POLITICAL and security circles in Pakistan are abuzz with analyses of America’s failures in Afghanistan, appreciation for the Taliban’s resilience and concern for the sufferings of ordinary Afghans.
It’s anybody’s guess, though, how anxious state and society are about the sufferings of millions of tribal people; or how concerned they are for the 140,000 regular troops engaged with militants along the Durand Line.
In public or private discourse, there is generally little reference to the 27,200 square-kilometre tribal region where for a decade now our military has been more or less bogged down in unending offensives against an ideologically hardened enemy. The tribal people, sandwiched between the military and militants, are facing mass displacement on an unimaginable scale.
If the US is not winning against the Taliban — which the American political and military leadership admits — then what is the situation facing the Pakistan military in the tribal areas? Are we winning against the militants? Neither the political nor the security leadership is ready to answer this. It could even be that nobody has so far asked this question.
Pakistan sent regular army troops to Fata (in particular the South Waziristan Agency) in late 2003 aiming to finish off what Gen Musharraf referred to as some 300 militants. Back then, the Peshawar corps commander Lt Gen Safdar Hussain announced that “we are going to sort out the Ahmadzai Wazirs”. Beginning with the Ahmadzai Wazirs the military went on to “sort out” virtually all the tribes in Fata though a string of operations in Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North and South Waziristan.
The operations forced hundreds of thousands of families to flee their homes. But the militants continued to gain power and influence, killing more people than ever before. Due to the over-involvement of the army, trying as it was to micromanage tribal affairs, and its failures against the militants, today the military is as unpopular in the tribal areas as the militants. Asked to choose between the military and the militants, most people there would reply that the only difference is that one is wearing a uniform.
The military and the state have turned out to be the main losers, ceding ground to the militants and losing the local population’s trust. The military is believed to be behaving like an occupying army, viewing every tribesman as a potential suicide bomber, caring little for local sensitivities. Years down the line, in the eyes of the tribal people, both the militants and the military are killing and dishonoring people.
Despite successive anti-militant operations and long-lasting curfews, the military has failed to effectively clear even the areas that lie at a short distance from the Khyber Pakthunkhwa capital, Peshawar, such as Bara and Jamrud in Khyber and parts of Mohmand Agency. In the tribal regions the nights still belong to the militants, who kill and humiliate opponents helping the government or the security forces.
During a recent visit to Mohmand — which both the military and the political administration have claimed has been cleared of militants — I observed a high level of fear and insecurity among the local population. With sundown, an undeclared curfew is imposed and nobody can come out of their house without the express permission of a commander — military or militant depending on the area and the time.
Even in settled areas such as Swat and Dir, stories abound of troops’ highhandedness and the humiliation of respectable families. People used to believe that torturing innocent people for minor provocations in front of others was the militants’ way of creating fear and terror in the area; but now, talk of corruption and the misuse of power on the part of the security forces is becoming common, leading to the perception that the military is instrumental in prolonging the conflict.
The second perception — that the military is not interested in finishing the job — has been created by its policy of pushing militants into other areas or across the border instead of effectively neutralising them. Resultantly, the local population lives in perpetual fear of the return of the militants. Time and again after being ‘flushed out’, the militants have staged successful comebacks and forced the military to repeat the exercise several times in every agency.
These may be incorrect perceptions but the situation demands a reassessment of the policy with regard to the tribal regions and the military operations. There is a need to stop public opinion from sliding further downwards and check the losses being imposed on the national exchequer. Before it is too late, the military leadership needs to realise the gravity of the situation and focus on winning people’s trust by taking visible action against the militants. Further, the military needs to restrict itself to operation areas and be discouraged from micromanaging political and administrative affairs.
Swat, Dir, Malakand, Bajaur and parts of Khyber Agency, which are supposed to have been cleared of militants, must be handed over to civilian administrations; the troops at check points need to be replaced by policemen.
Meanwhile, the national political and military leadership needs to stop scoring points against each other and work in conjunction before the situation gets out of hand. If history is any guide, we have already blundered by pitting regular, trained troops against a rag-tag and ill-equipped militia. This was the military’s mistake. But further complacency on part of the political leadership would be criminal, too, and could cause irreparable damage. Every political party and the national leadership must include the resolution of the conflict in the politically abandoned tribal regions in their manifestos for the upcoming elections.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.