LIKE Africa is a country to many people in other parts of the world, the seven federally administered tribal agencies suffer a somewhat similar fate when they come up for discussion in Pakistan: there is just ‘the tribal areas’; all details, distinctions and differences between the constituent units of Fata being subsumed in most debates on the area. But, as a report on South Waziristan in this newspaper yesterday indicated, the experience of each agency has been different and there are crucial distinctions. Back in 2009, when the militants seemed to be in the ascendant, Pakistanis were told that South Waziristan was the root of most militancy problems and drastic action had to be taken. Public opinion was courted to support another major military operation in South Waziristan following the failure of the last one in 2008. Now, nearly three years on from Operation Rah-i-Nijat, only one of the six subdivisions in South Waziristan — Sararogha — has been denotified as a conflict area and there too, the return of IDPs has been painfully slow.

What went wrong in South Waziristan? After clearing the Mehsud areas of their human population, the security forces did manage to dominate the physical space for a while. In fact, even today the security forces would argue that they do dominate the physical landscape, given that they control the major roads and the strategic hilltops. But there is also the reality that the newly constructed roads have virtually no traffic, that the security forces are frequently targeted by IEDs and hit-and-run tactics and that even the hardened population of South Waziristan is reluctant to return home for fear of reprisals from the militants. Essentially, the military learned how to clear and hold an area under militant control but has little understanding about how to permanently keep militants out and restore an area to a civil administration-led state of relative normality. Perhaps what is most worrying is that these problems have slipped off the national radar, like when the tribal areas did after the Soviets were defeated and few were concerned about the new, more lethal problems that were brewing there.

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