The Pakistani military has grown frustrated with what it says are insincere peace talks with representatives from the local Taliban, and says it will launch an aggressive military campaign into its northern, ungoverned regions along the border with Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP, claimed credit last week for the brutal execution of 23 Pakistani army troops held captive since 2010, while it simultaneously maintains peace talks through delegates with the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. A senior Pakistani government official says troops and aerial assets are already in place to begin a military campaign to confront this threat in Waziristan as well anywhere else considered “necessary.”
Experts say the latest talks and the new offensive explains the recent lull in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, the last of which took place more than 60 days ago and marks a record drought for the Obama administration.
“We would prefer a negotiated settlement. But just in case, like all militaries, we are prepared with a contingency,” said the Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity at a Tuesday meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., organized by the Center for Media and Security. “There will be operations. Not only in northern Waziristan but wherever necessary."
“Something has to be done to resolve this terrorism issue in Pakistan," he said. Ground forces are already in Waziristan to conduct operations, he added. The military simply needs to give them specific directions.
Karl Kaltenthaler, an expert on drone strikes and conflict in Pakistan, believes both the Pakistani military and Taliban networks knew the latest negotiations would achieve nothing. The Taliban’s recent acts of aggression, including killing the 23 captives, served as a clear signal they weren’t serious about peace, he says.
“Both sides knew conflict was coming, that this was going to be settled militarily,” says Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron. “Both sides were buying time.”
The Obama administration appears to be clearing the way for the Pakistani government to engage the Taliban directly, despite the major problems its insurgent fighters continue to pose for allied forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. last launched a drone strike in Pakistan on Christmas Day 2013, reportedly killing three people. A prior strike in November successfully targeted and killed Haqqani network leader Maulvi Ahmad Jan, along with five others.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have remained rocky at times throughout the almost 13-year-old war in Afghanistan. Pakistan remains a major recipient of U.S. military aid, and the U.S. and NATO rely on critical routes through Pakistan to move ground convoys in and out of its war zone. However, drone strikes and the massive civil protests they incite have prompted the Pakistani government to block such routes at times.
The last drone strike “was a disaster for our negotiating process,” the Pakistani official said. “The drone strikes are on hold as far as we are concerned, and hopefully they should remain so, if only for the sake of negotiations.”
The official said this latest operation must occur before U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan, as it likely will chase insurgents to them over the border. His remarks came just more than an hour after the White House announced President Barack Obama had ordered the Pentagon to prepare a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, following Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a post-2014 security agreement.
Other expert observers have heard the same rhetoric out of Pakistan before. Bill Roggio, who compiles information on drone strikes in Pakistan for The Long War Journal, questions its military’s ability to flush out an insurgency as deeply rooted as the Taliban and its allies.
“Maybe they’re serious this time, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” Roggio says.
He points to a troubling history between the Pakistani government and known terrorist organizations, such as the Haqqani network.
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in 2011 he believed the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, was in league with the Haqqani network. The network, a notoriously brutal extremist group operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and is closely in league with the Taliban. The Pakistani government was also kept largely in the dark about the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad for fear of leaks.
“Unless the Pakistanis decide to wipe them all out, it’s meaningless, and they have no intention of doing that,” Roggio says. “They may actually go ahead and put troops out of garrison and do something there for a time, but it’s not going to amount to anything.”