000 to 30,000[1] troops are taking part in ground offensive, along with air-cover and a wide-ranging intelligence apparatus to provide the troops and commanders real-time situational awareness of the battlefield. In addition, the operation has also entailed the resumption of U.S. drone operations inside Pakistan after six months gap.

In this commentary, we intend to provide our readers with an analysis beyond the news and media commentaries based on a comprehensive understanding of the factors such as geography, history, players involved, their motivations, rationales objectives and strategies  that are likely to shape the outcome.


Traditional warfare is inherently geographic in nature. The geographic factors shaping military operations vary by the scale of military operation, nature of warfare, enemy tactics and their impact on one’s own military war plans.

North Waziristan, a mountainous region of north-west Pakistan, comprises an area of about 4,707 square kilometres[2]. Its terrain is rocky, rough, inhospitable, dry, mountainous and mostly infertile. It borders Afghanistan in the west and Khurram Agency in the north. In its south lies another troubled area, South Waziristan, and to its east, is the hardest-hit province of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in terms of terrorist attacks.

The mountain ranges in North Waziristan are some of the most difficult mountainous terrains in the world. Some of its ranges are above 3,000 meters[3], including the Shawal Mountain located in its south-west. The highest mountain range in the agency is about 3,350 meters. Given this, the terrain is not conducive in southern and western parts of the agency to carry out conventional military offensive, providing the local insurgents an inbuilt defence. Moreover, the militants, having a batter familiarity with the terrain, get an advantage over Pakistan Army. North Waziristan comprises eight tehsils, namely; Dattakhel, Dossali, Garyam, Ghulam Khel, Mirali, Miranshah, Ramzak and Spin Wam. Miranshah is the headquarters of North Waziristan agency.

The terrain is highly suitable for ambush warfare and for carrying out sporadic assaults through using guerrilla tactics. Due to the difficult terrain influence, the military cannot fight an open face-to-face battle with the militants.

Population, demography and militancy through the lens of history    

The population of North Waziristan is estimated to be around 840,000. The main tribes of the region are the Utmanzi Wazirs and the Dawars. Along with them, the smaller tribes of Gurbaz, Saidgis, Malakshis, Mehsuds, Bangashs and Kharsins are also to be found there. These tribes, except for the Saidgis, are ethnically Pashtun and have been based in the area for centuries. The Saidgis are said to be the descendants of a Syed who accompanied the founder of the Wazirs in the region.

The societal setup in North Waziristan is tribal. It is egalitarian in nature and presents an anarchic outlook with no hierarchy. The local tribes often fight against each other when they are not confronted with an external enemy. Due to anarchism and the absence of legitimate political structure, the tribes are heavily armed and militancy is deeply embedded in their culture.

During the Mughal era, Waziristan was a part of the Mughal Empire. Though they were never conquered by either Mughals or any other invader, they had accepted the influence of Mughal and Durrani Kings and voluntarily provided them military support when required. However, the inhabitants of this region have always maintained their semi-independent status throughout the ages.

When British took over the subcontinent, Waziristan was under the Kabul regime. In 1894, the British, through an agreement with the locals, established a new system of land records and revenue administration. The relative peace shattered when, in 1935-36, a Hindu-Muslim clash occurred over the love marriage of a Hindu girl with a Muslim named Amir Noor Ali. The mother of the girl approached the court and accused him of abducting the girl. As a result, Noor Ali was arrested and imprisoned for two years and the girl was handed back to her family.

This event raised fury among the tribals who protested against the decision. As a result, a Jirga was held, and the tribals declared Jihad against the British government.  In order to fight against the British, a tribal Lashkar was formed under the Faqir of Ipi (Mirza Ali Khan)[4]. The war continued till partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. The British left but the Faqir’s struggle continued until his death in 1960. He never recognised Pakistan and continued to fight with the new nation’s army. However, his following declined progressively and ultimately died along with him in 1960.

In 1970s and 80s, local tribes fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan and the U.S. Their already rigid religious views were further hardened by intoxicating them with a carefully calibrated and fabricated conservative religious narrative. Though it went well as far as the objectives of the U.S. and its allies were concerned, it left a deep imprint of fundamentalism and radicalism on the socio-religious psyche of the local population, which later resulted in the rise of anti-state elements challenging the writ of the government and the moderate mainstream. Hard-core religious views were mixed with rhetoric of state injustices; and were banked upon to gain sympathy and support of local populace by some elements for their own political agendas.

After the Afghan war, the government did nothing to deconstruct what it had engineered over the years to defeat and push back the Soviet Occupation. The cultured bacteria went on replicating. After 9/11, subsequent to a quick defeat at the hands of the American and NATO forces, Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliates sneaked into Pakistan’s northern areas and secured sanctuaries there, thanks to Pashtun culture of hospitality. Consequently, militancy, both in the form of Pakistani Taliban and foreign militant groups, spread quickly across the northern areas, especially North Waziristan. The Pakistan Army moved to Khyber and Kurram Agencies in November 2001, to North Waziristan in December 2001 and to South Waziristan in April 2002. The aim was to stop the influx of Al-Qaeda.

Military Operation in North Waziristan

The realization of the need for a military operation has existed in Pakistani Army since 2005. The situation in North Waziristan had worsened over the years due to the accumulation of local and foreign militant groups and an alarming increase in the support of foreign terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and IMU. In particular, a large number of Uzbek militants had relocated themselves into North Waziristan after the military operation in South Waziristan.

According to rough estimates, around 4,000 to 5,000 Uzbek militants had holed themselves in North Waziristan. They had developed close relations and operational collaboration with Mehsud militants and the TTP. From there, in collaboration with several local terrorist groups, they have been launching attacks in different regions of Pakistan; especially big cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore have been their prime targets. Investigations have showed that several big attacks in large cities of Pakistan have been carried out at the behest of Uzbek militant commanders from North Waziristan.

The Army had planned a military operation in North Waziristan back in 2010, which was postponed due to some unknown reasons. Again, in 2012, the Army decided to clean up the Agency, but could not; because of the fear of a backlash, instability, the fragile economy; and, above all an illusionary hope that the matter would be resolved through negotiations.

Major militant attacks

In 2009, a group of 12 TTP militants attacked the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore. They attacked when some 750 unarmed police recruits were doing their morning parade in the ground. They were dressed in police uniforms and armed with automatic weapons, grenades and rockets. The terrorists were able to hold the entire place hostage for some six-seven hours. Eight police personnel were killed and another 95 injured as a result of this attack.

The IMU has been involved in various terrorist activities within Pakistan over the years. In 2011, four Uzbek terrorists attacked the PNS Mehran base in Karachi. They were successful in destroying two P3C-Orion surveillance aircraft used by Pakistan navy. This attack resulted in the death of 10 security personnel. Even though all the four attackers were either killed or they blew themselves up, they were later identified as Uzbeks[5].

In 2012, Uzbek militants played a major role in a jail-break incident at Bannu in which 100 militants attacked and some 400 inmates were freed.  Adnan Rasheed – a hard-core militant – was also among the freed.

The same year, Bacha Khan Airport in Peshawar was attacked by 10 militants in which rockets were fired. Four persons as also five militants were killed. The attackers were identified to be Uzbeks.

Then, in 2013, Uzbek militants played a crucial role in attacking the Dera Ismail Khan jail. The militants were able to free 170 terrorists of the TTP and Jundullah as a result of the jail break.

On June 8, 2014, a major terrorist incident occurred at the Jinnah Terminal, Karachi. This attack was significant because it shook the country to the core and after which the decision to launch operation Zarb-e-Azb was finalized. Ten Taliban militants attacked the terminal. Twenty-six people died in this attack including members of the Airport Security Force (ASF), the Rangers and civilians. Although TTP claimed responsibility of the attack, they also confirmed that the perpetrators of the attack included Uzbeks who are affiliated with the TTP and conduct activities against the state of Pakistan[6].

Against this backdrop, the decision to stop negotiations and launch a military operation was taken by the state, and thus operation Zarb-e-Azb began on June 15, 2014.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet, peace be upon him)

Sensing the gravity of the situation, Pakistan Army with the help of Pakistan Air Force launched an operation against the militants in North Waziristan. The operation started with sporadic air assaults on terrorist camps and hideouts. On June 15, Pakistan Air Force killed 105 terrorists, most of them were Uzbek militants[7] in surgical air strikes in Dattakhel.  The same day, in another air sortie, 13 militant were killed in Mir Ali.

The very next day, Pakistan Army and Air force killed 40 militants in a combined operation in Shawal Tehsil; majority of them being Uzbeks. So far, around 386 terrorists have been killed by Pakistan Army and 20 soldiers have embraced martyrdom[8].

Technically, the operation represents a comprehensive strategy keeping in view the nature of the threat, the terrain, the environment and the objectives. The area has been totally quarantined and cordon off from three sides, whereas a formal request through military and political channels has been made to the Afghan government to seal their side of border. After the evacuation of civilians from the area, Pakistan Army planned to destroy the terrorist camps, communication and supply links in air raids, and then move in tanks and infantry to occupy the area. Main focus of the operation has been given to avoid civilian causalities and collateral damage. According to the official sources, so far, there have been zero civilian during ground and air operations.

Mainly the operation revolves around three operational manoeuvres. Air power and artillery have been proven very efficient and effective in providing sufficient fire power in not only destroying the targets in far and unreachable lands, but also provide suppressive fire cover to infantry units to move ahead. The infantry divisions are effectively rooting out militants from villages, towns and cities.

Three most troubled areas namely Mir Ali, Miranshah and Shawal represent three different challenges, as far the as the military strategy and tactics are concerned. Mir Ali and its surrounding areas are relatively plane where tanks can manoeuvre and move in easily after suppressive and destructive air sorties, followed by boots on ground. This area because of the presence of large number of foreign militants and dense population was a challenge for military strategy and tactics, as far as avoiding civilian causalities and effective elimination of militants is concerned. However, due to proper planning, preparation and careful application of military tactics by Pakistan Army, the operation is going well.

Miranshah and its vicinity is not conducive to ground attacks because of the mountains. In addition, because of the heavy presence of foreign and local militants, a tough and heavy fighting is expected there. Mountains provide militants safe hideouts, and pouches from where they can easily ambush troops on ground. So, armours and tanks along with air raids and air surveillance would reduce the casualty rate and help achieve the desired results in a relatively short period of time.

The terrain of Shawal in North Waziristan Agency is a mountainous one. In this area, because of its location, a major ground offensive using tanks and boots on ground will not be effective. So, coordinated airstrikes are being conducted to help achieve the desired results.

According to the recent press briefing by ISPR, the area has been cordoned off from three sides.  The army has surrounded the entire agency and sealed the 180-km border with Afghanistan, as well as the boundary with South Waziristan making it impossible for the terrorists to escape. However, much depends on the Afghan government and its willingness to seal their side of the border.  According to a press release by ISPR, after evacuation of all civil population, ground operation commenced in and around Miranshah early morning on 30th June[9].

There is no doubt that this operation is being held at a defining moment in the history of Pakistan. The state of Pakistan has decided it would not be held hostage and will fight those who aim to threaten the peace and stability of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are firmly in support of their armed forces in this fight against the militants. It is a war of survival, as Major General Asim Bajwa rightly said in a recent press briefing, “it is the beginning of the end of terrorism in the country.”


[1] Pakistan army launches operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ in North Waziristan, The News, June 15, 2014.

[2] FATA Development Authority

[3] Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Physical Features and Climate

[4]Asad Munir, The Faqir of Ipi of North Waziristan, Express Tribune, November 15, 2010.

[5] Syed Arfeen, Who are the Uzbeks launching terror strikes in Pakistan, The News, June 15, 2014.

[6] AFP, Uzbek al Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility for Karachi airport siege, Express Tribune, June 11, 2014.

[7] ISPR, Update – North Wazistan Agency Operation, June 15, 2014,

[8] Zarb-e-Azb operation: Air strikes kill Uzbek militants in Miranshah, Dunya News, 5 July, 2014.

[9] Inter Services Public Relations, Update- Zarb-e-Azb, June 30th, 2014.

Send this to a friend