Waziristan at Peace (Part II)

Written By: Jennifer McKay

With the majority of the community having returned to the Tochi Valley, life is moving to the new normal that is obvious across all of North Waziristan. The transition from a terrorist-infested area, to a peaceful community that has returned from displacement is not without challenges. But so much has been done already to rehabilitate this area and the prospects for the future are looking good. Not so long ago, when the soldiers moved through this area, the children made the ‘hand across the throat’ sign, wishing death to the soldiers. Now they wave happily and often salute the soldiers. Sometimes, they even pause from their game of cricket to run to the roadside to wave. This is reflection of love for Pakistan Army among tribal children and elders.

The Tochi Valley has had a long and colourful history. This beautiful valley, running from Bannu through Mir Ali and Miranshah, out to Degan, Boya and beyond, has seen many conflicts over the centuries. Today, it is at peace.


In the days of the British, it was the scene of many skirmishes between the tribesmen and the British Indian Army. The history books are full of interesting tales of the British attempting to subjugate the tribes, usually unsuccessfully. It is worth reading some of the books and articles on the history of North Waziristan and bordering areas of Afghanistan to get a better understanding of the fierce and independent tribesmen and their battles with the British. Most accounts were written by British officers and are imperialistic in their tone but they do provide a background to the many conflicts in the past century or two.


The British have long gone but since 2001 when the U.S. and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan, trouble in the Tribal Agencies started to escalate. Despite many attempts at building peace between militant factions and the state, trouble intensified to a point where military operations were needed to defeat the growing threat. It is not easy, nor desirable, for any army to have to fight its own people and Pakistan wanted to avoid the scenario of many innocent people in the region being caught up in what would ultimately become a necessary conflict. Terrorists, including Uzbeks, Chechens and others, along with local groups, had infiltrated and taken over communities, basically holding them as a collective human shield. In all instances across the seven Tribal Agencies, the Army moved the population out to protect innocent families. This was a massive effort and a huge cost to the state and more so, to the people many of whom lost everything. However, with talks bringing no resolution, and attacks growing in the area and the cities, the only solution was to launch the operations.

 

wazirstanatpeaceasd.jpgOperation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014, finally brought to an end the reign of terror of the militant groups that had moved into North Waziristan from Afghanistan and beyond to join forces with local militants. The alliances of these groups including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah and the Haqqani network were a threat to the country and the region. Tribal elders and thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers have died at the hands of these groups. The success of the military operations has led to a significant reduction of terror attacks in the country.

 

Following the operations, the government and Army could then start the process of bringing home the displaced population and rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. These were already underway in the other six Agencies that had previously been cleared. The efforts have been massive and will continue for some time. The terrain and location of villages in North Waziristan makes the task more challenging but the leap forward from what was to what is and what will be, is impressive.


For this series of articles, I travelled to different parts of North Waziristan to get a better understanding of the difference in areas and what is happening. The areas are quite distinctive in nature and the Tochi Valley with its beauty and history is one area that is showing great potential.


New roads are making travel in North Waziristan so much easier. A new road from Miranshah to Boya is under construction and will soon be surfaced making it an even more pleasant journey out through the valley following the Tochi River. When I visited Boya – located a little over 20 kilometres from Miranshah – the valley was looking its most beautiful. Sun shining on the rugged ranges and the mud and brick houses and compounds in villages along the river, trees with bright green foliage, healthy crops in the fields, and children playing cricket, it seemed a vision of serenity. It was hard to imagine that so recently this had been the scene of so much misery.


Fighting in the area to defeat some of the most ruthless terrorists including Uzbeks and others involved in the attack on the Karachi Airport, was intense. Large caches of weapons and explosives were found in the clearing operations, a reminder of the firepower capability that terrorists can muster.


With the majority of the community having returned to the Tochi Valley, life is moving to the new normal that is obvious across all of North Waziristan. The transition from a terrorist-infested area, to a peaceful community that has returned from displacement is not without challenges. But so much has been done already to rehabilitate this area and the prospects for the future are looking good.


Not so long ago, when the soldiers moved through this area, the children made the ‘hand across the throat’ sign, wishing death to the soldiers. Now they wave happily and often salute the soldiers. Sometimes, they even pause from their game of cricket to run to the roadside to wave. This is reflection of love for Pakistan Army among tribal children and elders.


What a spectacular tourist drive this could be one day, now that peace has been restored. When more facilities are built, and the area opens up more to visitors, this will be a ‘must visit’ area. Let us hope that will be soon as tourism brings a lot of money to any area and the local people would prosper.


The people of the Boya and Degan area are already seeing new opportunities for prosperity at their doorstep with the discovery of copper and the opening of a mine and processing facilities. This is significant. Industry is needed across all of FATA and this once ‘no-go’ area of North Waziristan can certainly benefit from such ventures.


The abundance of minerals including copper, chromite, oil, and gas in FATA has been known for some years. However, the instability and threat of terrorism was too high for investors to take a chance on mining. That has changed. In 2016, the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the FATA Development Authority (FDA) to open a copper mine at Degan. FWO, through its subsidiary MEDO then partnered with Yantai Xinhai Mining Machinery to build a copper benefication plant that will have a capacity of 1,500 tons per day.


What is impressive about the agreement is that it will give 18 percent of the revenue to the local community, 10 percent to the FATA Development Authority, and 22 percent to corporate social responsibility initiatives to be spent on local projects.


In addition, this will bring jobs, not only at the mine and processing plant but also in the provision of support services from businesses in the community. Investment in industry can help communities make the leap from subsistence living to prosperity. The investment in this copper mine is a major step in encouraging other investors to look at opportunities in mining and other industries.


The Tochi Valley is very close to the Afghanistan Border. Although the situation with Afghanistan is often fractious, the benefits for both countries in building trade are obvious. As North Waziristan opens up, and with the excellent roads linking it with the cities in Pakistan and to the border, new opportunities will arise for trade in minerals, fruit and vegetables, and other goods. Enhanced trade and effective joint border management will increase the chances for long-term peace on both sides of the border.


What is concerning though is that the situation in Afghanistan appears to be worsening. With the Afghan Taliban controlling large swathes of the country and a growing presence of Daesh, it is hard to say what will happen. The Trump Administration has recently announced that more U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan but the situation remains unclear whether this will make a difference when billions of dollars and fifteen years of a huge presence of U.S. and ISAF forces on the ground with a large Afghan Army could not bring peace. Foreign analysts do not seem positive that this latest increase will help due to the growing power of Afghan Taliban and Daesh across the country. For Pakistan, which has done so much to defeat terrorism, and lost so many lives to bring peace within its own borders, peace in Afghanistan is critical.


In a previous article, “Waziristan at Peace” I wrote about the improvements that have already been made in these villages around Boya and Degan. One of the most important of these is the small hospital, which is currently staffed by Army medical officers, lady health workers, and local medical assistants. The area has significant health problems that have not previously been addressed including general health care, cardiology, and women’s health. Healthcare is a vital component for the wellbeing of this area to progress and prosperity. One of the major health problems highlighted by the Army doctors, and which should be prioritized and addressed in community health is that of malaria and leishmaniasis, both of which are common in this area.


These two maladies, delivered by mosquitos and sandflies respectively, are extremely dangerous and can cause long-term illnesses and even death. While many are more familiar with malaria, less is understood about leishmaniasis which is a dangerous and painful disease. The World Health Organisation suggests that leishmaniasis affects some of the poorest people on earth, and is associated with malnutrition, population displacement, poor housing, a weak immune system and lack of financial resources. The disease is linked to environmental changes such as deforestation, building of dams, irrigation schemes, and urbanization.

 

Tochi Valley has the potential to become a symbol of what can be achieved in the process of bringing long-term peace and stability and to become a prosperous area of the country. The components are all there and the current situation is looking very promising indeed. With support and encouragement, the education of children and youth, improved health and wellbeing for all, plus economic prosperity through investment, small business and agriculture, the future looks bright in the Tochi Valley.

According to health advisories, “affected regions are often remote and unstable, with limited resources for treating this disease.” Doctors Without Borders calls leishmaniasis “one of the most dangerous neglected tropical diseases.” It can be transmitted from one human to another in certain circumstances. The Organization also states that this disease is second only to malaria in parasitic causes of death. It can cause skin lesions, mainly ulcers, on exposed parts of the body, leaving life-long scars and serious disability.


Treating the illness is one thing though no vaccines are available, but more important is to take preventative measures, and to get to the cause of the problem. The World Health Organisation provides advice on how communities can reduce the risk. Raising awareness of the risks of these two diseases carried by tiny flying monsters is clearly an activity that would be helpful to the communities. Government health officials and possibly the World Health Organisation or other humanitarian agencies could support the work that the Army is already doing enough on this, including research into the local environmental conditions in which these insects thrive to eliminate the breeding grounds. It would be of great benefit to the local people and their future wellbeing.


The growing number of good schools in the area also provide opportunities not only for good education and vocational training for boys and girls, but also to inculcate awareness of hygiene, health, and also about the local environment. Children are wise and like to share what they learn with their parents. This will further raise awareness of important community health issues. The same applies to the Women’s Vocational Centers. Sharing the benefits of health issues and how best to address these, is extremely helpful in spreading the word. This is already happening at the Centers.


The local people are not just leaving it up to the Army to do the work; they too are taking the initiative. Although the Army has built excellent local markets, it is a positive sign to see so many small ‘tuckshops’, scrap metal and building materials depots, tyre repairers, and other small businesses along the roadside. Farming families are adapting new techniques they have learned from the Army to get better crop yields. Another sign of positive change is the visible pride the Khasardars have in their duties. There is no shortage of candidates to join up.


Tochi Valley has the potential to become a symbol of what can be achieved in the process of bringing long-term peace and stability and to become a prosperous area of the country. The components are all there and the current situation is looking very promising indeed. With support and encouragement, the education of children and youth, improved health and wellbeing for all, plus economic prosperity through investment, small business and agriculture, the future looks bright in the Tochi Valley.

(To be Continued...)

 

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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