A former spokesman for the Pakistan Army says that as army chief, retired General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani baulked at launching a military operation in North Waziristan in 2010 for fear of a backlash from the religious right.
This writer spoke to retired Major General Athar Abbas. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q: Why do you think that 2010-11 was the right time to have launched the North Waziristan operation?
A: As compared to any other area, the army has suffered heavily in North Waziristan because a large-scale military operation was not carried out there. When we conducted the South Waziristan operation in 2009, we isolated the TTP. That operation was successful. At that time the army warned the North Waziristan tribes that if they allowed the TTP Mehsuds to migrate into their area, this would warrant a military operation.
But they [TTP members] kept concentrating [their forces] and virtually took over Mirali, Machis and other areas. Then they allowed in the Punjabi Taliban, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the Ilyas Kashmiri group.
The tribes somehow made deals with groups such as that of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, with a ‘live and let live’ understanding. But the equation changed and the tribes were in no position to dictate their terms when the militants violated some conditions.
The militants had a more powerful hold on the area as compared to the virtually unarmed tribesmen. The militants also were violating clauses of their deals with the government and the army. They were attacking the military. In one ambush in 2010, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, which was supposed to be in an agreement with us, killed 40 of our soldiers, including a commanding officer.
Q: What was the military top brass’ opinion about launching an operation in 2010-11?
A: The final decision, of course, was always that of the chief, but formation commanders recommended that unless we launched an offensive in the area and cleared it, we wouldn’t be able to control the spread of militancy and terrorism. As their hub was North Waziristan, everyone in the area was of the opinion that eventually, we would have to go for it.
Many of us were of the same opinion: the more we delayed, the more complex things would become. But another group believed that the militant groups or tribes on our side would turn against us and join the militant groups [in case the operation was launched].
But the fact is that the tribes were violating the clauses, the militant groups were violating agreements and whatever members of the Haqqani network were there in the area, were very few. The Haqqanis were mostly operating from Paktia and Khost [in Afghanistan]. The other concern was how to expel them [militants], how to displace them. The other factor on his [Gen Kayani’s] mind was, what will become of the IDPs?
But the fact was that a few of us were of the opinion that nothing was going to change as far as our administration, government and other agencies were concerned. Those would remain the same, but it [a delay] would complicate matters more because there would be more consolidation of the militants in the area.
I can say with confidence that we are vindicated. It has now become a much bigger problem.
Q: Do you think that Gen Kayani was afraid of a personal attack against him?
A: I don’t think so, but certainly there was the vulnerability of towns and cities because there was weakness in our law enforcement, the civilian law-enforcement agencies. They were so much in disarray. So this was also the concern. But now, too, the vulnerability is the same; the retaliation may occur.
There was also no political consensus and therefore he thought a military operation would not find political support. And there would be a strong reaction by the religious right. He also apprehended that they would directly attack him.
That became his main concern.
Q: Can we say that he was concerned about religious hardliners’ backlash towards him?
A: He was concerned about the reaction of the religious right. But the fact was that the ruling party, the Awami National Party and the MQM were all for an all-out operation. They were all along for the operation, barring the right-of-centre parties and, of course, the religious right. I don’t know how concerned he was about his personal security or safety.
Q: What made the current military leadership go for this operation?
A: For six years, he [Gen Kayani] kept vacillating over the issue and in six months, this leader decided that this is the crux of the problem. He took a decision. It’s a matter of how decisive you are, how much you have the ability to sift essentials from non-essentials.
Q: How much do you think the country has suffered for not launching the operation in 2010-11?
A: We have suffered more than 50,000 civilian causalities owing to this. Not everything happened because of North Waziristan, but it was the main source. Over 5,000 soldiers were killed and 10,000 more lost limbs.
There are the economic losses and the huge loss to Pakistan’s international image.
Q: Was the Haqqani network also a factor of delay?
A: It was one of the overriding factors. And as I said whatever the elements of the Haqqanis were there, intelligence [agencies] was supposed to manage them. You can’t allow these groups to keep creating problems.
Q: Why has your revelation about Gen Kayani’s indecision come now?
A: I was to give an interview to the BBC on the military operation. The issue came up. They asked why now, why not earlier? When we got into that, things started coming up and I had to face the truth squarely.
Q: Do you think that there should be action against the former army chief for this costly indecision?
A: That is not a fair question to ask. I think history will judge.