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"At its peak, across Fata, there were probably 15,000 to 20,000 (militants). In South Waziristan now, there’s probably two or three hundred," says an army official.—File Photo

JANDOLA (South Waziristan): Depending on whose perspective is given more credence, the gradual resettlement of South Waziristan’s IDPs is either one of the best-managed programmes for displaced persons in Fata or a veneer that barely masks deep unease among the Mehsud population.

The army line is clear: 82,000 families, mostly Mehsud, left South Waziristan before the start of Operation Rah-i-Nijat in Oct 2009 and over the last year 11,000 families have been resettled, while a further 15,000 will be resettled by the end of the summer. What awaits the returning population, according to the army, is security and the chance to rebuild their lives.

Money is offered to returning IDPs to rebuild their homes; shops to replace the razed bazaars are offered at concessional rates; poultry, cattle and fish farms are provided to those with the land to accommodate them; schools are being rebuilt and elite cadet colleges established; vocational training is offered to young, male adults; and a multi-pronged, under-construction road network will create a smooth trade corridor from southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Afghanistan.

At least for the 30km stretch between Jandola and Sararogha, many of the promises can be seen materialising on the ground. With the civilian administration completely sidelined and the army entirely in control of the rehabilitation process, young officers are keen to show off newly constructed homes, schools and water projects built under their supervision — even as they are quick to point out that such tasks are outside their primary job description as soldiers.

Is it real? Security in South Waziristan, the cornerstone of the rehabilitation process, is a question of thirds. In elaborate PowerPoint presentations — sometimes set to mood-appropriate music to highlight the destruction since 2009 and the recovery over the last year — army officials showed that South Waziristan has been divided into three bands for security and rehabilitation purposes.

Only the first band — from Jandola, which is the entry point to SWA from Tank, to roughly Sararogha — has seen an intensive rehabilitation effort. The band closest to North Waziristan is still off-limits to IDPs and fighting continues there, while the middle band is a mix of imminent rehabilitation zones and no-go areas for the civilian population.

However, even in Jandola, the most secure of areas in South Waziristan, the stories of the local population vary according to whose presence they are being narrated in. In the presence of army officials outside a newly constructed row of shops in an open field, resettled IDPs expressed overall satisfaction with the rehabilitation process, their complaints mostly about the lack of potable water and a growing population of wild dogs that is scaring children and making travelling on foot difficult.

Out of earshot of army officials, however, a different set of tales came tumbling out. “There is still anger here. People’s homes were destroyed, their shops and livelihoods too. Their jewellery and valuables went missing after soldiers entered their homes,” said one Mehsud native speaking on the condition of anonymity. Another said, “At least 25 per cent of the people still support the Taliban. When IEDs are planted, it’s not people sneaking in from outside and planting them, it’s the Taliban paying locals Rs50,000 to do it.”

The second local added: “Give it eight or ten years, maybe mindsets will change then.”

A troubled tribe In D.I. Khan, where a large number of Mehsud IDPs have relocated, awaiting the army’s signal that they can return home, a Mehsud elder explained the more subtle effects of the army presence in SWA:

“Look, just like the leader of Al Qaeda cannot be selected without Arab input, the leader of the TTP cannot be selected without the Mehsud militants. But not every Mehsud is a militant and not every militant is a Mehsud. What’s happening, though, is that we are all being treated as militants and that is sustaining resentment against the army.”

The elder continued: “My home is in Ladha and I can’t go back there. But even when I go to other parts, what used to be an hour-long journey now takes five or six hours because of all the checkposts. We are frisked at every point and are spoken to harshly. It’s like being a Palestinian in Israel. Only us Mehsuds know what we feel in our hearts about the army because of the way we are treated.”

But the army is only one side of the vice the Mehsud population feels trapped in: the other is the Mehsud militants.

A retired schoolteacher from Ladha now living in D.I. Khan said: “We are all scared. I’m scared every time I leave my house. If we raise even a finger towards the truth, we could get killed.”

Another Ladha native said: “People are scared of going back. No one knows how long the army will stay. They are worried infighting (among Mehsuds) will break out. No one knows who is in which camp.”

Peace an elusive goal There is a third complication for the Mehsuds: the age-old rivalry with the Wazir tribe in South Waziristan.

In the cadet college in Spinkai Raghzai, a Mehsud area, the principal, Col Zahid Akbar, told of an influx of Mehsud students at the start of the year after they were ejected from the cadet college in Wana, a Wazir-dominated area. “There was a blast in Wana bazaar and the Wazirs blamed the Mehsuds, said they were informants,” Col Akbar said.

In D.I. Khan, one of the victims of the Wazir anger towards the Mehsuds is Mada Khan, living in a tent in an open field. “When the military operation began, we fled to Wana because we couldn’t get to Tank because of the shelling and the fighting. There were some 7,000 families like ours. Then, after Maulvi Nazir was killed, we were given three days to leave. We left with just the clothes on our backs,” Khan said, referring to the drone strike that killed Maulvi Nazir in January.

For all the intra- and inter-tribal tensions in South Waziristan, army officers acknowledge that long-term stability will only come when the army can move out of the ‘hold’ mode of the counter-insurgency strategy.

Speaking about the continuing militant threat in South Waziristan, an army official said: “At its peak, across Fata, there were probably 15,000 to 20,000 (militants). In South Waziristan now, there’s probably two or three hundred. But IEDs and missiles are still a problem.”

The officer continued: “We do what we can here. Ultimately, though, the answer lies at a higher level, at the policy level. What happens here is shaped by what happens in Afghanistan. Finances (of the militants) is a real issue and how to cut it off.”

After a pause, the officer added, glancing in the direction of the hills past which lies North Waziristan, “And of course, there’s that: North Waziristan.”