AS the 2015 sun faded behind the towering mountains of the north-western tribal regions on Thursday, it was a moment for most of us to remember where we were and where we stand today, in terms of the rise and decline — if not demise — of militancy in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

Consider the situation in 2008, when militants’ honcho, Baitullah Mahsud, had given a five-day ultimatum to the beleaguered Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party to resign or face consequences for failing to implement the Swat peace agreement and supporting military action in the northern district of Swat.

Consider the situation in 2009. Militancy and terrorism were at their peak. The writ of the state in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had shrunk to 38 per cent. The ANP — on top of the militants’ hit list — considered relocating the seat of its government to the northern garrison city of Abbottabad. Fata was nearly lost. KP was on the brink.

Fast-forward to 2015. The state writ has been restored 100 per cent in KP while in Fata, a mere stretch of 1,373 square kilometres (out of a total 27,000 sq km) remains to be cleared.

The areas where work needs to be done are parts of Shawal and Dattakhel in North Waziristan and Rajgal in Khyber. The area is not controlled by militants. Now militants’ attacks are confined to physical raids from across the border and use of improvised explosive devices, security officials say.

In KP, militants are resorting to targeted killings and extortions, which in some districts have registered a spike in recent months, largely through sleeper cells.

Overall the number of terrorist incidents, according to police statistics, has come down from 160 in the first quarter to 73 in the third quarter from July to September of 2015.

There have been 1,536 intelligence-based operations, mostly in settled districts of KP, in 2015 resulting in the arrest of 6,470 suspects, but terrorist threats persist.

On an average, 10 to 11 threats are generated daily, security officials say. From 256 threats received in the first quarter (January-March) 2015, the number of threats received in the fourth quarter (October to December) declined to 226, though this showed an increase over the third quarter (July-September) when the figure stood at 178.

There has been a sea change in terms of security in KP and Fata. Zarb-i-Azb operation has played a pivotal role in restoring peace. But as the sun rises to herald the advent of a new year on Friday, the one question that stays on mind is: Will 2016 see consolidation of the gains made in 2015? Has peace come to stay or is it transient?

While in the overall national context, the implementation of the National Action Plan is of paramount importance. Several other factors will also determine the course of events next year in terms of counter-terrorism strategy.

The end-state: With just a fraction of the tribal land in North Waziristan and Khyber remaining to be cleared, Zarb-i-Azb may be brought to an end somewhere in the middle of 2016, depending on what happens to the Pakistani militant outfits which have found sanctuary and created bases across the border from Khost and Kunar to Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan.

The operation, involving nearly 160,000 troops, including the paramilitary force, has taken the military to where no force, not even the British, had gone before.

They are now commanding posts dotted all along the border with Afghanistan, commanding hitherto inaccessible high features and mountains. Can the military sustain its presence in those forbidding areas?

Logistically, yes. The military together with the civil administration in Fata has been able to build jeepable tracks to the remotest outposts on the border. So supplying troops and bringing reinforcements is and will not be an issue.

But the end state is not in the military’s hands alone. As one senior official put it, it’s not war between two states. The military has created an environment for the civil administration to move in. But the problem is that the civil administration had been weakened to such an extent in the decade of militancy and terrorism that it is almost non-existent.

Indeed Tirah has never had any administration whatsoever, not even during the British time. Propping it up on its own feet and improving service delivery to the tribal people will be a huge challenge.

Recruitment and training of Levy and Khasadar force is on and should not be a big problem, depending upon the availability of resources. The whole question of sustainability of the entire operation indeed to a larger extent will come up when the repatriation of tribal people is completed in North and South Waziristan by November and in Khyber tribal region by July 2016.

Repatriation has already been delayed because of non-availability of resources, but once the process picks up there would be pressure for early return and demand for restoration of services.

Sustainability of the operation will be questionable if circumstances do not change and the state continues to remain absent or incapable of restoring and rebuilding lives of tribal people. “The whole effort would be lost if we don’t bring smiles to their faces,” the security official said.

Tribal reforms: The raging debate about the future status of Fata, is likely to come to some conclusion in 2016. A committee headed by Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Mr Sartaj Aziz has been tasked to recommend reforms. The committee visited Bajaur on Thursday to speak to tribal elders and other stakeholders and is likely to visit Mohmand before undertaking similar visits to other tribal regions.

There are four options: 1. Should Fata be merged with KP? 2. Should it be given a status of a province? 3. Should it be given autonomous status like Gilgit-Baltistan and 4. Should status quo be maintained in Fata with some reforms?

The military wants the federal government to move. The process, they say, has already been long delayed, citing a 1983 letter that the Khakis had written to the federal government to seek reforms. What it is seeking is a clear road map. The issue has to be settled either way, they say.

“The status of the seven tribal agencies of Fata and six Frontier Regions will have to be decided, whether in one go or in a gradual manner, beginning with Bajaur and the FRs first and Mohmand, Kurram, Khyber and Orakzai later, followed by North and South Waziristans. This has to be decided,” one senior official said.

The military has already drawn its own road map but it would like the government to draw its own plan with consensus of all stakeholders, chiefly among them, the tribesmen. Be it in one-go or be it incremental, the general consensus and feeling is to merge Fata and the FRs into KP.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2016

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