Sunday, July 06, 2008

Significance of the Khyber Operation

The importance of the Khyber operation
The News, July 07, 2008
Khalid Aziz

A few days ago the Frontier Corps began a cleanup operation in the Bara subdivision of Khyber Agency. Many negative comments have appeared about the operation. Let us examine the importance of this operation from the angle of re-establishment of the writ of the government.

The main criticism against the operation is the negative perception in the public mind that the operation is a charade and it was started to put to rest fears about the increasing law-and-order threat to Peshawar. Some ask why minor warlords like Mangal Bagh or Namdar have not been arrested. Others say that the action was meant to put to rest US fears that Pakistan’s new government was being soft on terrorists. The operation was to prove otherwise. Both the US and Afghanistan have commended the decision.

Before reaching a conclusion about the value of this operation, let us examine the unique interaction between the tribal areas and the NWFP. This relationship between two separate administrative structures has resulted in the creation of a very elaborate watch and ward framework which has grown over the past two hundred years and is part of this region’s history. If the system is not implemented, then there is trouble.

Britain defeated the Sikhs and occupied the Punjab districts in 1849. The future NWFP province lay to the west of the Indus and was a part of Punjab. Further east was the vastness of India. The security of India was always the pivot of Britain’s foreign policy whose aim was to protect it from Russia. A second range of threats more local in their nature arose out of the frequent raids conducted by the tribes on districts which now comprise the NWFP; Viceroy Curzon created the NWFP in 1901 by separating it from Punjab because of its special law-and-order problems.

At the end of the 19th century, Britain initiated a wave of consolidation of its Indian dominion by encouraging internationalisation of borders between Iran and Afghanistan to the east, Afghanistan and Russia to the north and north-east, Afghanistan and India demarcated to the west and between India and China to the east.

A second defensive border was created between Afghanistan and India in the north-west starting from Chitral in the north to Dera Ismail Khan in the south and where the tribes dwelled. It was converted into a tribal area approximately the size of Belgium.

One of the least acknowledged contributions of the British to statecraft – and they were good at it – was to convert the geographical borderland of the tribes into a shield by regulation. They kept the tribal areas underdeveloped and increased the efficiency of the British Indian Army, as well as the tribesmen, by constant fighting. It was Britain’s best battle-inoculation school.

Secondly, through this policy the tribal areas were converted into a “prickly hedge”; no invader could expect to have a safe passage to India through this route. To keep the manpower of the tribal areas from leaving the people were kept underdeveloped and made to believe that their system of local administration based on the jirga was unique. It was feared that if they became too educated they would leave these territories. The British very cleverly crafted a draconian law to fix this system in time. It is called the Frontier Crimes Regulation. These reactionary devices were meant to ensure the freezing of tribesmen in an archaic social formation for perpetuity.

To absolve itself of the responsibility to develop and educate the tribesmen on a par with the Indians, the British created an amazing legal fiction. The tribal areas were to be considered a part India, but not a part of British India.

Instead of rectifying this involved conceptual edifice constructed for imperial purposes by Britain, we mistakenly acknowledged that the tribal areas had an exclusive identity and included this exception in the Instruments of Accession in 1947 at the time of Partition. Later, we protected this anomaly in the 1973 Constitution by retaining the separateness under Articles 246-247 of the Constitution.

It was but natural that the tribal areas composed of a warlike people, deprived of economic development and lying next to comparatively richer people, would try to possess the same riches through raids and kidnappings. The income differences were huge.

Throughout history tribal gangs have attacked the districts of the NWFP for gaining wealth. To protect the districts a four-layered scheme was conceived by the British, which was later followed by Pakistan. The first defence was provided inside an agency by the Scouts and tribal levies called Khassadars.

To prevent incursion of tribal gangs into districts the Frontier Constabulary was created. It is a semi-military and lightly armed force patrolling the ridge line on the district-tribal boundary.

In the districts the police provided protection against incursions. Lying in reserve was the military. It was the force of last resort, which unlike the recent few years was rarely used. However, small units of artillery and light tanks were always provided to the Scouts to strengthen them.

It was the routine in the NWFP districts and the tribal areas until the mid-1990s to carry out yearly cleanup operations to clear the dens, hujras or bunkers created by the tribal gangs. Sporadic joint raids were conducted by the police and the Scouts whenever the situation demanded.

I think four things happened collectively, leading to the decay in the Frontier’s watch-and-ward system. First, the massive amount of weaponry which entered the tribal areas from 1980 to the present during the Afghan wars and unrest. The criminals became better armed than the law enforcing agencies, which avoided confrontation under such disadvantageous circumstances.

Secondly, the system of seasonal cleanup operations was abandoned because the people at the helm of affair didn’t recognise the importance of the procedures; instead they became more involved in the politics of survival. Thirdly, when the military entered the tribal areas in 2002, the political agents were marginalised and became dysfunctional. Lastly, an ambiguity developed in law enforcement when they played the guard and the supervisor during long martial law regimes – by doing so they compromised their procedures when transacting socially with the warlords. For example a corps commander visited Nek Muhammad in Wana in 2004 and anointed him with official approval. Or, more recently, the commandant of a Scouts unit who attended a school function in the company of Namdar. No good has ever come out of collaborating with evil.

The main reason for the operation is that a few months ago Mangal Bagh forced the political administration of Khyber to abandon Bara subdivision. This should have been challenged with massive force; it wasn’t. It encouraged tribal gangs to nibble away at Peshawar with kidnappings for ransom, murder and dacoities. What is worse is that these better-armed gangs came from the tribal areas after crossing the Scouts check posts; it demoralised the police who began to abandon their positions.

As a result of the operation, Bara is back with the Khyber Agency and the police have started arresting criminals in Peshawar. The writ of the state has been extended. These are positive results; let us not expect too much at this stage. The belated Khyber operation is thus a minor moment in the Frontier’s watch and ward but does point to the huge capacity deficit that has arisen in the security field; we need to address it immediately. We must not permit any person to challenge the writ of the state, irrespective of whether he is “pious” person struggling to implement his version of the Shariat or he has some other trick up his sleeve. He must be dealt with sternly, if we are to avoid chaos.

The writer is a former chief secretary of NWFP and heads the Regional Institute of Policy Research. Email: azizkhalid

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