Dec 14, 2009

Tribal areas: still a long way to go

By Rahimullah Yusufzai

There was an element of disbelief everywhere when Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said on December 12 that the military offensive in South Waziristan was almost over and now the government was considering a similar operation in Orakzai Agency. His statement was given importance in Western capitals and media and soon analysts were contacted to explain its implications. Many found it unbelievable that the action was going to shift soon from the Waziristan battlefield where the 'mother of all battles' was supposed to take place.

It later dawned on Prime Minister Gilani that his statement had caused confusion and needed to be clarified. He had gone beyond his brief and said something that was premature and gave wrong description of the situation in both South Waziristan and Orakzai tribal regions. The statement was promptly retracted and a new one issued in which he said the military operation in South Waziristan was continuing successfully but no timeline could be given about its conclusion. He added that military action in Orakzai and other tribal areas where militants had fled from South Waziristan would be undertaken if there was a need.

The incident showed the inability of our ruling politicians to grasp the importance the world, in particular the west, is attaching to the situation in our tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and the keenness with which Pakistan armed forces' operations in South Waziristan and elsewhere are being followed. Apparently Mr Gilani wanted to portray the advance of the security forces in South Waziristan as a success of his government's policy to tackle militancy. The urge to convey this message prompted the prime minister to make the statement while talking to journalists in Lahore. By the way, the temptation to talk to waiting reporters after an event and pass casual remarks about serious issues sometimes lands rulers and celebrities in trouble. And like Mr Gilani, they are subsequently found complaining about being quoted out of context.

The prime minister has been reminded that the military action in South Waziristan is by no means over. The Pakistan Army is saying that the first phase is over, but then there are supposed to be three phases of this operation. The military would need to keep most of its troops in South Waziristan until the threat from the militants is adequately overcome, the displaced people are repatriated to their villages and the civil administration is revived. This is a classic counter-insurgency mission requiring a long time to accomplish. Offering a timeline for achieving such difficult goals is risky. If the Swat and Malakand mission is any guide where the post-conflict stage hasn't been fully reached and the revival of the civil administration has been slow, the task in the harsh and hostile terrain of South Waziristan would be even more challenging.

Before Mr Gilani, President Asif Ali Zardari also spoke before time when he announced last summer that military action in South Waziristan was on the cards. His statement triggered an exodus from parts of South Waziristan as tribal people started abandoning their homes to shift to Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and other places before the army offensive. Prior to the president, the NWFP governor Owais Ahmad Ghani declared in June that military operation against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Baitullah Mehsud had been ordered after his men kidnapped students of Cadet College Razmak. There was no offensive in South Waziristan for months as the military was busy fighting in Swat and rest of Malakand region and it didn't want to open a new and more dangerous front. Baitullah Mehsud was meanwhile killed in a US drone attack on August 5. Despite President Zardari's announcement and Governor Owais Ghani's orders, the ground offensive by the army in South Waziristan didn't begin until October 16. It was obvious that the military took the decision about timing of the offensive and it would decide when to conclude.

Prime Minister Gilani also appears to be poorly informed about the situation in Orakzai, the only tribal agency that doesn't have a border with Afghanistan. He is unaware that a limited military action in already underway in Orakzai and it involves air raids by jet-fighters and gunship helicopters against suspected militants' hideouts and the use of ground forces in the Ferozkhel area on the boundary of Khyber and Orakzai agencies. Bombardment of the TTP positions in Orakzai Agency had taken place even before the military action in South Waziristan and on at least one occasion a US drone fired missiles at a target in the area after flying unchallenged deep into Pakistani territory far away from the Pak-Afghan border.

The prime minister also needs to know that the military has started action against the militants in the Kurram Agency, which adjoins Orakzai Agency and also Afghanistan's Paktia, Khost and Nangarhar provinces. Tora Bora, where the US last heard of Osama bin Laden in December 2001 and bombed every cave, mountain pass and forest there in a failed bid to kill him and his Al Qaeda colleagues, is located in Nangarhar province in the foothills of the Spinghar, the majestic snow-covered mountain range that also overlooks the Kurram valley. Most of the Al Qaeda fighters and Afghan Taliban had walked over from Tora Bora to Kurram Agency and then vanished while the US aircraft kept bombing the place for days on end.

The military action now underway in central and lower parts of Kurram Agency is directed both against the already entrenched Taliban militants and those seeking refuge there after escaping from South Waziristan. A ground offensive has also been launched to hunt down the militants and reopen and secure the Thall-Sadda-Parachinar road that has remain closed to traffic for more than two years and has added to the sufferings of the people, mostly Shias, inhabiting upper Kurram valley. In case of Kurram and Orakzai agencies, there is this widespread belief that the military action is being undertaken against the militants who fled the army operation in South Waziristan. This is partly true because the militants since the last few years were well-entrenched in Kurram and Orakzai and were using the two centrally and strategically sited tribal agencies to serve as their nerve-centre, supply route and regional command headquarters. The TTP head Hakimullah Mehsud was for quite sometime based in Orakzai as the commander of three tribal agencies – Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram, before he was chosen to replace his slain leader Baitullah Mehsud.

It is wrong to say that all militants or their top commanders Hakimullah Mehsud, Waliur Rahman and Qari Hussain who fled South Waziristan are now hiding in Orakzai and Kurram agencies. Other places where the TTP fighters could find refuge are the neighbouring North Waziristan, parts of Wana area and even the districts adjoining the tribal areas and in major cities. Many could still be in the remote valleys, villages and forests in the Mehsud tribal territory in South Waziristan where the security forces haven't reached. As the military outposts in the captured territory are now being attacked with rockets and light arms, it is evidence that some militants are present in the area and able to launch guerilla attacks.

Hakimullah Mehsud has threatened to strike back in January when the mountainous South Waziristan starts receiving heavy snowfall and his fighters have regrouped. The snowfall in parts of South Waziristan began on December 9, but it seems the TTP leader and his men aren't ready yet to stage bigger and more frequent attacks. It will not be easy for him to come back into battle after having lost his strongholds and left behind arms and ammunition.

His TTP will never give up and will retaliate with bombings in urban centres but it is clear that its strength has been significantly degraded after having lost their strongholds in Swat, Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber and South Waziristan. Public opinion has turned against the TTP and the people living in areas controlled by the militants are waiting for the government to offer them protection, compensation and basic needs of life. Carrying out military action in every tribal area and bombing all those places where the militants once had their hideouts shouldn't be the standard government policy. Each place has its own dynamics and much of the 'collateral damage' including civilian casualties, destruction of properties and large-scale displacement of the population could be avoided by improving intelligence, undertaking political work and isolating the militants.

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