Friday, August 17, 2007

The Potential of Jirga as a Conflict Resolution Tool in Tribal Areas of Pakistan

Jirgas still the best option in Waziristan
Rahimullah Yusufzai: The News, August 17, 2007

The 45-member grand tribal jirga that had brokered the North Waziristan peace accord in September 2006 and had reconvened in July to try to save the deal has quietly given up the task. It had adjourned for a week to give time to the government and the militants to show some flexibility in order to revive the controversial peace agreement. But it was obvious that jirga members would not meet any time soon unless they saw chances of a real breakthrough in efforts to address the concerns of the two sides.

That didn't happen and, with the jirga no longer active, North Waziristan is on fire again after the relatively peaceful 10 months when the peace accord was in place. Almost every day after July 15 when the militants unilaterally scrapped the agreement, both soldiers and tribal fighters are losing their lives in attacks and counter-attacks all over the troubled tribal region. The conflict is becoming bloodier as a result of suicide bombings by militants and use of gunship helicopters and long-range artillery guns by the military. The violence is engulfing even those places that were hitherto untouched.

As usual, civilian population is suffering the most due to 'collateral damage' resulting from military operations and militants' attacks, road blockades, shortages of supplies that push up prices, closure of educational institutions and government offices, slowing down of commercial activities, and frequent breakdown of electricity supply, telephone system and other civic services. Those who can afford are leaving North Waziristan to find temporary residence in Bannu, Peshawar and even Karachi. The less fortunate ones are abandoning towns and villages that come under attack to relatively safer places within North Waziristan.

A way of life is being destroyed due to militancy fuelled by a host of factors, one being the disproportionate use of firepower by the armed forces. To make matters worse, we have unwisely provided an opportunity to the US to decide what is best for Pakistan and its people. It wants us to find a military solution to the conflict in Waziristan instead of peacefully resolving the problem through the time-tested traditional methods of jirgas, mediation and reconciliation. On its part, America has failed to militarily defeat the Iraqi and Afghan resistance to its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan but it still wants the Pakistan Army to adopt the same strong arm tactics that have won new recruits to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

The plight of the Waziristanis isn't widely known due to the remoteness of the area. The mainstream media is kept out of Waziristan by the government so that only its sanitized version of the happenings is reported. The militants, given to unbelievably violent ways such as beheadings and cutting of limbs, too keep the journalists scared and at perpetual risk. The few tribal reporters brave enough to continue reporting from dangerous places such as Miramshah, Mir Ali and Wana are all the time under pressure from militant groups, government intelligence agencies, tribal chiefs and criminal gangs. The threat to their life is real as some tribal reporters in Waziristan have been killed and injured and many others have shifted to relatively safer places including Bannu, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and Peshawar.

It didn't take the wise old tribal elders and clerics to understand the hopelessness of the situation after having realized that their Loya, or grand, Jirga stood little chance of success. Without announcing the failure of their mission, they just took a break and returned to their homes for a week. That one week has now extended to three weeks and there is no sign of the jirga reconvening to make another effort to stop the bloodshed in North Waziristan. The government is insisting that the peace accord it signed with the tribal elders and militants on September 5, 2006 is still intact. It is true the government hasn't publicly announced the scrapping of the accord but the agreement is dead for all practical purposes. In fact, it ended sometime ago when the militants failed to stop target killings of pro-government tribesmen and those accused of spying for the US. The militants also were unable to fully prevent cross-border infiltration by fighters into Afghanistan or expel foreign militants from North Waziristan. The government also violated the terms of the peace accord by redeploying troops at several roadside checkpoints. The agreement clearly mentioned that the checkpoints would be done away with.

Under the terms of the accord, all violations were to be reported to the grand tribal jirga and the monitoring committee set up for the purpose was to ensure that the violators were made accountable. Nothing of the sort happened and the accord started unravelling. Strangely, none among the high officials of the FATA secretariat or the federal government bothered to visit North Waziristan to see the situation firsthand, review the accord and monitor progress in achieving its objectives. Beleaguered political agents, fearing for their life and unable to wield real power after gradual loss of authority to the militants and the military, were left to fend for themselves. North Waziristan's political agent, Pirzada Khan, was lucky to survive a suicide bombing in his office Miramshah primarily due to the alertness – and sacrifice -- of his staff. There are now few takers for the once prized jobs of political agents, assistant political agents, tehsildars and political moharrir. Civil servants in the near past offered bribes or used political influence to seek these jobs in tribal areas. Now they try to excuse themselves if posted in dangerous parts of FATA such as North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

There is no doubt the violence in North Waziristan has spiralled out of control after the collapse of the peace accord. It is a worrying development as military convoys are attacked with increasingly sophisticated and powerful, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and guerrilla attacks are augmented by frontal assaults on military outposts by militants numbering 50 or even more. Checkpoints are the main target of attacks, rocketing of military forts and bases is common, and suicide bombings are becoming frequent. Even more worrying is the fallout of the situation in North Waziristan on the neighbouring South Waziristan, where the first attack on the military after a two and a half years gap recently took place at Dargai and 16 paramilitary soldiers were abducted.

The militants have already beheaded one of the abducted Frontier Corps soldiers and are demanding release of 10 of their men, some of whom were stated to be would-be suicide bombers, in exchange for the remaining 15 troops. The attacks in South Waziristan occurred following claims by the militants that henceforth they would coordinate their activities in the two Waziristans and would come to the rescue of each other in case of military operations by the Pakistan Army.

These are dangerous developments but it seems the government hasn't done much in terms of meeting the challenge. Deploying more troops and launching aggressive military operations after every attack by the militants cannot be a long-term solution to the escalating violence and insurgency. The government has to think of other options keeping in view the national interest. Bowing to US pressure would reinforce the general impression among the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes inhabiting Waziristan and other tribal areas that the military operations are being carried at the behest of America. That perception needs to be corrected but it can only happen if traditional methods such as jirgas are employed to resolve the conflict. There is nothing wrong with jirgas. The problem starts when verdicts given by jirgas such as the North Waziristan peace accord isn't properly implemented and no effort is made to monitor and prevent its violation.

The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email:

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