National and International Issues

Shaping Peace and Development in Waziristan

Senior journalist and TV anchorperson Amir Zia narrates the account of his recent visit to North Waziristan.

From the small round window of Pakistan Army’s Mi-17 helicopter, one could see the vast expanse of barren hills and mountains of North Waziristan – some as high as 8,200 feet. For several minutes, the helicopter – carrying a group of journalists from Islamabad to North Waziristan’s district headquarters Miranshah – flew almost parallel to the ridges of a mighty mountain range on its one side and a vast stretch of rolling land and small hills on the other.  
Catching a bird’s eye view of this difficult and unhospitable terrain makes one understand as to why thousands of hardcore local and foreign terrorists once made it their sanctuary. 



The region shares a border of more than 200  kilometers with the war-torn and lawless Afghanistan to its west, Pakistan’s tribal region of Kurram to its north, settled districts of Hangu, Karak and Bannu to its northeast and east respectively, and tribal South Waziristan to its south and southwest. 

While North Waziristan’s location and mountainous terrain offered the terrorists a “natural habitat,” its once semi-autonomous administrative status along with a unique conservative tribal culture also proved an impediment in establishing state writ over here for decades. Pakistan’s successive governments also respected local customs and traditions of the tribal regions in line with the promise made to their people at the time of independence in 1947. Therefore, North Waziristan along with other areas of erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) lagged behind in socio-economic development. 

 


But now all is changing in Waziristan. Terrorist sanctuaries have become a thing of the past and after the recent merger of FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP) province, the region is passing through a slow, but steady process of joining the national mainstream. This one can observe by the visiting the area and meeting the local populace. Unfortunately, this return of peace in erstwhile FATA has been made target through biased and agenda-driven media use.


But now all is changing in Waziristan. Terrorist sanctuaries have become a thing of the past and after the recent merger of FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the region is passing through a slow, but steady process of joining the national mainstream. This one can observe by visiting the area and meeting the local populace. Unfortunately, this return of peace in erstwhile FATA has been made target through biased and agenda-driven media use.   
“Pakistan Army has flushed out terrorists and destroyed all their sanctuaries,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), who accompanied the group of journalists working for local and foreign media, told the scribe. “Now the army is spearheading the new important phase of the operation that includes keeping this region clear of terrorists, protecting civilians and rebuilding and developing the basic infrastructure – from roads to markets and schools and playgrounds to hospitals and basic health units.”
“Pakistan Army has performed a feat… while clearing terrorist infested areas, we held them and while holding them, we started the rebuilding process – all simultaneously. Others perform one task at a time,” the DG ISPR said.
As our helicopter touched ground at a base in Miranshah on a crisp Sunday morning on January 27, 2019, I couldn’t help recalling the harrowing tales of violence and brutalities against the local population when local and foreign terrorists used to run amok here. 
For years, the terrorists suppressed and terrorized the local population, killing dissenting voices with impunity in North Waziristan. For years, they used this area to plan and execute terror attacks across Pakistan, especially in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was here that they trained and prepared militants, including suicide bombers. It was here that they stored weapons and made bombs. It was in this region where they built a labyrinth of underground tunnels and safe houses, using even mosques and seminaries to further their nefarious designs. These terrorists espoused a narrow and skewed version of Islam and exploited its sacred name to brainwash innocent minds and commit all sort of atrocities, including killing civilians and even children.  
According to senior officials of Pakistan Army’s 11 Corps, which has been spearheading the anti-terrorism fight in KP and the tribal region, “the terrorist ideology has lost traction now” and militants belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have moved to sanctuaries in Afghanistan following the beating they took in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014. 
Since then, Pakistan has come a long way in this fight as the ongoing Operation Radd-ul Fasaad got underway in February 2017 with an aim to eliminate terrorist cells across Pakistan. An estimated 3,350 to 4,200 TTP militants fled to Afghanistan and they are now being supported and patronized by hostile intelligence agencies, officials say. 
Lt Gen Shaheen Mazhar Mehmood, Commander 11 Corps, while briefing journalists in Peshawar, said that the army remains at the last stage of its operation. “We are on our way out… the army does not want to stay a day more than required.”
The 11 Corps is the biggest in Pakistan Army and has been active in counter-terrorism operations since 2001-02 when scores of militants from Afghanistan entered the country’s tribal areas and settled there to escape persecution and the bombings by the U.S. and its allied NATO forces. 
At least 4,550 officers and soldiers of the 11 Corps have been martyred and more than 16,256 wounded in this 17-year-long conflict. The number of civilian martyrs – the prime target of terrorists in KP province and the defunct FATA – is around 20,922. The number of civilians injured in terror attacks stand at a staggering figure of 32,000 plus, according to the official data. 

The number of overall casualties in Pakistan in this long internal war has surpassed 80,000 mark, including both civilians and security personnel, underlining the fact that Pakistanis paid the price of this war through their blood, tears and sweat. 
Lt Gen Shaheen said that now people of the conflict areas, like North Waziristan, wanted to go back to their normal lives. “There is a whole generation which has seen nothing but conflict.”
Pakistan tribal areas were ushered in to militancy in 1979 when they became the hub of resistance against the former Soviet Union’s occupation forces in Afghanistan and its backed Kabul regime. 
While the Soviet Union is no more and Kabul’s communist regime collapsed back in April 1992, the civil war and militancy continues to haunt Afghanistan and directly affect Pakistan.
According to DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan has a direct stake in Afghanistan’s peace. 

“No country is interested in Afghan peace process more than Pakistan. We want the ongoing reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan to succeed. Therefore, Pakistan is trying its best to facilitate the Afghan peace process. We have no favourites… we support only the Afghan people,” he said, adding that the United States should leave Afghanistan as “a friend of the region” and it should continue to help Kabul to get back on its feet.
“And when the Americans leave, we do not want Afghan turmoil or war being shifted to Pakistan.”  
And to prevent such a scenario, Pakistan Army is working day and night to fence its around 2,611 kilometers long international border with Afghanistan. In the areas under 11 Corps’ ambit, 473 kilometers of once porous border has already been fenced out of a total 1,229 kilometers. The remaining fencing will be completed by December 2019. 
Officials say that critical part of the fencing is complete, gaps from where terrorists used to infiltrate in and out, have been plugged and cameras and censors are being installed for 24/7 surveillance. New military posts and forts are also being built to beef up the security, they said.
Pakistan maintains that the fencing along its frontiers with Afghanistan is being done only to stop the flow of terrorists and not to prevent people-to-people contact for which official entry points are being upgraded and built. 


Official statistics say that more than 900 development projects have either been completed or are near completion, including more than 250 education institutions, 22 health facilities, several new business hubs having 3,000 shops, 15 warehouses, an agri-park, a pine-nut plant and a number of cold storage houses.


Pakistan Army is also engaged in the sensitive operation of demining this rugged region, where terrorists had planted landmines. Also scores of ordnance belonging to the Soviet-era resistance days also remained dumped here – from hand grenades and bombs to shells and improvised explosive devices, which on and off takes lives of civilians, particularly children. “It is a Herculean task. We have cleared 44 percent of the area and working to clear the rest,” said an official, who asked not to be named because of the military protocol.
From a military fort near the Ghulam Khan crossing point, one could see Pakistani positions and posts along the Afghan border for miles. At a distance, Pakistan’s flag fluttered on one lone post located at a stone’s throw distance from the newly constructed fence. 
DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor has said the ratio of Pakistani and Afghan posts along the border remains five to one. “But it is understandable. The Afghan side doesn’t have the necessary resources to construct and man its posts as well as to build the necessary infrastructure needed for this kind of security and surveillance available on the Pakistani side.”
Looking from Ghulam Khan Fort into the war-ravaged Afghanistan, one could only pray for the success of the ongoing Afghan peace process – so vital for the people of Afghanistan as well as other regional countries.   


Currently, Pakistan Army is leading the development efforts in the erstwhile FATA in an organized manner, building shopping centers, playgrounds and cricket stadium, reviving or building new educational institutions, healthcare facilities and roads.


In North Waziristan, while the security situation has improved and threat from militants has receded, it’s the socio-economic issues and development which are now on the front burner. The years of conflict has destroyed the livelihood of most locals, who bank on small businesses, livestock and farming, government jobs, manual labour, mining, cross-border trade and working overseas.
Currently, Pakistan Army is leading the development efforts in the erstwhile FATA in an organized manner, building shopping centers, playgrounds and cricket stadium, reviving or building new educational institutions, healthcare facilities and roads. 
Official statistics say that more than 900 development projects have either been completed or are near completion, including more than 250 education institutions, 22 health facilities, several new business hubs having 3,000 shops, 15 warehouses, an agri-park, a pine-nut plant and a number of cold storage houses. 
As we drove past the newly built markets and public recreation places, Miranshah gave an impression of normality, though at strategic junctions and places the army personnel stood alert.
Our group of journalists interacted with local shopkeepers, pedestrians and traders at two different markets, where the overwhelming message was of hope, amid great expectations regarding the sustainability of peace and followed by a boom in trade and commercial activities. 
Umer Khattab, who runs a public call office at the Noor Market, said that he expects his business to take-off now as peace has been restored and most of the internally displaced people have returned to their homes or are in the process of doing so. “We pray for peace not just here, but in entire Pakistan”
Insafullah, another local said that life was fast returning to normality. “I am happy because of the peace… I am happy that the markets have re-opened… and for all this we remain grateful to the Pakistan Army.”



Shakirullah, who works at a roadside hotel, said he returned to Miranshah around two-and-half year back from Bannu where he was at an IDP camp. “By the grace of Allah, work is going on fine… by the grace of Allah we feel safe and don’t live in fear.”
At the newly-constructed modern Miranshah Complex, only a handful of shops out of 1300 have opened their shutters so far. 
“The process of handing over these shops to the new owners has just started and every day five to six shops are opening for business,” said Gul Ayub, who moved to his shop number 3 only a few days back. Most of his racks were still empty, but few of them displayed telephone sets and electronic gadgets. 
DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor has said that people of this area have suffered enough. “It is the time to heal their wounds. We are trying our best… but in the mid-to-long run, civilian institutions have to build their capacity. The provincial government has already started work on this after FATA’s merger with KP,” he said.


The writer is an eminent journalist, analyst who regularly contributes for print and electronic media.
E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @AmirZia1

 

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