No patchwork scheme will settle the Waziristan problem… Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end will there be peace. But I do not want to be that person to start the machine.” That was Lord Curzon, early in his Viceroyalty of colonial India at the turn of the 20th century.
More than hundred years later, the Pakistan Army decided to eschew Curzon’s caution and pass the military steamroller over the areas, officially called ‘agencies’, that fall under the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.
The tribal areas of Pakistan have been much in the news in the past decade and a half, following the US military intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks. They were the “headquarters of terror”, with some of the most dreaded terror groups such as the Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban, the al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network finding sanctuary in these areas and moving freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2014, Pakistan has launched at least two major operations — Zarb-e-Azb and the ongoing Radd-ul-Fasaad — to crack down on militant groups along Pakistan’s western border.
Therein lies the importance of Waziristan: it’s the hinge that joins Pakistan and Afghanistan, geographically and strategically.
After some uncertainty over the weather, around 7.35 am, two helicopters, one a big Soviet Mi17, finally take off from the Pakistan Army’s heliport in Islamabad for North Waziristan .
Waziristan is split into two administrative units, North and South Waziristan, and its inhabitants have been known for being fiercely independent since the Mughal period. They could not be fully subdued by any government — British or Pakistani. This independent streak, the martial ethos of its inhabitants, the complex terrain, and remoteness of the areas made them an attractive proposition for terrorists challenging NATO forces in Afghanistan since 2001. Moreover, the place had already earned a reputation for fighting big, conventional armies in the 1980s when the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had used the local Pashtuns as hosts and fighters against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
Well before Afghanistan, India had got a taste of this tribal streak. In 1947, soon after Independence, Pakistan had sent tribals from FATA areas to seize Kashmir from India. A war followed, and the two neighbours have not been at peace since.
Connecting North Waziristan in Pakistan with Khost province of Afghanistan, Ghulam Khan Kilay is the third most important border crossing point after Chaman and Torkham. Though it was opened for cross-border trade on March 9, the formal inauguration was done by Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbassi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on April 30. The hilly terrain is dotted with forts and security outposts with a four-lane highway running up to the zero-point, where a big gate marks the border between the two countries.
These forts, as well as the trade check-post near the gate, have their walls prominently painted with Pakistani flags, a sight common to every military and government building in the area. It is a visible demonstration by Pakistan of its control over the areas that have defied its sovereignty for long. The forts in the area are manned by a paramilitary force called Tochi Scouts, which was formed in 1895 and is named after the Tochi river that flows through the area.
On the road outside one of these forts is a group of soldiers. Led by their section commander, the soldiers rent the air with full-throated cries of Allah-o-Akbar and Pakistan Zindabad.
Brigadier Jawad briefing is largely focused on the border with Afghanistan, which the Pakistan Army recently fenced. The border between the two countries is the 2,611-km-long Durand Line, which was established in 1896 under British India. While Pakistan claims it to be the international border, Afghanistan does not officially recognise it till date. Durand Line emanated from an agreement signed between Sir Mortimer Durand, then Indian Foreign Secretary, and the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, in Kabul. This was the first time the India-Afghanistan border was demarcated, at least on paper.
After Pakistan was formed in 1947, Afghanistan demanded that Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line be given the right to self-determination. Both Britain and Pakistan refused. Afghanistan was furious and thus, in September 1947, it was the only country which voted against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations. The relations between the two countries have been marked by tensions ever since. The border fence is bound to add to those tensions.
A model of the fence has been erected near the briefing point for visitors to have a closer look. With three rows of high pickets, it is similar to the fence India constructed on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir in 2003.
The Pakistan Army says 2,611 km of the Durand Line will be fenced, of which 350 km has been completed under ‘Priority 1’. It aims to complete the rest by the end of next year at a cost of Pakistani Rupees 66 billion. By then, it also plans to finish construction of 443 border posts and forts, of which 180 have already been completed and 50 are under construction.
The evening before the visit to North Waziristan, Major General Asif Ghafoor, DG, Inter Services Public Relations and official spokesperson of Pakistan’s powerful military, had held forth on Afghanistan. But his history lesson started only from 9/11 which, he said, “triggered off a different kind of war”.
“We have 2,611 km of a porous, open and difficult border with Afghanistan which was manned only by 34,000 troops, of whom 29,000 were militia forces who were there for anti-smuggling duties,” the general said. “The Taliban moved into the tribal areas where they had been trained and equipped during the First Afghan War.”
The blame for the Taliban settling in was squarely placed on India’s shoulders. “In 2001-2002, we were already impacted with the Eastern border. We had 100,000 troops on that border, as India had mobilised its entire army during Operation Parakram. From 2001 to 2007, it was only firefighting that we did,” he said.
Pakistan’s operations in North Waziristan are directly linked to its security posture on the Indian border. So when Pakistan got involved with its operations on the Afghanistan border, security officials in Delhi felt that Pakistan Army would concede to its demand to rein in India-centric terror groups.
Now that the Pakistan Army has cleared the tribal areas of terrorists and plans to hand them over to paramilitary forces and militia groups, that reality is bound to change. Which is what makes Waziristan and the situation there key to India’s security calculations.
But why did the Pakistan Army take so long to move to North Waziristan? “We acted as per a plan. We decided to gradually clear them in the periphery and then reach the core in North Waziristan,” said Major General Ghafoor.
The Pakistan Army, he said, launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 to clear North Waziristan of militant groups. That has been followed by the ongoing Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, which is based on intelligence-based operations, the Major General claimed, and which has seen 521 major operations and 3,024 minor ones so far.
All these operations have also taken a toll on Pakistan Army: its Peshawar-headquartered 11 Corps has lost 4,495 soldiers since 2001, the bulk of those losses coming after 2007.
The Pakistan Army says their officer-to-soldier casualty ratio is the highest in the world, which it proudly highlights to show that its officers lead from the front and bear the brunt in action. It claims that while the United States Army loses one officer for every 119 soldiers, Sri Lankans one officer for every 54 soldiers and Indians one officer for every 43 soldiers, Pakistan Army loses one officer for every 27 soldiers.
That fits in well with the narrative senior officers of the Pakistan Army would like to believe: that these counter-terror operations have turned what was a ‘peace-time’ army into a fighting force. But all this bravado seems slightly misplaced when you land in Miranshah.
The helicopters from Ghulam Khan Kilay land at the heliport located inside the campus of 7 Infantry Division headquarters in Miranshah. 7 Division moved into Miranshah from Peshawar a decade ago, and has been at the forefront of counter-terror operations in the area. For a sparsely populated area of 4,707 square kilometres, North Waziristan has 25,000-30,000 soldiers, a rather high number, even if the border with Afghanistan is factored into the deployment. It shows how the Army has moved in to fill the vacuum created by the absence of any government institutions in the area.
In 1905, when the British built a key fort in Miranshah to control Pakistan’s North Waziristan, it said “there could have been no place more dangerous in the whole of the British Empire”. Over the years, even after Miranshah became the biggest town and administrative centre of North Waziristan, with a population of 5.5 lakhs, it remained untamed.
Today, however, Miranshah is far from “dangerous” — like a child’s Lego town coming up from plastic rubble, Miranshah, bombed out as part of Pakistan’s campaign against these terror groups, is now coming up again with the country’s Army building and running a stadium, schools, hospitals, orphanage, markets and government buildings.
The Pakistan Army has also recreated a militant hideout, or ‘Markaz’, in Miranshah. A plaque outside says there were around 300 such hideouts in North Waziristan, each seemingly simple tribal homes, but with “allied facilities like tunnels to secure the terrorists from aerial view and drone strikes, strong rooms… media centres, motivational rooms etc”.
Among the exhibits on display at these recreated hideouts are a suicide bomber’s room, akin to ‘heaven’, and a militant’s suicide vest. Plus, weapons and currency notes, including Indian currency, reportedly captured from terrorists.
Like a well-rehearsed tour guide, Brigadier Jawad takes the mike on a table facing the seats in the airconditioned tour bus, pointing to the various mounds of rubble and the shining infrastructure amidst it. Along the road are black placards to describe the life the rubble once held — mosques, markets and housing areas.
The Pakistan military, which had used everything in its arsenal, including tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets, claims that “no innocent civilians were killed” despite its use of heavy weaponry. It also claims 98 per cent of internally displaced persons have returned to North Waziristan. Yet, not a soul is visible on a pleasant Monday morning in what is left of Miranshah, except the soldiers with their guns or those manning the machine-guns mounted on their jeeps.
“Four months before the operations were launched, people were asked to move out from the areas into IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. It was like draining the swamp, and the people return then,” a senior Pakistan Army officer claims. Though he acknowledges that people suffered personal losses, such as of their houses, cattle and means of livelihood, these, he says, were bound to happen.
Although it has been blacked out in Pakistani media, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) under the charismatic Manzoor Pashteen is giving voice to that discontent among the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in this region. Pashteen is drawing huge crowds across various cities in Pakistan, making the Pakistan Army distinctly uncomfortable. Even though it dismisses the PTM as a “CIA ploy” to create trouble inside Pakistan, the Pakistan Army knows that unaddressed grievances can create problems for it. After all, it draws on Pashtuns for recruitment and support, and wishes to showcase its counter-terror operations as a success.
There are other problems too. Despite all the new infrastructure, the challenge of rebooting the local economy, which was centred around terror, will not be met easily. Some political reforms have recently been initiated, with FATA being made part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That would mean that the laws of Pakistan would be applicable in these agencies, and they would no longer be governed through political agents as per their customary laws.
The reasons for the Pakistan Army to globally illustrate its achievements in counter-terror operations are not merely professional. They are also meant to ward off international pressure, particularly from the US, and criticism that it is not sincere in its counter-terror efforts. Even if one were to acknowledge its progress against groups like the Pakistani Taliban, it is evident that the Pakistan Army has not acted against Afghanistan-focused groups such as the Haqqani network.
These organised trips, which showcase new, shiny infrastructure in an area where terror had run rampant, do not distract from those concerns. The fragility of the Pakistan Army’s achievement is evident in what becomes the lasting memory from the visit: well-paved roads and high quality infrastructure but no locals, all amidst a vast pile of rubble. It is a throwback to the line attributed to an anonymous US Army officer in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the town to save it”.
North Waziristan has been destroyed. But has it been saved?
On May 24, Pakistan’s National Assembly voted to merge FATA or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four administered provinces of the country. Until the merger, FATA was a semi-autonomous tribal region in Northwestern Pakistan. The region, with seven tribal areas and six frontier regions, was directly governed by Pakistan’s federal government through a special set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations. FATA has a population of 5 million, of which at least 70 per cent live in poverty. 10 per cent is the literacy rate for women and 36 per cent for men
Since 2001, the Pakistan Army has launched 10 operations against terrorists in the FATA region, with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in 2014 and targeted at the Tehrik-i-Pakistan, al-Qaeda and Haqqani network, besides others, among the biggest of these. The Pakistan Army’s offensives in FATA have displaced almost two million people, according to the United Nations refugee agency and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Pakistan Army claims that 96 per cent of the displaced people have returned to FATA, a claim disputed by the Manzoor Pashteen-led Pashtun Tahafuz Movement