In September 2008, Maj-GenTariq Khan, the stocky Inspector General of the Frontier Corpse, had declared the military-FC assault on the militants as the test of the security forces’ ability to regain lost territories and reestablish the government authority in Bajaur.
Little over five months into the operation in what had turned into a cauldron of hardcore militants, mostly associated with the Wahabist Al-Qaeda as well as the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, Bajaur today – from its appearance — looks much more calmer and certainly more significant signs of life than in September.
The main town Khaar, the administrative headquarter of the agency, lies in rubble; most of the shops and mud compounds behind them either totally destroyed or extensively damaged as a result of the heavy artillery and the tank fire by the army and the FC. Militants used the roadside shops and housing areas to control this vital passage to the Mohmand Agency and the border area; ambushing security forces and intercepting bypassers at will had become routine.
“We issued adequate warnings to the locals before launching heavy artillery and aerial attacks on the militants’ hideouts,” Col. Nauman told this scribe, as we drove past the shopping area where once pick-ups, buses and trucks waded through crowds of shoppers.
Most of the population today is scattered in camps outside Bajaur–Dir, Mardan, Peshawar and many more small towns. But male farmers in many places are back to work, assisted in open fields even by women. Some schools have reopened, and pleasantly children waved to us as they were coming of their school near the Bajaur Scouts’ headquarter. We could see dozens of people lined up outside the office of the Political agent. “They are submitting the claims for losses they suffered as a result of the military operations,” Shafeerullah Khan, the Political Aget, told us.
He claimed that only 114 officials and workers of his office are missing. “The rest have all reported back for duty and they are busy taking care of those now either returning from camps or applying for claims,” Khan told weekly Pulse.
Maj-Gen Tariq was also all praise for Shafeerullah Khan, who, he said, has been in the forefront of the rehabilitation process and who stood his grounds during these tough months. “We have done our job but the army will not pullout for a while,” said Gen Tariq, who also dispelled the impression that the relative calm may be part of a deal.
“There is no deal at all; the unilateral ceasefire by Taliban is a result of the heat they feel now,” Khan said. We are chasing them wherever they are. No question of any peace deal, underlined the General, who exuded unusual confidence. Khan said the military and the civilian administration were now moving from the military to the political conflict management. The security forces will now focus on border security, rehabilitating the damaged posts and conducting patrols in the areas required.
Led by the Political Agent, the rehabilitation effort has been split in three phases – from six to 18 months – during which the returning families would be asked for claims, followed by assessments and payments for rehabilitation. In the first phase, basic utilities like water, electricity and telecommunication will be restored to create incentives for people to return. The same formula is being followed in the neighbouring Mohmand agency, which until recently was firmly in the control of militants led by Mulla Khalid Omar – also known as Abdul Wali Raghib. They had used a high school in Gandaro, some 40 kms from Ghalanai, the Mohmand administrative headquarters, to way-lay the traffic and people between Bajaur main town Khaar and Ghalanai. Locals said the militants had virtually laid a siege to the area, and would hit the security forces and civilians at will.
The FC also paraded an alleged suicide bombing trainer – Imran – who was arrested from near a checkpost at Darwazgai-2, which is a few kilometers short of the Ziarat Marble mines near the border to Bajaur agency. Chained at the wrist, Imran sat in a chair with a broken and fractured left hand, tucked under his shirt.
This looked in bad taste and demonstrated the FC handlers’ lack of sensitivity to such parades. It reminded us of the treatment the US army meted out to the inmates of notorious Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.
The marble mines have now been reopened, and mining has resumed. For several months the Taliban had been charging a toll tax on the trucks carrying the raw marble from here because they had helped settle a dispute between two rival tribes of the area.
But as the FC officers were thumping chests about their achievements, militants attacked an FC convoy comes in the Tehsil Safi area of the Mohmand Agency, killing one soldier. Almost at the same time, Taliban executed nine criminals in Orakzai Agency, Chapri Ferozkhel, and dumped their bodies in the Frontier Region.
While these news undermined the claims the FC head is making, the violence incidents also highlight the precarious situation the security forces find themselves in; they apply pressure at one spot, the militants fan out to the right and left of the pressure point. They mount operations to the right and left, those being chased head back to the centre or even move out of the areas under scrutiny.
Unfortunately, the Generals gloss over this very reality while making claims about their gains and projections about the future. Little do they realize that they are pitched against an enemy that is seeking political space and power through violent means. And it adopts unconventional means – disguise, stealth, retreat into safer areas – to circumvent the security cardon thrown around it.
That the militants are using all possible means and tricks to avoid being caught head-on is a bitter reality to which our security and intelligence apparatus may not be up to. One big reason for the half-successes-half-failures is the failure of the intelligence agencies to penetrate and infiltrate the ranks of the militants, and hence almost all major leaders are still at large.
Army officials put this perception down by saying the main leadership is always well-protected. They also pointed out that one Cobra gunship attack almost took Mulla Faqeer Mohammad, while one of his sons was killed in the same strike.
If the attack on the Sri Lankan team convoy in Lahore on March 3 is any indicator to go by, the successes in the tribal areas are a temporary respite from the hostilities in Swat, FATA and elsewhere. Clearly, the state of Pakistan is up against forces which are out to destabilize and decimate this country which is fighting so many wars at various fronts.