By Rahimullah Yusufzai –
Results and repercussions
Pakistan launched yet another major military operation against armed insurgents on June 15, but the battleground this time is a tribal region that has attracted worldwide attention as being the hub of a range of militant groups, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
North Waziristan has earned notoriety as a base of militants and terrorists threatening not only Pakistan, but also Afghanistan and the Western countries. In the years leading up to this operation, there was incessant talk but not much action although many felt a sustained military operation in this violent tribal territory was inevitable.
There had been limited military operations in North Waziristan in the past, but the September 2006 peace accord between the government, the Utmanzai tribal elders (including those from the Wazir and the Dawar tribes) and representatives of the militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, meant that there could be no major army action as long as this pact was in place. The peace agreement largely favoured the militants and was being frequently violated by terrorists who were on a warpath with the state of Pakistan, and it lasted for eight long years before Islamabad’s patience finally ran out.
Apart from other provocations, the audacious June 8 terrorist attack on the Jinnah International Airport at Karachi in which 38 people, including security personnel, airline employees and the 10 attackers were killed proved a turning point as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government decided it had to act.
Further delaying the long expected military operation in North Waziristan, where both the TTP and the IMU that claimed responsibility for the Karachi attack had a strong presence, could have widened the gulf between the Prime Minister, who until recently was in favour of peace talks with the TTP, and the military, which had reservations over this approach even if it didn’t openly criticize the government policy.
PML-N’s decision received widespread political support from almost all ruling and opposition parties except the three Islamic ones – Jamaat-i-Islami, the JUI-F and JUI-S.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s PTI too backed the military operation even though it complained that the federal government didn’t take it into confidence with regards to the timing of the operation. As the PTI is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the head of a three-party coalition government, and the province is required to host almost all the tribal people displaced by the military action in North Waziristan, it was justified in asking that it ought to have been taken on board.
This wasn’t done and it contributed to the existing bitterness between PML-N and PTI, parties which had fought a bruising electoral contest against each other in May 2013 and emerged as the two major vote-getters in the country.
The blame-game and lack of understanding with each other affects the relief work to meet the needs of the almost 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). More tribal people are preparing to leave on the orders of the military authorities, who want to depopulate North Waziristan in a bid to isolate the militants and avoid civilian casualties. Officials calculated that more than 650,000 people would eventually be displaced from North Waziristan in a population estimated to be around 800,000.
On the other hand the military authorities have reportedly agreed to the proposal of a tribal Jirga led by the revered late freedomfighter Faqir of Ipi’s grandson Sher Mohammad Khan to let the people in the Razmak, Garyoom and Dossali tehsils stay in their villages in return for guarantees that they won’t let foreign militants hide in their area. A similar deal was made in Eidak village situated near Mir Ali town and in Spinwam and Shawa tehsils, though it remains to be seen if these arrangements will stay intact following the first suicide bombing against the security forces in Spinwam since the launching of the operation.
Until now, most of the people have been displaced from Mir Ali, Miranshah and Boya tehsils where local and foreign militants were present in significant numbers.
The federal government after initial hesitation has allocated Rs500 million for the care of the IDPs while the PTI-led provincial government has given Rs350 million, but it’s evident that these funds won’t be enough. Imran Khan and his party’s chief minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak, asked the federal government to raise its contribution to Rs6 billion as the displaced people belong to North Waziristan, which is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) under supervision of the President of Pakistan through the Governor of the province.
Matters weren’t helped when media reports emerged that the Sindh and Balochistan governments had banned the entry of IDPs in their provinces due to concerns about the arrival of militants in the guise of displaced people. It seems widespread criticism of the decision and a unanimous resolution of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly condemning the decision prompted first the Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch and then his counterpart in Sindh, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, to alter their stance and to explain that they only wanted to put up adequate screening procedures at entry-points to Balochistan and Sindh to deny entry to militants from North Waziristan.
Indeed such procedures are direly needed not only at the entry-points to Balochistan and Sindh but also Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab even though an elaborate screening process manned by the security forces, NADRA and other relevant departments has already been put in place at the Saidgi checkpoint in Frontier Region, Bannu, where the displaced families are first registered after leaving North Waziristan via the Khajuri security post near Mir Ali town.
The government seems overwhelmed by the exodus of the people leaving North Waziristan. It’s being found incapable of coping with the challenge to look after the needs of the displaced people, who recently declined to stay in a relief camp set up by the government on the advice of the military at the Frontier Region, Bannu, in Bakkakhel. Its remote location in a desolate place in a semi-tribal territory was a major reason for the IDPs not to settle there, but threats by the militants to not stay in government relief camps was also a huge factor for the Bakkakhel camp to attract only a small number of the most desperate families among those uprooted.
The civil administration’s proposal to establish the camp on the Bannu Link Road in the settled area was more feasible as it was in the vicinity of a tube-well, mosque, market and electricity lines, but it was allegedly shot down by the military authorities due to security concerns.
Though the services available to the IDPs are gradually improving as the government and the military begin to coordinate their activities and the federal, KP and Punjab governments lead initiatives to serve them in a better way, the dispersal of the displaced people to places as far as Bannu, Laki Marwat, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Karak, Kohat, Hangu and even Peshawar means that it will be difficult to reach all of them and provide cash compensation, ration and non-food items. Six distribution centres were recently set up including three in Bannu, two in Dera Ismail Khan and one in Tank and June 25 onwards 40,000 IDPs families began getting rations from the stock of 4,473 tonnes with each bag containing wheat flour, cooking oil, lentils, dates and tea leaves. The army also opened 32 relief goods collection points to seek donations in major cities of the country and the Punjab government has set up a relief fund for this explicit purpose.
On the other hand, the decision by several thousand people from North Waziristan to seek refuge in neighbouring Khost and Paktika provinces in Afghanistan has become a source of embarrassment for Pakistan. It is the first time since Pakistan’s independence that so many Pakistanis are seeking refuge across the Western border. It has been the other way round all these years as Afghans have been finding refuge in Pakistan due to the conflicts going on since 1978. Even now 1.7 million registered and almost a million non-registered Afghan refugees are living in this country.
However, Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, the governor of Khost, recently stated that more than 3,000 families from North Waziristan were seeking refuge in his province. He appealed to the UN and other donors to assist the Afghan government in coping with the challenge. On the security front, the Afghan government appears reluctant to help Pakistan regarding militants fleeing into Afghan territories, despite requests by Nawaz Sharif himself. There is deep mistrust between the two governments.
Back on the operation front, there has been little ground retaliation by the militants to the military operation as they simply abandoned their compounds that were repeatedly targeted in the airstrikes by the Pakistan Air Force in the Mir Ali and Miranshah tehsils and shifted to hideouts in the forested and mountainous Shawal valley, to Dattakhel where Hafiz Gul Bahadur has his stronghold and even to other parts of FATA.
The militants undertook their first suicide attack against a security forces checkpoint in Spinwam killing two soldiers and a civilian. Before that, the army had conceded the loss of eight soldiers and injuries to another seven in roadside bombings.
The military claims it has killed more than 300 terrorists including Uzbeks aligned with the IMU and destroyed scores of their hideouts in the airstrikes. However, the army didn’t identify those killed or show their bodies or graves to the media. The unfamiliar name of only one Uzbek commander, Abu Abdur Rahman al-Mani, was mentioned when it was claimed that he was among those killed in the airstrikes.
The TTP itself is unusually subdued as it has so far only threatened revenge attacks in urban centres in Pakistan, particularly in Nawaz Sharif’s native Punjab province. The TTP said the PML-N would be its prime target as they had ordered the military operation in North Waziristan after keeping it busy in peace talks. But there have been no terrorist attacks in Punjab or Sindh during this period, only FATA and KP continue to bear the brunt of the militants’ onslaught as the security forces, policemen and pro-government people are being targeted.
On the night of June 24-25, a PIA plane flying to Peshawar from Riyadh was also fired upon as it flew low over villages close to the airport while landing. A woman passenger was killed, two flight stewards were wounded and the Airbus 310 was hit with eight bullets striking its engines. The pilot who had a miraculous escape managed to keep his nerves to land safely and avert a terrible disaster. Peshawar airport, which has two portions to be used by civil and military aircrafts, had been attacked with rockets in the past and a suicide mission by several militants aiming to enter its premises had been thwarted in 2012.
The ability of the militants to hit planes landing and taking off pose a new danger to aviation traffic at the busy Bacha Khan international airport, presently located in a congested part of Peshawar. As expected, Emirates Airlines suspended its flights to Peshawar and other airlines could follow suit. It was a major success for the militants, who have been particularly targeting airports, military airbases and expensive aircrafts to cripple Pakistan’s air defence and aviation industries.
Finally, the three recent drone strikes by the US after a nearly six-month gap specifically targeted the members of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. The government condemned the drone attacks and termed them a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and unhelpful in Pakistan’s war against terrorism. The lack of trust between the two countries is explained by their different priorities. The priority for Pakistan in North Waziristan is to go after the TTP, the IMU and al-Qaeda members because they were attacking the Pakistani state.
But the priority for the US is to target the Haqqani network as it had carried out spectacular attacks against the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and seized an American soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whose release the US secured after granting freedom to five important Afghan Taliban commanders held for the past 12 years in the Guantanamo prison.
The US no doubt was pleased with Pakistan army’s final push into North Waziristan after pressuring it for years to do so, but it seems it wanted Islamabad to go after Haqqani network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur also.
In any case, after the PAF’s airstrikes, the next stage of the action could be a ground offensive to occupy strategic heights and towns, destroy the militants hideouts and secure the roads. However, the action is unlikely to be brief and focused as many government officials are claiming that the military is in North Waziristan for the long haul. It is also unclear if the Haqqani network affiliated with the Afghan Taliban movement or the militants loyal to Hafiz Gul Bahadur will be targeted even though Army Chief General Raheel Sharif made it clear that no militant would be spared and that the operation would continue until the government’s writ is established in North Waziristan.
The fate of the Khan Sajna faction which split some weeks ago from the mainstream TTP and is no longer involved in attacks against the state is also not clear, as it has been in favour of peace talks with the government. These and other questions await answers as all the attention is now focused on North Waziristan.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Peshawar