‘Azm-e-Istehkam’: Can new Pakistani military operation curb armed attacks?

Amid a surge in violent attacks, Pakistan’s new military campaiogn leads to questions over its timing and whether it can work.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a high-powered meeting
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a high-powered meeting on June 22 to approve the launch of a new military campaign to curb increasing violence in the country [Handout: Prime Minister's Office]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s top leadership has approved the launch of a new military operation aimed at quelling a surge in violence.

Called Azm-e-Istehkam, meaning Resolve for Stability in Urdu, the operation was announced after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif led a review of the country’s “counterterrorism” operations over the weekend, especially the National Action Plan adopted in the aftermath of the December 2014 attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School. More than 140 people, predominantly students, were killed in the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistan Taliban, known by the acronym TTP.

The new military plan is expected to focus on domestic security threats and armed fighters crossing over from Afghanistan, amid mounting tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban rulers in Kabul. A statement issued by Sharif’s office on June 22 referred to plans to “intensify” efforts to curtail “terrorists” through regional cooperation with Pakistan’s neighbours.

“The campaign will be complemented by socioeconomic measures aimed at addressing genuine concerns of the people and creating an environment that discourages extremist tendencies,” the statement added.

Yet the new campaign is only the latest in a series of military operations that Pakistan has launched with the intent of crushing armed violence, and its timing has led to questions over the trigger for the initiative — and what it might accomplish. Pakistan had also announced a military operation in April 2023, during Sharif’s previous tenure as prime minister, but an official military campaign never commenced.

Afghan tensions

While the launch date of Operation Azm-e-Istehkam has not been formally declared, the announcement comes at a time when the country has seen a dramatic surge in violent incidents over the last 18 months. Most of these attacks are claimed by TTP, which is ideologically aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The TTP unilaterally ended a ceasefire in November 2022 and Pakistan has repeatedly accused Kabul of harbouring them, a charge the Taliban government, which came to power in August 2021, has consistently rejected.

Now those already strained relations could be tested further if Pakistan’s military operation extends into Afghanistan, as analysts predict, in part based on recent events.

“In March, Pakistan even conducted cross-border strikes in Afghanistan against suspected Pakistani Taliban hideouts, which were publicly confirmed by the foreign office,” Ihsanullah Tipu, an Islamabad-based security analyst, pointed out in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Tipu, who also directs The Khorasan Diary, a news and research portal analysing security issues in the region, added that Islamabad views the use of active military force — known as kinetic action in army jargon — as the most effective approach to counter armed violence.

A Chinese trigger or domestic politics?

According to available data, Pakistan witnessed nearly 1,000 casualties from almost 700 incidents of violence in 2023, with most attacks occurring in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, often targeting law enforcement personnel.

Violent attacks have continued in 2024, including incidents targeting Chinese installations and personnel in both northern and southern regions. An attack on a convoy of Chinese engineers in March resulted in the deaths of at least five Chinese nationals and a Pakistani.

China, one of Pakistan’s key allies, has invested $62bn in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) development project. Sharif and Pakistan army chief General Asim Munir made a five-day trip to China earlier this month with the the security of Chinese nationals and interests a critical part of their agenda.

Senior Chinese official Liu Jianchao visited Pakistan last week, reiterating the importance of protecting Chinese interests in the country. “We need to improve security and the business environment. In Pakistan’s case, the primary factor shaking the confidence of Chinese investors is the security situation,” Liu told representatives of Pakistan’s leading political parties on June 21 while on the three-day trip.

However, Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), said while Chinese concerns likely influenced the Pakistani leadership, the timing of the new operation was potentially driven more by domestic politics and economic considerations.

“Last year, Pakistan faced a near-default and underwent a contentious election amid significant domestic political turmoil. A large-scale military campaign was not feasible under those circumstances,” Mir told Al Jazeera.

“With the election done and a government in place, and the economic situation stabilising, at least relatively, Pakistani leadership probably feels confident that it has sufficient domestic political space and a modicum of economic stability now to pursue a vigorous campaign to address the deteriorating security situation,” Mir added.

Will the new operation work?

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher on armed groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was sceptical about the operation’s potential for success.

Sayed said armed groups now primarily target security forces to undermine government interests while preventing the loss of public support. In the provinces that are worst affected by armed violence, a lack of public support for security forces “could hinder the operation’s effectiveness”, he told Al Jazeera.

Tipu pointed to another challenge that security forces might face: the transient nature of TTP bases in Pakistan and the potential for escalating tensions with Afghanistan.

“The Pakistani Taliban do not have permanent bases in Pakistan, instead they operate from makeshift ones, frequently changing locations,” he said. “If Pakistan conducts cross-border operations in Afghanistan, it could escalate tensions between the two countries.”

Meanwhile, though China has pressured Pakistan to crack down on the armed violence, Beijing’s strategic relationship with the Taliban means that it is not entirely on the same page as Islamabad when it comes to the current rulers in Kabul, Mir said.

“Pakistan and China diverge on how to approach the Taliban. A military campaign engaging in cross-border strikes to pressure the Taliban may challenge Beijing’s stance on Afghanistan,” Mir cautioned.

Source: Al Jazeera