North Waziristan Operation


After the episode of 9/11, Washington declared Afghanistan the epicenter of international terrorism and jolted Pakistan out of its complacence. With the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the United States and its allies, Pakistan was to account for all Afghan refugees on its soil. Due to the immense world pressure Pakistan started a cleansing operation in the area to find those “most wanted elements”, which got refuge in the natural hide outs of Pak-Afghan border on Pakistani side in March 2004. First of all, it was South Waziristan the Pak army conducted a grand operation to hunt down militants in this area. Pakistani military authorities claim there were 500-600 foreign militants in the South Waziristan area when Army operations first started in early 2004. Of them some 400 have either been killed or captured so far while a remaining 200 still ‘stranded’ in North Waziristan, are now using the Pak-Afghan border strip as their base to launch mid-night guerilla attacks against the US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan. They are creating trouble for Afghan President Karzai, and are also embarrassing the most-trusted US ally in its war on terror.

Thus when the wanted men slipped away into the North Waziristan tribal region after losing their hideouts, the Pakistan Army shifted the focus of its “anti-terrorist operations” from Wana in South Waziristan to Miranshah in North Waziristan. North Waziristan, which has an area of about 4,707 square mile and a population of around 3,61240 according to the 1998 census. It is an interesting region for historians and researchers as the land produced some brave names who will be remembered for their valor and courage in the anti-colonialist wars in this region. The most important was Mir Zali Khan known as Faqir of Ipi, who struggled against the British colonial raj. Despite official claims to have largely contained insurgents in the two tribal agencies, the North Waziristan area continues to pose a serious challenge. The areas seems to be a stronger base for the al-Qaeda and Taliban militants simply because they own support of at least 70 per cent of the local population.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, Islamabad has apprehended and killed over 1,000 alleged activists of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban from various parts of the world. Fleeing from Afghanistan, however, the Taliban had hoped to find shelter in Pakistan only because of the past connection. Pakistan has been home to the single largest refugee population anywhere in the world for over 25 years now. According to Guenet Guebre-Christos, United Nations High Commission for Refugees Representative in Pakistan, the census found that 1,861,412 Afghan refugees live in the North West Frontier Province, 783,545 in Baluchistan, 136,780 in Sindh, 207,754 in Punjab, 44,637 in Islamabad and 13,097 in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas.

In May 2005, the Pakistani authorities announced the closure by the end of June 2005 of more than dozen refugee camps located in the area due to security concerns. There were at least two million refugees in Pakistan alone before the US-Allied Forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001. More than 200,000 refugees have reportedly crossed the border since then. Many of these refugees are desperate to return home but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been urging them not to return immediately, since Afghanistan is not ready to receive them.

Before starting the North Waziristan operation, the Pakistan government urged for registration of foreigners living in the area who were accused of launching cross border raids in Afghanistan. At the same time the Government asked locals to desist from giving shelter to such elements having pro-Taliban sentiments and assist the authorities to implement law and order in the area. But the tribesmen, on the other hand, considered those, who were declared aliens by government, as part and parcel of the tribal society as they had been living for decades and since then assimilated in the pushtoon society and culture. To ask registration is to humiliate the tribesmen as it is totally against their traditions and customs and contrary to the code of pushtoonwali. For these reasons there has been unrest in the Waziristan region and other tribal areas for almost three years now, amid clashes and military actions between foreign fighters and the Pakistan Army. Operations have been carried out and subsequently it has been announced by the Pakistan government that these have been ‘successfully’ wound up. Reportedly militant activity has not been eliminated; indeed there are reports of al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants re-grouping in the area. On the other hand, the Karzai government insists that the infiltration was actually being orchestrated from the Pakistani border area. The government is, therefore, closing Afghan refugee camps believed to be shelters for hundreds of hardened militants from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan. The United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda linked fighters. In January 2005, the Pakistani security forces had bulldozed two refugee camps, Zarinoor One and Zarinoor Two, in the South Waziristan tribal district. Later, the military operation was expanded to the North Waziristan, leaving more Afghan refugees being caught in the crossfire.

Since early 2005, the Pakistan Army has carried out a number of search operations and killed and arrested a number of foreign militants and their local facilitators in North Waziristan after bringing the situation in South Waziristan comparatively under control. Already a major American television network (ABC) has obtained videos showing fierce fighting between Pakistani troops and al-Qaeda forces in South Waziristan. The videotapes were reportedly made in January 2005 when the Pakistan Army undertook a major offensive into South Waziristan where the fiercely independent Waziri tribe resides and where some leading al-Qaeda lights are believed to be in hiding. Though the Pakistan Army declared the campaign in Waziristan to be a major victory, yet states ABC: “In at least four cases, the video shows that Pakistani army troops were driven into ambushes. One scene shows the insurgents tracking a Pakistani convoy from the mountains above before opening fire. Another scene focuses on the fiery aftermath of an attack on an army convoy”.

The tapes show a new generation of militants, some no older than 10 or 12 years, carrying automatic weapons. “These are infidels and they deserve to be killed,” a youngster told the camera. Pakistani soldiers are also shown leaving behind their dead and abandoning trucks full of arms and ammunition, which are then collected by those fighting them. Quite interestingly, the well-armed fighters move with ease through the rugged terrain, using donkeys and mules. It may be mentioned that South Waziristan is a tribal agency with North Waziristan in the north, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan in the east, and Baluchistan in the south. Like other tribal territories, South Waziristan is administered by Pakistan through a Political Agent with an office at Wana. Like other Pashtun tribes, the Wazirs are fiercely independent and governed by Pukhtunwali and not by the administrative and legal framework of Pakistan.

The tribal regions have always been neglected by the provincial and national governments. While it is true that the tribes loathe any interference by these governments and have their own tribal regulations and laws, the governments have failed to take steps to improve their basic amenities and standard of living. While the government-run educational facilities are bad all over Pakistan, it has been worse in the tribal regions. Unemployment has increased due to the lack of adequate employment opportunities. Electricity is yet to reach the entire tribal region, which is a major hindrance to exploiting its limited agricultural potential. Unless the economic potential of the tribal regions is developed, there is every possibility of their getting influenced by Taliban who are in considerable number.

What is apparently striking in these operations is the opposition of the religious parties, especially the JUI. Indeed, Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the JUI (F) and Secretary General of the MMA repeatedly emphasized that there were no terrorists in the tribal region and termed the military operation as ‘terrorism’ against the innocents. Maulvi Siraj ul Haq, a senior minister in the NWFP cabinet, warned that the “repercussions of military adventurism will be very serious.” Because of these adverse implications, neither the Pakistani military nor US aid and support against terrorism can prove to be panacea.

It is, therefore, essential, that the issues of governance in these tribal areas rather than focus on eliminating the extremists there. The causes underlying popular support for extremism need to be addressed and removed at the earliest. Half-hearted and half-baked efforts to gain temporary relief would not be fruitful. With anti-American sentiments remaining high in these regions it is imperative that a long-term perspective be adopted and implemented. Secondly, the Durand line running along the Pashtun tribal areas needs better monitoring. Traditionally, this border has not been monitored for various reasons, and it should now be better manned in a foolproof manner. The entire 2,200-kilometer border is manned roughly by 60,000 to 70,000 troops, including para-military forces and the army. This is inadequate given the porosity of the border and the support given from both sides to those crossing it. Thirdly, serious efforts should be made for greater integration between mainland Pakistan and its tribal regions, taking into account the tribal sensitivities, and by providing necessary amenities and educational facilities. It is wrong to consider that ‘tribal’ societies are necessarily inward looking. In fact, it is the failure to integrate with the outside world that has made them to look inward.

In short, it is essential to realize the gravity of the situation, which is likely to spread to other parts of the country and which can attract the attention of some unfriendly countries invariably looking for an opportunity to fish in the troubled waters of Pakistan. The use of sheer force cannot solve all the problems, which are being faced in North Waziristan. If use of power were the answer to the resolution of problems and conflicts, Waziristan problem would have been resolved long time ago.

This article was last updated on Monday, Dec 02, 2005