As the Punjab-based ruling and opposition parties wrangled over the latter’s Lahore weekend rally, the Pashtuns in Mirali, North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were caught between the foreign and domestic terrorists on one side and the artillery barrage from the Pakistani army on the other. According to locals and media reports, over 70 people, scores of them civilian, were killed when the army ostensibly retaliated against the terrorists. The plight of the Mirali residents got the attention of very few in the print and electronic media. The lions of Punjab — both those in waiting and the incumbent ones — devoured their share of airtime hours and column inches as news of civilian casualties trickled out of Mirali.
The cabinet’s committee on national security in a meeting last week had reaffirmed its “commitment to the strategy of carrying out negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and considering use of other options only as a last resort”. The TTP’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, immediately snubbed the government and rejected any talks. The next day, the TTP affiliate Ansarul Mujahideen launched a suicide attack on a military checkpoint in the Mirali area in which five soldiers were martyred. The army responded in a knee-jerk manner using artillery and gunship helicopters as well as a ground assault, hitting the Mirali bazaar and residential quarters. That the army had every right to respond to attacks on its personnel is not moot but how the military resorted to unleashing massive firepower on terrorists holed up in the civilian neighbourhoods is perplexing, with an apparent disregard for collateral damage.
A similar situation had arisen earlier this year during the military operation in the Tirah valley where civilians from the Afridi tribe were killed due to crude military tactics. An army supposed to be in a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency mode for almost 12 years would have had those skills honed almost to surgical precision by now. While the sacrifice of the armed forces personnel must be solemnly honoured, the Mirali and the Tirah episode before that should perhaps be investigated at the institutional level. The Mir Ali incident raises yet again the following perennial questions: what exactly is Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis the terrorists holding FATA hostage? Who calls the shots in FATA on the state’s behalf? Why has the military failed to act comprehensively against the militants in the NWA despite its pledges to act at least since early 2010? Why have attacks by the same or similar terrorist groups on the civilians largely gone answered?
The president of Pakistan, Mr Mamnoon Hussain, who is the constitutional authority over FATA, has not been heard from over this incident or, for that matter, any other. The minister for defense, Mr Khawaja Muhammad Asif, is reported to have said that “the attacks on the security forces will not be tolerated at any cost and the government will not show leniency towards terrorists.” The fact is that FATA effectively remains under the heel of the military and the militants who have played and periodically fought with each other at whim for a good decade now. Any other state would have, by now, developed a comprehensive revanchist policy to regain full sway over an area teeming with terrorists due to its own perverted national security and foreign policies. However, it seems that FATA is nothing more than an appendage for the Pakistani state, which it continues to use as a buffer against the boomerang of the jihadist militancy sired by none other than the state itself. While the outrageous calls to let the TTP open an office seem to have fizzled out, the Punjab-based politicians continue to push for negotiations with that murderous horde. The idea, it appears, is to keep the jihadist malignancy localised to the Pashtun lands at all costs to the Pashtuns.
It would behoove the defence minister to ask why exactly the military still has agreements with assorted Taliban groups in FATA? Who has allowed sanctuary to the militants from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan in FATA? Why does the military act with either an overwhelming and indiscriminate might or appease and capitulate altogether? Has the army not paid reparations to militants, released their men and vacated its posts as part of various deals with them? The army needs to come clean on its relationship with Afghanistan-oriented transnational jihadists like the Haqqani terrorist network. Despite the insinuations about the army dropping its Haqqani network allies, there is little to suggest that it has translated into severance of ties on the ground and denial of sanctuary to the Haqqani network as yet. It is well known that the network effectively sublets the sanctuary it has from Pakistan to various other transnational jihadists that attack Pakistan. This Charlie Foxtrot of jihadists that Pakistan has allowed on its soil also hampers the precision of any military operation.
While Punjab-based politicians go blue in the face denouncing US drone attacks for an alleged rise in militancy, they conveniently ignore that random or poorly conceived military operations and indiscriminate use of massive firepower, which result in civilian casualties and displacement of the population, also cause tremendous resentment among people. Pounding the tribal Pashtuns that Pakistan itself has thrown under the jihadist bus compounds the tragedy of FATA. Forget about integrating FATA or conducting the local bodies polls there, the Punjab-dominated National Assembly of Pakistan argued over whether the word ‘tamasha’ (spectacle) or drama is against the parliamentary politesse as Mirali was being pummeled.
The new chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif’s statement in Peshawar that “terrorist attacks will not be tolerated and will be responded to effectively”, should be welcomed. However, by most independent accounts, the events in Mirali leave much to be desired in how the army currently mounts such a response. General Sharif, who reportedly had a significant role in formulating the military’s counterterrorism strategy, still has some serious work on his hands. While the Mirali fighting is being interpreted as the rolling start to a larger NWA operation, it seems to have been a limited action gone awry. Still, General Sharif’s statement is being seen as a departure from his predecessor’s way of conducting business. However, unless the arbitrary policy of differentiating the so-called good Taliban from the bad ones is formally and publically scrapped, smoking out and neutralising them will remain an uphill task replete with pitfalls like the Mirali tragedy.
My dear readers, I have a confession to make. For almost 10 years I have contributed articles ...