The following article of mine was published in News Central Asia on 21st November, 2009 (http://www.newscentralasia.net/Articles-and-Reports/480.html)
The Operation Rah-i-Nijat has completed its first month. The battle seems to be long drawn as the Pakistani Taliban has declared to engage the military in guerrilla warfare. Furthermore, the battle is not only being fought in the core tribal areas but also in the mainland with important cities like Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi facing suicide attacks almost daily.
“We have not been defeated. We have voluntarily withdrawn into the mountains under a strategy that will trap the Pakistan army in the area”. This was what the Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told journalists on November 18.
But another issue of concern in this belligerent atmosphere is the condition of the displaced tribal population that is leading despicable lives in temporary camps.
Apart from its four provinces of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Punjab, Sind and Balochistan; Pakistan also houses the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan in the west. From north to south, FATA is composed of the seven agencies of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The President of Pakistan through the governor of the NWFP directly administers FATA.
Each agency of FATA has a particular tribe dominating its demography. Just to the east of FATA, there are six ‘Frontier Regions’, which are also administered by the governor of NWFP but has popular representatives. The Frontier Regions of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank are contiguous to the South Waziristan agency.
Being one of the most impoverished regions of Pakistan, FATA has become the breeding ground of Taliban militancy. Lack of participatory governance and abysmally low socioeconomic indicators are primary factors fostering a milieu of terrorism. Quite expectedly, the terrorism generated in this region by the Al Qaeda and Taliban has menacingly scattered into the Pakistani heartland.
South Waziristan is the epicentre of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group responsible for the recent wave of terror attacks in the Pakistani mainland. Hence the Pakistan army launched the much-awaited ground offensive on October 17 in order to decimate the Mehsud and Uzbek strongholds in the region.
In this ongoing counterinsurgency battle, the collateral damage has been huge. The residents of South Waziristan in particular and FATA in general have been displaced.
Conditions are worse for the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) from North and South Waziristan as the military has restricted the establishment of camps for them on the rationale that they would offer jihadi groups pools of easy recruits. Furthermore, the NWFP administration identifies and registers members of the Mehsud tribe, and requires them to be accommodated in private homes. The ‘host families’ have to assume legal responsibility for them. This is done to keep a strict vigil on the potential militants. Host families frequently face harassment by the security agencies, including the military, paramilitary and police.
The military is also restricting access to national and international humanitarian and development agencies in Dera Ismail Khan, where most of the Waziristan IDPs are located. Moreover, quack doctors often dispense medical care in homes and makeshift camps because there is a dearth of health practitioners in the region.
According to the Pakistani news agency Dawn, Martin Mogwanja, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, along with Dominique Frankefort, Deputy Country Director of World Food Programme (WFP) said in Islamabad on November 5 : “All those who are involved in military operation in one way or the other should ensure human safety and security to aid organizations to reach out to affected population.” He said that more than 46,000 families (about 330,000 people) had now been registered in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank as IDPs. Out of these, about 22,600 families had so far been verified, he added. He further informed that the re-screening of IDPs in Katcha Garhi and Jalozai Camps in Peshawar and Nowshera respectively had shown that only about two-thirds of the registered camp population was actually living inside the camp. The rest, were living elsewhere or had left without notifying the camp authorities.
The Chairman of the Special Support Group, Lt. Gen Nadeem Ahmad has said that the Pakistan Army is taking steps to make the process of registration of the IDPs of South Waziristan transparent.
In Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, around 125,000 IDPs from South Waziristan have been provided with 4,000 tonnes of food. Presently, the total requirement of the Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan is US $680 million and UN funds 70.5 per cent of that corpus.
Lack of potable drinking water, education and health facilities and hard cash are significant issues, which need to be catered. Mobile Hospitals of Pak-Army could be used. Another programme is the disbursement of ATM cards in order to provide an alternative to hard cash.
The pertinent question in this scenario is to what extent the army is prepared for the kind of protracted guerrilla warfare in South Waziristan that the Taliban has vowed to continue? And if the battle goes on for a long period of time, what would be the fate of the IDPs? Keeping in mind that winter is fast approaching, the plight of the IDPs is likely to surge. Moreover, how the ‘Mehsud tribesmen’ shall be differentiated from the ‘Mehsud militants’?
With all these questions lurking in the background, the present situation in South Waziristan and its associated Frontier Regions present a bleak picture. The situation might snowball and the ‘innocuous’ Mehsud tribesmen might be drawn into the folds of the Taliban due to the discrimination faced at the IDP camps. Pakistan has to embark on the counterinsurgency operations in a careful manner so as not to alienate the tribal populace. Pakistan cannot afford to do so as further chasm shall endanger the already vulnerable towns and cities of the mainland.