Few people outside South Waziristan knew Kotkai — a mesh of small hamlets strewn across a hilly area — until, of course, PTI chairman Imran Khan announced his plans to hold his peace rally against CIA-operated drones in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.
But long before Imran made up his mind to make the arduous journey to that part of the Mahsud’s heartland, Kotkai, in its own right, had become the cause célèbre for Pakistan’s law-enforcement and intelligence community. Hakeemullah Mahsud, who heads the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and his cousin, Qari Hussain — Ustad-i-Fidayeen — the teacher, architect and mastermind of suicide bombing in Pakistan, belong to Kotkai.
Also, it was at Kotkai that Ustad-i-Fidayeen had established his first camp to train suicide bombers who would unleash a reign of terror on the Pakistanis. Killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan in October 2010 — much to the relief of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies — Qari has left behind a faculty that will continue to churn out devout followers to haunt Pakistanis for many, many years to come.
So, had Imran thought about the political significance of choosing a venue for his peace rally to protest drones, he would certainly not have chosen Kotkai.
The Mahsud heartland is the birthplace of the TTP which has waged a relentless war against the Pakistani state, both within and from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
The military has been in the hold-mode and since the launch of its Operation Rah-i-Nijat in October 2009, the 2,419 square-kilometre area in the Mahsud territory officially remains a conflict zone, facing 1,144 incidents of fire-raids, rocket and mortar attacks and roadside bombings in 2011. Such attacks continue unabated with the military continuing to sustain casualties.
The entire Mahsud population was flushed out and displaced. Out of the approximately 350,00 Mahsuds, only 40,000 or so have so far volunteered to return after thorough screening and verification. The standing joke among the Mahsuds is that there are now more soldiers in their land than their fellow tribesmen.
It has been three years since the military entered South Waziristan but even now those entering the Mahsud land are required to get a ‘rahdari’ duly attested by two tribal elders and the political administration.
So, had peace been the motivation to stage the rally it would have made more sense for Imran to highlight the Fata conundrum that has embroiled Pakistan’s military and security establishment and the ravaging militants in a seemingly un-ending conflict that has seen the displacement of a close to a million tribal people from one end to the other.
Even on the drone issue, North Waziristan has borne the biggest brunt of the remote-controlled planes. Official statistics, more authentic than the ones being bandied about, speak for themselves. Of the 307 drone strikes till June this year, 238 have happened in North Waziristan. South Waziristan suffered 69 such attacks, two-thirds of which occurred in the Mahsud territory, more so in Birmal and Laddha.
The 69 attacks included the ones that killed Nek Mohammad in 2004. That attack, which had come on the request of and was received with gleeful acceptance, heralded the beginning of a long campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan.
Years later, the Pakistanis would once again turn to their American friends to eliminate the TTP supremo, Baitullah Mahsud. The CIA obliged. On a starry night in August 2009, Baitullah was killed along with his wife while sleeping on the roof of his father-in-law’s house. The Americans shared its video with their grateful Pakistani counterparts.
Ever since, Pakistan’s involvement in drones has changed from requesting for it, to supporting and accepting, to acquiescence, to reluctantly accepting, declaring it illegal, yet allowing the CIA to continue to use the “box” to operate through.
So, had drone attacks been the motivation there could have been no other better place for a peace rally than Mirali or perhaps even Miramshah in North Waziristan. But Imran being smart – at least on this count – has chosen not to go there and for obvious reasons; and to his credit, he said it in so many words. It would have been risky.
No-one in his right frame of mind would dare to tread the dangerous path into North Waziristan – an area where the military, for a variety of reasons, is reluctant to mount an operation against foreign and Pakistani militants. This is one reason why the Americans say they would not, in the present circumstances, cease drone strikes – not until Pakistani forces moved in and asserted its authority.
Many analysts believe that PTI chairman’s poor understanding of the highly complex situation in Fata, particularly in the two Waziristans, borders on naiveté which makes things all the more dangerous for a man aspiring to be the next leader of Pakistan.
If choosing Kotkai as the venue was wrong, his statement and those of his party leaders’ that somehow the TTP would have no issues with and would provide security to his rally was foolhardy to say the least.
An over-sensitive military which has the absolute control in the Mahsud territory would never have allowed that, nor would have the TTP, who have warned their fellow Mahsuds to desist from returning home to avoid becoming sandwiched in the ongoing conflict in the yet-unstable Mahsud area. The TTP’s Friday statement, denying promising security to the PTI rally should not come as a surprise. Any hope within the PTI that it would play the Kramer vs Kramer drama has thus come to a naught.
Little wonder, the Ashangi Mahsud tribe, which dominates the area in Spinkay Raghazy, gave it in writing to the political administration in South Waziristan that they can neither protect nor undertake responsibility for providing security to the PTI rally. No-one is willing to take chances.
But having said this, the peace march would also test how far the government that takes credit for having extended the Political Parties Act to Fata, is willing to accommodate and allow PTI into South Waziristan.
Besides, the administration in South Waziristan says that it cannot allow the rally into South Waziristan on security grounds does not absolve it and security forces of their responsibility to protect its participants.
For now, there appears some sort of a tacit understanding between the PTI and the authorities that the rally will not proceed to South Waziristan or the “Waziristan” which its activists and leaders tried to twist to escape mocking sarcasm of chickening out of North Waziristan. The grand finale that Imran has claimed he would stage at “Waziristan” may thus end in a public meeting at Tank or Dera Ismail Khan.
But then politics is all that matters, a showdown and attempts to force entry against poorly-equipped Khasadars, is a possibility nobody is willing to discount. In the words of a senior government official, the PTI rally is fast turning into a political Wikipedia, Imran Khan has initiated the script but he will not be able to write its end.