A New Military Operation Also a Reflection of New Ownership

This article originally appeared in The Nation (Pakistan).

The media juggernaut of former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif after launching of 2014 Operation Zarb-e-Azb left a powerful and lasting impact on the public imagination. The relative decline of terror attacks helped restore the military’s image after the impression that it had dithered under Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The period of peace provided relief to the terror-ravaged populace and also catapulted Gen Raheel Sharif’s persona to new, dizzying heights.

On the other hand, the political government remained shaky and off-balanced due to the constant political campaign by Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The former army chief filled the resultant political vacuum and kept the government on its toes till he retired.

The critics maintained that much of the claims of victory were skewed versions of the ground reality and glossed over by a careful and forceful media management campaign. The military did wean away most of the areas that were under the terrorist control. But the real extent of damage inflicted on militants remained unclear. The lull in armed violence, however, overshadowed these concerns.

The renewed militant violence this month has laid bare the efficacy of earlier claims. As suicide bombings rocked across the main cities and targeted a revered shrine, questions bubbled up. Were initial claims hollow or the country had sleepwalked back into the terror terrain?

Since the last quarter of 2016, various militant groups have been trying to form a coalition, setting aside their differences. Security officials say the militants have received a new injection of financial assistance to revive their activities; the traces lead to hostile foreign agencies who want to destabilize the country and stymie economic progress. The former army chief was perhaps lucky to escape the confluence of these developments and militants’ blowback.

A large section of the public, influenced by the media, has a high appetite for the image of success, if not for real success. Inevitably, the public grew restless as recent terror attacks wrecked the country.

The feeling also filtered into the military’s rank and file. In the fast changing circumstance, the new military leadership was forced to come forward, to show that it was not trailing the successes claimed by their predecessors. The transmogrification of Operation Zarb-e-Azb into Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad is actually an indication of these factors. The rebranding and repackaging of military and intelligence operation are actually an announcement of new ownership under the new leadership.

How effective will be this new push against militant networks in the urban and rural centers remains to be seen. The real thing to watch out would be the impact of powers given to the paramilitary forces in Punjab, the political power base of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League. The Sharif brothers were earlier resistant to the idea of paramilitary troops fanning across their province. The difference added a strain in the relations between them and the top brass. But now, with the new realities and emerging dangers, the opposition was no longer sustainable. There was no choice for the ruling political party but to concede. Gradually, the Rangers will turn into an influential stakeholder in the power matrix of Punjab. There won’t be any going back.

And, the familiar tableau of civil-military balance or imbalance will also be re-enacted in the greater political realm.