By Afrasiab Khattak
The news about unannounced military operation in the Masood area of South Waziristan came in bits and pieces in second week of November as the government was secretive about it. But the news could not be kept secret as 1100 plus families of Shabi Khel sub tribe of Masood from Shaktoi, Small and Bobarh villages of Ladha subdivision were asked on an extremely short notice on November 3 to vacate the area. Thousands of women, children and men had to walk for two days in mountains towards Bakakhel in Bannu district. They were herded into the IDP camp which had been originally established in 2014 for IDPs from North Waziristan during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The area of Shabi Khel Masood in Ladha subdivision is at some distance from the Durand Line. So why this sudden and dramatic eviction of thousands of people from this area? But more mind boggling was the treatment meted out to the IDPs. After two days of excruciating journey the male population was separated from their women and children and for a while they could not meet each other in Bakakhel. The Masoods brought to Bakakhel were simple IDPs but they were treated like prisoners of war. Media and civil society representatives weren’t allowed to visit the camp. Initially FATA Secretariat and the Governor’s House remained mum but later they grudgingly accepted the arrival of “some 200 plus Masood families” in Bakakhel Camp. Unfortunately FATA remains a black hole even after dozens of big and small military operations in the last 15 years and there have been no investigation into the complaints of serious human rights violations during these operations. There is no civilian oversight of military operations in FATA.
Contradictory and confusing news have been emerging from FATA during the current year. On the one hand a bill for amending the Constitution was introduced in the Parliament to pave ground for reforms in FATA in May but on the other hand numerous reports from the area about terror attacks and military action also appeared in media. Operation Khyber 4 was a high profile affair as aerial bombardment and the use of heavy artillery was part of the military action. The peaks of Rajgal mountain in Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency were reported to have been cleared from terrorists connected with the so called Islamic State. Actually the IS operating in eastern Afghanistan is mostly manned by former TTP fighters who actually belong to FATA and still have widespread connotations with the networks on Pakistani side of the border. Pakistani mentors of Afghan Taliban are at pains to explain the distinction between TTP and Afghan Taliban. But fact of the matter is that they are two sides of the same coin. TTP fighters have always pledged allegiance to every new Amir of the Afghan Taliban and without support from their Afghan comrades they would never have been able to maintain their bases on the Afghan side of the border. It’s simply reciprocal. Afghan Taliban also operate from Pakistani side.
Reports about attacks and clashes have also been emerging from Bajour, Moomand and Waziristan. Clamping prolonged curfews on the aforementioned political agencies has become a routine affair. In North Waziristan the Sunday curfew has continued for years. Many of the old IDPs are still waiting for their return to and rehabilitation in their own areas while the fresh fighting is displacing many more people. Unfortunately they are simple statistics for the officialdom. The most ” creative ” thing that the civil and military authorities could think about the large scale displacement in the area was to change the term IDP to TDP ( temporarily displaced persons) so that the effected people wouldn’t be able to claim certain rights under international humanitarian laws. Wasn’t it absurd that the authorities organized a grand cricket match in Miran Shah to showcase the “normalcy” in the area? Does the appearance of the footprint of the so called IS herald normalcy? Instead of stupid publicity gimmicks FATA needs serious change in the misguided policies. Currently FATA is hostage to Pakistan’s Afghan Policy. As long as the country’s security establishment supports Taliban’s war against Afghan state it will continue to use FATA as a launching pad. Put in simple words that means that the decades old war will continue to rage in FATA. This is a situation which can’t be changed without revisiting Pakistan’s bankrupt Afghan policy designed and executed by the security tsars of the country.
Part of the foreign aid coming to Pakistan in billions of dollars over the last many years was supposed to go to the reconstruction of the war ravaged area and uplift of common man’s life in FATA. But incidence of poverty is highest in FATA compared to any other region of the country. According to the figures released by Planning Commission of Pakistan in 2016, 40 percent Pakistanis live in poverty but in FATA this figure is 73.7 percent, close to double of the national average. Now this figure is surely rising as according to experts the frequent blockade of Torkham and Spin Boldak and drastic decrease in the trade with Afghanistan is going to hit about seven hundred thousands households in the border area. No one has evaluated the impact of dropping of trade with Afghanistan on Pakistani economy in general and on Pashtun economy in particular. Contraction of regular trade with Afghanistan practically means that after this the only major economic activity in the region will be drug trade and gun running which obviously boosts terrorism. Isn’t it a recipe for disaster particularly when it is seen in the context of growing regional tensions? But who cares as long as the policy is to use the strategic space for not so Great Games and give a damn to the fate of millions of Pashtuns living there. Even then the myopia of the Punjabi civil and military bureaucracy ruling Pakistan is flabbergasting. Every time that the hell has been raised in Pakhtunkhwa by adventurist policies, it has always reached Punjab and the rest of Pakistan. And it’s not going to be any different this time round.
(The author Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)