SINGAPORE – Last month, after years of indecision, Pakistan’s military launched a full-scale military operation in the North Waziristan Tribal Agency aimed at eliminating terrorist bases and ending the region’s lawlessness. In particular, the army wants to clear out foreign fighters who are using the territory as a base for various jihads around the Muslim world. But, by triggering yet another refugee crisis, the operation risks spreading the terrorist threat to other parts of Pakistan, including its largest city and commercial center, Karachi.
Operating from sanctuaries established in the tribal agency, various terrorist groups, in association with organizations elsewhere in the country, have already attacked Pakistan’s four neighbors – Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran. Of the region’s foreign fighters, Uzbeks belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have recently become the most visible threat, taking responsibility for the June 8-9 attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, in which 30 people, including all ten of the militants, were killed.
In launching the North Waziristan operation, General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff, stated that his forces would draw no distinction between supposedly “good” and “bad” Taliban. The former, including the Haqqanis – named after Jalaluddin Haqqani, who led the Islamic resistance against Soviet forces in Afghanistan – had been trained and equipped by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s main security agency.
Following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Haqqanis created a sanctuary in the North Waziristan Tribal Agency. The ISI countenanced this in the hope that the Pashtun group would later act as Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan after US combat troops depart at the end of 2014. But the Haqqanis, it appears, did not keep to any such bargain, and allowed their Uzbek guests in North Waziristan to launch the Karachi airport attack.
This conflict, however, will not be easy to contain or manage. Pashtuns, the main ethnic group on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, are engaged in a bitter struggle in both countries to assert what they consider to be their legitimate political and economic rights. Karachi, hundreds of miles to the south, will not escape the fallout from the North Waziristan operation.
The military, which planned to flush out the main militant hideouts with air strikes, and then send in ground troops, instructed residents to leave the area beforehand. Some 350,000 people have already fled, creating a humanitarian crisis on a scale similar to that in 2009 when the military broke the Taliban’s grip on the Swat Valley.
The movement of so many people is likely to have a profound effect on Pakistan. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, released just five days after the assault, at the end of 2013 there were 51.2 million forcibly displaced people in the world, six million more than the year before, and the largest number since World War II.
Pakistan plays host to more refugees than any other country, with 1.5 million registered in the country, in addition to an estimated 3.5 million internally displaced people.
As has been the case on previous occasions, internally displaced people from North Waziristan are unlikely to remain in the camps set up for them in adjoining districts. Many will head for Pakistan’s large cities, particularly Karachi. The city’s population of 20 million already includes around six million Pashtuns, more than the number in Kabul and Peshawar combined.
Indeed, Karachi is sometimes called an “instant city,” having grown 50-fold as a result of several waves of migration since Pakistan gained independence in 1947. The first wave, of around two million people, arrived in Karachi when eight million Muslims fled India for Pakistan. The second wave included Pashtun construction workers who helped build the new commercial capital. The third wave comprised refugees displaced during Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation. And the fourth began in the early 2000s, following the US invasion of Afghanistan, which also gave rise to Pashtun resistance on both sides of the border, and contributed in turn to Islamic extremism in the tribal areas.
The current displacement from North Waziristan, therefore, can be seen as part of this fourth wave. Even if the army succeeds in clearing out the militants, some of the internally displaced people, bearing battle scars, will end up in Karachi. They will be in no mood to lay down their arms if the municipal authorities fail to develop inclusive political institutions that give minority ethnic groups a fair political voice. In that case, the long-term consequence of the military’s North Waziristan campaign may well be more violence where it can cause the most damage.