Pakistan's Tribal Zone In Focus: Ground Realities
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The News, January 19, 2007
First it was South Waziristan and then the violence shifted to neighbouring North Waziristan. Military operations during 2004-2006 were invariably followed by jirgas and peace agreements which somehow stabilised the two troubled tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. But the latest round of airstrikes in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan could lead to the collapse of the peace accords and plunge the tribal borderlands into another round of death and destruction.
The airstrikes, which the Pakistan Army is claiming to have unleashed against hideouts of suspected militants, have predictably triggered controversy. The government's credibility in view of its track record is so low that most people don't believe its claim that Pakistan Army's gunship helicopters were responsible for the airstrikes in Gurwek in North Waziristan and then on January 16 in Salamat village in Shak Toi area of South Waziristan. The common belief is that the US military using its pilotless, CIA-operated Predator planes fired the missiles that hit targets inside Pakistani territory. That impression was first created on January 13 when two Hellfire missiles fired by a US drone targeted Damadola village in Bajaur tribal agency and killed 13 civilians, including women and children, in their sleep in three mud-brick houses. This image is now etched in the memory of a large number of Pakistanis after being reinforced by another US missile strike at a madressah in Chingai village in Bajaur on October 30 last year. This attack was the most devastating since the launch of the misguided, imperialism-driven US ‘war on terror' in our part of the world as it killed 80 young and innocent students and some of their teachers.
As was the case in the past, we are once again hearing conflicting versions of the incident in the remote Shak Toi mountainous area in South Waziristan. There is such a wide discrepancy in the stories being put out by different stakeholders that it is almost impossible to find the truth. The absence of independent sources of information makes the task even more difficult to piece together a believable sequence of events. The difficulties facing the media to gain access to the targeted place due to its remoteness and on account of unannounced official curbs remain a hurdle in getting to know the real situation on the ground. Military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan was as usual sure that up to 30 ‘miscreants' including foreign militants had been killed by taking out three of their five compounds. The next day he came up with the statement that security forces were hunting a handful of ‘Al Qaeda fighters' who were wounded in the airstrikes and were reportedly shifted by their companions to some secret place. As happened in similar attacks in the past, the government was unable to put troops on the ground to secure the area after the bombings and obtain evidence to establish that it indeed had hit the right target. Rather, one may well ask as to why the military cannot drop troops as it has been doing in past military operations in Waziristan and lay siege to suspected hideouts of militants to nab them instead of carrying out airstrikes that are often inaccurate and kill innocent people.
Reports from Salamat village told a different story. Villagers said only eight people were killed and all were civilians. Among them were three Pakistani tribesmen, including a 10-year-old boy, and five Afghans, all powindahs or nomads who are a familiar sight in the NWFP and in Afghanistan as they walk with their caravans of camels to spend winters in the plains and summers in mountainous areas. The names of the dead men, their fathers and sub-tribe were provided to make the information authentic. It was explained that all the victims, including the 10 who were injured in the attack, were working in the nearby forest logging wood and making charcoal for sale in the markets down country. It was difficult not to believe them because they belong to the area and apparently were not involved in any kind of politics.
Protests invariably followed, starting with Tank which serves as the gateway to South Waziristan. It is home to a large number of Mahsud and Wazir tribal families who have migrated to Tank to do business or spend the winter in relatively warmer weather compared to their snow-bound villages in South Waziristan. Protests have broken out elsewhere also and statements condemning the government's action have been put forth by leaders of both the clergy-led MMA and others belonging to secular and nationalist parties. Political parties in such instances react along party lines and, therefore, it becomes impossible to get a more objective understanding and analysis of the situation.
Sections of the western media, including Sky News, have reported that the latest airstrikes in South Waziristan were launched by the US military with the help of its Predator plane. One report claimed that the US government allowed Pakistan to take credit for the airstrikes. If true, it is a continuation of last year's missile strikes in Bajaur that too were fired from US drones. There is no guarantee that such attacks will not be repeated in future even though President General Pervez Musharraf said last year that the US authorities had assured him after the Damadola airstrikes that it won't happen again. He was justifiably angry that he wasn't taken into confidence about the Damadola attack despite risking his life by taking on Al Qaeda and the Taliban and doing so much to make the US and its allied countries safer. The US has given itself the right to launch pre-emptive strikes anywhere in the world to protect its interests and it seems objections by Pakistan or other weaker nations to this policy don't count much in President Bush's scheme of things. It is another matter that such airstrikes cause so much ‘collateral damage' that America makes more enemies than it can kill after each such attack.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, it is time the Musharraf government defined the limits and parameters of its cooperation with the US in the so-called ‘war on terror.' Its policy of open-ended support to the US has polarised our society and alienated large sections of the population, particularly in the NWFP, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The strategy of making peace accords with the tribes and the militants was the right thing to do even if it is criticised by western governments, the media and think-tanks as a policy of appeasement. Such accords were signed as a necessity to reduce losses to the military and our people by employing traditional peacemaking methods such as jirgas. Pakistan has to look after its own interest first instead of bombing villages on the basis of incomplete and faulty intelligence supplied by the US and NATO.
However, the peace agreements need to be implemented in letter and spirit and regularly monitored and reviewed. The country cannot afford its territory to be used for launching attacks across the Durand Line border in Afghanistan. The peace accords specifically mentioned this point but there are credible reports that cross-border infiltration hasn't stopped. In fact, pro-Taliban commanders such as Baitullah Mahsud and Haji Omar, who concluded peace deals with the government in South Waziristan in 2005, have publicly stated that they will continue to wage their ‘jihad' against the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. This cannot be allowed at any cost because involvement of Pakistani fighters in the fighting between the Afghan government and Taliban is drawing Islamabad into the conflict and jeopardising the country's security. Any sanctuaries for Taliban on Pakistan's soil too must be removed. At the same time, the Afghan government and all those countries with soldiers in Afghanistan must also realise that military tactics alone will not end the insurgency. They will have to seek reconciliation with the Taliban and their allies and provide them incentives to stop fighting and join the political mainstream.
The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org