Last month, the Pakistani army launched a new offensive in North Waziristan, which came close on the heels of unprecedented air strikes aimed at Islamist groups. This troop deployment is different from previous ones, in its sheer magnitude and its targets.
North Waziristan is one of the best known Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region which was demarcated by the British to act as a buffer against Afghanistan, as Russia’s southward expansion in the Great Game had set off several wars. The British never managed to establish any real control over the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Not only was the Durand Line disputed by the Pashtun tribes straddling the “border”, but some of those located to the east also continued to swear allegiance to the Afghan rulers.
After 1947, taking into account this sense of independence, the Karachi government followed the path trodden by the British: it relied on local leaders, the maliks, to whom it granted an annual stipend and considerable autonomy. As the name implies, the agencies of the FATA come directly under the authority of Pakistan’s president, who delegates power to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor to oversee the administration. But at the level of each agency, power lies mainly in the hands of the political agent (PA, whose name and scope of action have not changed since the British), who enjoys extensive authority under the British Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which remained in effect after 1947. According to this body of laws, the PA, a bureaucrat appointed by the governor, could punish any tribe as he saw fit. He could imprison whoever he liked for three years without having to offer justification. Imtiaz Gul, an expert on the FATA, believes, “The main reason for the popularity of successive Islamist movements in the tribal areas stems from the draconian system of the FCR… the search for a fair justice system and the craving for equal citizenship has come to be synonymous with sharia” (The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, p. 53). Many Islamist groups, in fact, claim the role of dispenser of justice, not only because they purportedly redress the wrongs done to the downtrodden, but also because they combat inequalities inherited from a tribal order transformed a quasi feudal system under the British. This was one of their justifications for the recent assassinations of maliks, who have traditionally supported the cause of Pashtun nationalism, inherited from Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
In the 1980s, Islamist movements began to prosper in the FATA because of the anti-Soviet jihad. At times, up to 40,000 people crossed the Durand Line daily at Torkham in the Khyber agency, one of the border crossing points, and in 1988, 104 of the 278 refugee tented villages in the Pashtun areas were in the FATA (“Demographic Reporting on Afghan Refugees in Pakistan”, Nancy Duprée). Thus, a sort of osmosis took place, closely meshing the FATA movements and the Afghan jihad, a form of integration first reflected in the development of new madrasas. Pakistani jihadist groups also set up their headquarters and their training camps in Wana, South Waziristan, and in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, and on the Afghan side, in Khost, where al-Qaeda had camps in the late 1980s, as hundreds if not thousands of “Arabs” (coming from the Middle East) and Eurasians (mostly Uzbeks) regrouped in the FATA and Eastern Afghanistan.
A segment of the FATA youth was thus drawn into the jihad in the 1980s. Nek Muhammad, from South Waziristan, is a case in point. He came from a poor family, like many of his fellow combatants, and joined the Taliban in the mid-1990s. He ended up commanding 3,000 men in Bagram, where he fought the “American invasion” in November 2001. Returning to Kalosha, South Waziristan, with a fleet of six all-terrain pickups, Nek was someone to be reckoned with. As funds poured in with al-Qaeda fighters retreating into his territory, Nek grew richer. But the oldest ally of Al Qaeda was Jalaluddin Haqqani whose network, based in North Waziristan was associated with Arabs (including Ben Laden) from the mid-1980s onwards.
For years, the Pakistan army tried to negotiate with the Islamists of the FATA. The first agreement was signed with Nek Muhammad in 2004 in Shakai, South Waziristan. In exchange for his commitment to refrain from launching cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and to “register” foreign militants, the Pakistan government agreed to release a large number of prisoners and granted financial compensation to the victims of military operations. Due to lack of compliance — the clause stipulating that foreign militants be registered was indeed naive — military operations resumed within weeks. But they soon resulted in new rounds of talks, leading to another agreement signed in February 2005, this time by Baitullah Mehsud who had fought in the Haqqani network and then succeeded Nek Muhammed, killed in 2004 by a drone attack. Mehsud headed what was to become known as the Pakistan Taliban in 2007. In fact, till 2007, the Pakistan army contented itself with striking deals whose terms, very similar to those described above, were never observed.
Things started to change in the late 2000s, when the army was deployed in South Waziristan, in the Swat Valley and in several other places. The army stepped up operations in the Pashtun areas after General Kayani became chief of army staff in 2007. About 211 of them reportedly took place from 2007 to 2010. But losses were heavy, estimated at around 2,300. Consequently, the army preferred to refrain from deploying ground troops and left the matter in American hands without specifically saying so. It was in this context that the US launched massive drone strikes. But this technique was not effective enough and became problematic after politicians denounced this violation of the country’s sovereignty during the 2013 election campaign. After becoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif claimed that he wanted to reach a negotiated settlement with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
After months of trying to hold talks, the government had to admit that the TTP was either too divided or not sincere about meaning business. In early June, the attack against Karachi airport sealed the fate for talks and enabled the army to take the lead again and attack North Waziristan. This area had been spared so far, primarily because it is the stronghold of the Haqqani network that has helped the ISI in Afghanistan — to gain some “strategic depth” in the 1980s and to fight the Indian presence in the 2000s. The deployment of troops in this area suggests that the army has realised that Islamists — including the Haqqani network — pose an existential threat to the country and that they have to be decimated now, before the Nato forces withdraw fully from Afghanistan. If this is the case, the Pakistani army, which has traditionally considered India its priority target, is on the verge of a paradigm shift. But is it not too late? Certainly, the army has destroyed training camps and killed, allegedly about 400 militants in one month, but many others have fled to Afghanistan which seems, ironically, to be a safe haven for the TTP. If so, these fighters may continue to strike from the other side of the Durand Line for a long time. And then Nawaz Sharif, who has been sidelined by the army initiative, may stage a comeback and claim that negotiations are needed again.