August 25, 2017
Pakistan’s Counter-Militant Offensive: Operation Raddul Fasaad
President Trump’s recently-announced South Asia strategy relies heavily on pressing and encouraging Pakistan to reduce its support for insurgent and terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. Islamabad regularly denies any such support and points to the operations it periodically conducts against Salafi-jihadi groups within Pakistan as proof. Such an offensive is underway at this moment, in fact. This operation, like all previous such Pakistani efforts, however, is carefully designed to and to avoid damaging those fighting against the U.S. and its Afghan partners. It is unlikely to succeed even in the limited aim of securing Pakistan, moreover. The limitations of the current Pakistani counter-terrorism effort indicate how far Islamabad will have to come to satisfy the requirements of the Trump policy.
The Pakistani military launched a major offensive targeting Salafi-jihadi groups in February 2017. The offensive responded to the infiltration of ISIS Wilayat Khorasan into Pakistan and an increase in attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups. Operation Raddul Fasaad, or “Elimination of Strife,” seeks to eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout Pakistan. Operation Khyber IV, a sub-operation of Raddul Fasaad completed in August 2017, sought to prevent ISIS Wilayat Khorasan from further infiltrating Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from Afghanistan. Both operations continue a well-established pattern of Pakistani efforts that do not fully align with American national security objectives and requirements in Afghanistan or the region.
Operation Raddul Fasaad
Pakistani security forces launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, 2014 in response to a rise in suicide bombings and other militant activity. Operation Zarb-e-Azb aimed to clear , a militant stronghold in northwest Pakistan’s FATA. The Pakistani military launched Operations Khyber I and II in October 2014 and March 2015 respectively to expand the clearing operation to Khyber Agency. The Pakistani government and the international community generally assessed these campaigns to be successful. Militant activity in the FATA dropped to its lowest point in six years at the operations’ conclusion.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group Jamatul Ahrar conducted a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan in retaliation for the death of its leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi during a Pakistani Army raid in February 2017, however. These attacks suggest either that Pakistani security forces failed to eliminate the group’s ability to plan and conduct attacks or that the TTP has reconstituted in the interim. The Pakistani military announced the launch of Operation Raddul Fasaad (“Elimination of Strife”) on February 22, 2017 in response to these attacks. Raddul Fasaad is not limited in its geographic scope, unlike Operation Zarb-e-Azb, but seeks to eliminate anti-Pakistan militant groups throughout Pakistan.
Operation Raddul Fasaad seeks to consolidate the gains made during Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the ensuing Khyber operations in order to eliminate the “residual or latent threat of terrorism” throughout the country. The Pakistani government insists that militant strongholds in Afghanistan are the primary source of attacks within Pakistan. Ensuring the security of Pakistan’s borders to prevent cross-border militant attacks is thus one of the primary objectives of the operation. The operation also focuses on country-wide disarmament and explosives control to limit anti-Pakistan groups’ access to arms and ammunition.
This operation focuses only on groups that attack civilian and military targets within Pakistan. Militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which attack security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir from support bases in Pakistan, are not targeted by the operation, to say nothing of the Taliban and its associated groups fighting U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan continues to maintain a double-standard on militancy, cracking down on groups that threaten the Pakistani state while continuing to support those operating against Pakistan's neighbors.
The operation nominally covers the entire country of Pakistan. Security forces have focused on theand thus far, although they have also conducted large raids targeting militant hideouts and weapons caches in many of Pakistan’s major cities, including , , and .
Operation Raddul Fasaad uses Intelligence-Based Operations (IBOs), a Pakistani military approach developed during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. IBOs use information from multiple intelligence agencies to find and eliminate militant hideouts across the country. Security forces also conduct raids to seize arms caches and arrest suspected militants.
Pakistani security forces have so far achieved moderate success during Operation Raddul Fasaad. Security forces have recovered a large number of weapons caches, including explosive material and automatic weapons. Police have also arrested more than 1,000 suspected militants.
Pakistan’s military has reported relatively few casualties among the security forces, suggesting that focusing on Intelligence Based Operations is a successful strategy for maximizing the efficacy of the operation. The vast majority of information on arrests, raids, and casualties is reported directly by the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), however, making it difficult to verify the military’s claims.
Intensified security operations have failed to prevent militant attacks on both security forces and civilians, however. Several militant groups, including ISIS Wilayat Khorasan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, conducted attacks across the country on the weekend of Eid al Fitr [June 25-28], killing nearly 100 people. These attacks amounted to the deadliest weekend of 2017 in Pakistan, despite increased security measures for the Islamic holiday. They show the limits of the security forces' operations and the resilience of the enemy groups.
Operation Raddul Fasaad will continue until the government and security forces assess that the majority of the threat has been eliminated. Pakistani security forces will continue to conduct raids to recover weapons caches and arrest suspected militants, focusing on militant strongholds along the borders of Afghanistan and Iran. Smaller sub-operations, such as Operation Khyber IV outlined below, will likely emerge as militant “hot-spots” are identified.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb continued for nearly two years before security forces declared it complete. Continued operations in North Waziristan and the launching of Operation Raddul Fasaad suggest that security forces either declared victory prematurely or failed to address the sources of militancy, or both. The country-wide scope of Operation Raddul Fasaad will make it difficult for Pakistani security forces to declare victory with any sincerity, since there is no reasonable prospect that they will fully defeat anti-Pakistan militant groups or resolve the causes of militancy throughout the country.
Operation Khyber IV
Pakistani security forces and government officials regularly deny the significant presence of ISIS Wilayat Khorasan (ISIS WK) in the country, maintaining that the group does not have established infrastructure in Pakistan and attacks from strongholds in neighboring Afghanistan. ISIS WK, however, has conducted several attacks within Pakistan over the past months and appears to be attempting to establish an attack network in the country.
Following the early successes of Operation Raddul Fasaad and in response to international concern about ISIS in Pakistan, Pakistani security forces launched Operation Khyber IV on July 16, 2017 to clear Khyber Agency of militancy. This relationship echoes that of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operations Khyber I and II. The Pakistani army announced the completion of Operation Khyber IV on August 21 and declared it a success.
Operation Khyber IV sought specifically to eliminate the threat of ISIS WK from the, although security forces also targeted other militant groups in the raids. The operation also focused in part on border security with neighboring Afghanistan, as Pakistani officials claim the primary threat of ISIS emanates from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Operation Khyber IV focused on the Khyber Agency, most specifically thealong the border with Afghanistan. Khyber Agency is extremely mountainous, making it difficult to conduct conventional ground warfare.
Pakistani security forces employed air strikes targeting militant hideouts as well as ground raids to clear the area of explosives and militant bases. The fencing of the Pakistani-Afghan border, announced April 17, 2017, was another aspect of the operation.
It is too early to say whether Operation Khyber IV can be considered successful. Security forces experienced early progress, reporting on July 20 that they had cleared more than 90 square kilometers of the Rajgal Valley, killed 13 militants in airstrikes and raids, and defused 23 IEDs. Security forces also declared the completion of Phase I of the operation after they retook the strategic Brekh Muhammed Kandao mountain peak from militants. This declaration is likely symbolic, however, and may also indicate a tendency to prematurely declare victory against militants in order to gain local and international support. The Pakistani military announced the completion of Operation Khyber IV on August 21, claiming to clear the Rajgal Valley and kill 52 militants.
The success of clearing operations may not mean the elimination of the threat. It is possible that these clearing operations simply pushed militants across the Rajgal Valley, rather than truly eliminating the militant strongholds. If this is the case, Operation Khyber IV may have successfully cleared the Rajgal Valley at the cost of shifting the groups to other areas of the FATA or over the border into Afghanistan—a traditional pattern in Pakistan military operations.
Newly-formed Ansar al Sharia Pakistan (ASP) also claimed its first attack in the FATA on July 21, 2017. ASP claimed to kill “several” Pakistani soldiers in the Rajgal Valley of Khyber Agency with the help of local tribes. This indicates both Pakistani security forces’ inability to clear the valley of militancy and ASP’s ability to tap into local tribal grievances.
There are also allegations that Pakistani security forces are targeting ISIS WK in name only in order to encourage both local and international support for the operation. ISPR’s own reports of militant casualties show that Lashkar-e-Islam and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are more frequently targeted by security forces than ISIS WK, indicating there may be some legitimacy to these claims.
Operation Khyber IV sparked tensions with neighboring Afghanistan. The Afghan Ministry of Defense criticized the operation, asserting that the militant strongholds are in Pakistan’s cities, not the tribal areas that border Afghanistan. The Pakistani Army rejected the criticism of the operation, emphasizing that operations on both sides of the Durand Line are necessary to ensure regional security.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb resulted in the displacement of thousands of local tribes from North and South Waziristan. The Pakistani government has worked over the past two years to repatriate these families, but the start of Operation Khyber IV delayed the repatriation process further. Tribal elders warned that if they are not permitted to return, they may agitate against the government. Militant groups may be able to tap into the local grievances created by ongoing security operations, allowing militancy to spread and countering the ultimate goals of the operation.
Pakistan’s ongoing security operations targeting anti-Pakistan militant groups will alleviate the threat of militancy in some areas for a short time. They will not be sufficient to prevent the groups' reconstitution, however. The Pakistani government has not taken the necessary steps to address the root causes of militancy within Pakistan and its double-standards toward groups with attack networks in Afghanistan, India, and the Kashmir region leaves a solid support base from which the targeted groups can recruit to rebuild. Political instability resulting from the forced resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to affect the progression or the outcome of these operations. Sharif’s party maintains power in Pakistan, placing key allies of the ousted Prime Minister in critical positions and ensuring continuity in policy. This continuity may be unfortunate in that the policy is fundamentally flawed.
The Trump administration increased pressure on Pakistan to take action against all militant groups within its borders as part of a broader effort to push partners to do more in the fight against militancy. Renewed U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, alongside recent decisions by the U.S. Congress to withhold military reimbursement to consider cutting aid, may pressure Pakistan to take action. A meaningful shift in Pakistani behavior is unlikely, however, unless the Trump administration is prepared to bring much greater pressure on Islamabad than its predecessors—and possibly not even then.