Fruitless engagements By Hasan Khan - Sunday 24th April 2011

THE time has come for Pakistan’s political and military leadership to objectively evaluate the shortcomings of the country’s operations for prolonged stability in the tribal areas.
The military engagements, as a recent White House report and subsequent comments by the US military leadership point out, are packed with flaws and despite years of struggle, have failed to eliminate the militants’ networks. The elements of ‘clear, hold and build’ are the basic elements of any military operation. In our case, one or two of these essentials are clearly missing, otherwise there would be no need to undertake an operation again in an area that was earlier claimed to have been cleared.
Addressing a corps commanders’ meeting some time ago in Rawalpindi, Gen Kayani expressed his satisfaction with the campaign to bring stability to the tribal areas. However, this satisfaction seems off the target when these operations are examined from the people’s perspective. There is serious concern about these campaigns: they are costly and continue for years without producing any tangible results. The tribal areas are still miles away from stabilisation.
Except for North Waziristan, where Pakistan is resisting American pressure to undertake a military operation, the security forces have for the past four years been engaged with militants in the Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and South Waziristan agencies. The hostile territory spans some 27,000 square kilometres and the military has been using jet bombers, gunship helicopters and heavy artillery against alleged militant hideouts. The operations have caused immense socio-economic and infrastructural damage, and have also displaced an estimated 500,000 Pakhtun tribal families. Most of these people are living in miserable conditions in the settled areas. Viewed from the tribesmen’s perspective, the situation on the ground is far from improving.
The Pakistan military launched four major operations, codenamed Sirat-i-Mustaqeem, Daraghlum, Bia-daraghlum and Khwakh Ba de Sham in Bara tehsil of the Khyber agency. Besides the massive consequential displacement, the residents of Bara have had to brave an uninterrupted curfew for the past 22 months; over 6,000 shops and some 5,000 industrial units are closed. Everything has been destroyed — except the militants’ networks which are not only intact but demonstrably capable of killing and kidnapping for ransom in both the settled and the tribal areas.
In the Orakzai agency, aerial bombing has caused more damage to the lives and properties of innocent tribesmen than to militants’ hideouts. Large portions of the area including Momozai, Mirqalam, Arhang, Kasha, Saif Dara, Otmela, Zafar Garhi, Daran and Wam Panrha, remain in the militants’ control. Despite a year of intense fighting with the active support of heavy artillery and jet bombers, the security forces did not manage to dismantle the militants’ networks here.
The military entered the South Waziristan agency in October 2009. Some 200,000 families were immediately asked to relocate in order to minimise collateral damage. During a visit to Ladha in South Waziristan, I asked an elderly man the whereabouts of the militants and the Taliban.
He pointed to a nearby mountain and, smiling sarcastically, said “they are there”. The common perception in the area is that the military has taken control in major population centres and highways, but the militants have retreated to the mountains. Everyone I asked feared that the militants would be back once the internally displaced people returned.
Five operations were launched by the security forces in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies; the latest ones are still ongoing. Thousands of families have been rendered homeless but the militants are still calling the shots.
In addition to the other problems they cause, the extended military operations are also gradually giving rise to anti-military sentiment. Tribesmen complain of the humiliation they have to endure, particularly when they are searched at checkpoints. Security personnel often abuse, slap or kick people on minor provocations, regardless of whether the hapless victim is male or female. Every tribesperson, whether man or woman, is considered a would-be suicide bomber and treated as such. For several years, now, ordinary tribal people have been sandwiched between the
military and the militants since disobeying either is tantamount to inviting death.
The prime objectives of the military campaigns were to secure the tribal areas against both local and foreign militants, re-establish the writ of the government, dismantle militants’ hideouts and training centres and stop them from launching attacks across the border in Afghanistan. The military has virtually taken all the tribal areas in its control, leaving no space for the political administration, but the writ of the government remains absent.
Leaving aside what the US says, Pakistan’s leadership needs to evaluate these prolonged operations in the light of the objectives mentioned above.
Americans may have no right to dictate, but the millions of tribal people have a legitimate right to ask the army about the outcome of the military engagements in their areas.
To cover up Pakistan’s failures against militants in its tribal belt, our military and political leadership have been working on a ready-to-accept narrative. Both are marketing the idea that no success against militants in tribal areas is possible unless the situation in Afghanistan improves. This amounts to burying one’s head in the sand.
Afghanistan has five neighbours, one of which is Pakistan. Why did Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan not import militancy or extremism on the scale that Pakistan has? A popular Pushto proverb says: “It is better to stop your hen from hatching its eggs in a neighbour’s field than to fight the neighbour.” This, I believe, is an accurate reflection on Pakistan’s situation.
The military must now allow a parliamentary evaluation of the operations against militancy. People have already paid a heavy price for the flawed counter-terrorism strategy which has exclusively the military in the driving seat. The army needs to seek a fresh mandate from the people since the current campaigns lack political backing from mainstream political parties and the national media. The problem started when an over-confident military leadership ignored the unanimous resolution passed in a joint sitting of the parliament and resorted to dealing with the militants using force. The joint resolution had called for dialogue, development and, as a last resort, deterrence.
We have a successful model of an anti-militant operation in Malakand division, where the military was backed fully by the political parties and the media. In the tribal areas, however, the military is fighting alone.
The writer is the director of news and current affairs at Khyber TV.

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