TWISTING and turning along the rugged mountains, a newly constructed highway has changed the landscape of South Waziristan which not too long ago was described as the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban’s ‘Islamic Emirate of Waziristan’.
The sight offers a sharp contrast to the forbidding feeling that surrounds the neighbouring agency of North Waziristan, the epicentre of violent militancy. Last week I travelled to these two largest tribal agencies that form the eye of the storm in the battle against the militants.
Cutting through the region inhabited by the Mehsud tribe, the 110-kilometre-long Jandola-Makin road has opened up the territory devastated by the insurgency. Tribesmen are trickling back to their homes in the districts cleared of the Taliban. The situation is still tenuous, however, in parts of the agency, with militant bands lurking on the fringes.
Life is slowly returning to normal in Sararogah town, once the Taliban’s operational nerve centre. Most of the families are back to a completely changed environment. A new market, a technical school and a basic health unit have been built on the ruins left by the fighting.
It was a completely different scene from the one I had witnessed when I visited the town soon after the army operation at the end of 2009. Sararogah had been reduced to a pile of mud bricks and twisted iron. Amid the rubble was a ramshackle student hostel which the Taliban had used as their base. It had also served as a training school for suicide bombers.
Booklets with detailed instructions for making bombs were scattered on the dusty floor as well as ammunition and vests with pouches tailored for suicide bombers. This training centre was thought to be the main one used by militants who had unleashed a wave of terror that shook the country. There was then strong evidence of South Waziristan becoming the main sanctuary for Al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters.
By driving out the Taliban from a large swath of land the offensive has broken the myth of the territory being the graveyard of the army. That success was made possible because of the toughened resolve of the military and full support from the political leadership. It was that rare unity that helped win a critical battle against the Taliban.
New hope has emerged from the rebuilding of Sararogah and the construction of the road networks linking regional trade routes. But there is still a long way to go before peace can return to South Waziristan. The soldiers are still engaged in fighting the Taliban in parts of the agency making it hard for the population to return to their homes.
While there is a ray of hope in South Waziristan, the situation in North Waziristan is extremely tenuous. The tension is palpable as one arrives in Miramshah. The town and the adjacent areas are mostly under night curfew. The army garrison headquarters looks like a sub-ground bunker given the heavy security around it. IED (improvised explosive device) attacks have taken a huge toll on Pakistani soldiers. Suicide attacks are also commonplace. On the surface, it seems to be business as usual in the town, but beneath it there is a lurking fear of the unknown.
The presence of a lethal brew of militant groups has earned the region the reputation of being the most dangerous place on earth. It is not surprising that the origin of most acts of terrorism inside Pakistan can be located in North Waziristan with thousands of militants from outside and across Pakistan turning the agency into a jihadi training base. The continued insecurity in parts of South Waziristan is also attributed to these militant sanctuaries in the north.
Most of the top Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders, including Hakeemullah Mehsud, are now said to be operating from their hideouts in the agency. Several Punjabi militant groups, which are associated with the TTP and Al Qaeda, have set up training camps in Mir Ali and Miramshah districts which also house Uzbek fighters. Then there are Afghan Taliban groups who may not be interested in fighting Pakistanis, but are focused on battling the coalition and Afghan forces across the border.
Security officials aver that militant violence in Pakistan cannot be stopped without eliminating these sanctuaries. But the option of a military operation in North Waziristan has become a highly divisive issue despite the escalation in militant violence. While conceding that such an operation is imperative for national security, the military leadership wants the civilian government to take ownership.
This dithering and indecision has already come at a huge cost given the rising power of militant groups. There is also growing concern in the international community over the region becoming the centre for global jihad. “A military operation is still doable at the moment, but further delay would be disastrous,” said a senior military officer.
A good opportunity to launch the operation emerged last year following the attack on Malala Yousafzai. It was akin to October 2009 when the attack on General Headquarters (GHQ) created an enabling environment for the operation in South Waziristan. But unlike then, no political consensus could be developed on North Waziristan.
The military wanted a clear mandate from the political leadership before launching the offensive. The effort by the PPP-led government to achieve a consensus among the main political parties failed. The main opposition came from the PML-N which was fearful of a possible backlash in Punjab. The opportunity was lost thus granting greater space to the militants and making Pakistan and the region more insecure.
Thousands of Pakistani soldiers and officers have laid down their lives securing South Waziristan and other tribal territories, but that tenuous control may fall apart if North Waziristan is not cleared. The success in South Waziristan could be repeated in North Waziristan if tough decisions are taken, before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.
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