News emanating from FATA and also emerging from power corridors of the country about the area is once again ominous. If the news reports about a drone attack in North Waziristan four days back is correct, it is the third drone attack in FATA during the last few months. Pakistan Air Force has also bombarded terrorist positions in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency. The media has reported several terrorist attacks against security forces and members of peace committees in different parts of FATA with numerous casualties. According to a report published in a Peshawar based Urdu daily on 26 May, Taliban belonging to Mulla Nazir group (good Taliban allied with Haqqani network) picked up Azizullah Wazir, local leader of ANP, from Wana bazaar. The group is reportedly functioning like local administration with the blessings of civil and military authorities.
As if this wasn’t enough Senator Saleh Shah of JUI-F revealed in the meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Interior on 22 May that different TTP factions have been allowed by authorities to open offices in Bannu, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, the three southern districts adjacent to Waziristan. The report wasn’t denied or challenged by the high ranking Interior Ministry officials present in the meeting. As the dust of the high publicity operation Zarb-e-Azb has settled we can see the return of Taliban in FATA, supposedly to have been banished forever. That their return is coinciding with a similar phenomena on the western side of the Durand Line is not surprising, because like always, FATA is the launching pad for the Taliban war in Afghanistan, the pious noises of denial from Islamabad notwithstanding.
Basically, military operations in FATA had no civilian oversight. The area still remains a black hole and a no-go area for national and international media (except of course the journalists embedded with the army). So there isn’t any independent source to monitor the claims of the ISPR. It is particularly so as the local Pashtuns, and the returning IDPs in particular, are facing severe restrictions. They have to pass through a variety of checkpoints where body searches are routine. FATA Pashtuns don’t have access to the internet for the last so many years. Despite the end of Zarb-e-Azb (ZeA), the routine of imposing curfew every Sunday still continues in North Waziristan. The so called mainstream Pakistani media is too obsessed with power games in Islamabad to be interested in reporting these “minor” things from a political backyard.
The backing out of the government from moving the bill for constitutional amendment in the Parliament to implement the FATA reforms package can also be understood in this context. The aforementioned reforms package faces three major challenges. The first and foremost challenge is Pakistan’s Afghan policy. As long as the country’s security establishment is supporting Taliban’s war against the Afghan state it needs FATA as a base camp for this war and the reforms promises can wait. The second challenge comes from the formidable black economy of the area. It includes the huge drug trade, human trafficking, gun running, commodities smuggling across the border and unaudited funds of the political agents. Huge amounts of money change hands every 24 hours. After reaching the upper echelons of the ruling elites it turns into anesthesia as far as the implementation of reforms is concerned. The third challenge comes from the implementation mechanism. The main players for the implementation process are supposed to be the ministry of Saffron and the FATA secretariat that have a very strong interest in the status quo. The day the reforms package is implemented the ministry of Saffron will cease to exist as FATA is the sole reason for its existence. Why would the ministry be keen to liquidate itself is the question. Similarly why would the FATA secretariat, that is notorious for running FATA like a fiefdom and is one of the most non-transparent and unaccountable administrations in the country, be interested in the change?
Be that as it may there are different factors behind the resurgence of Taliban in FATA. In the first place operation ZeA had carefully saved the good Taliban while pushing the rest into Afghanistan. Shawal and Dattakhel weren’t cleared as claimed at that time and these places have attracted fighters scattered by military action in Tochi Valley for regrouping. Haqqanis who were relocated to lower Kurram have their tentacles in Aourakzai Agency and Tirah of Khyber Agency. Taliban handlers were expecting quicker victories in their latest war starting in 2014. They were looking forward to fall of provinces in the south and east of Afghanistan. These expectations haven’t materialised. Afghan National Security Forces have stood their ground defying much of the dark prognosis. Establishing “control” over such and such per cent of rural areas doesn’t mean much in the Afghan context where rural and tribal communities have been living autonomously without much interference of the Afghan state for centuries. The enforced repatriation of seven hundred thousand plus refugees from Pakistan and the unilateral and arbitrary closure of the Afghan transit trade has put some pressure on Afghanistan but all this has failed to break the back of the Afghan Republic as some Pakistani patrons of Taliban were expecting. The Resolute Support of the international community has also not wavered in the face of some spectacular Taliban attacks. In fact, the US and her NATO allies are actively considering sending some military reinforcements to Afghanistan. It is becoming obvious by every passing day that there is no Taliban military victory in sight. Thus the revival of the Taliban’s fall back position in FATA. This explains why Pakistani authorities are turning a blind eye to the resurgence of the Taliban in FATA. So much so, that unlike operation ZeA, operation Radul Fassad even doesn’t care about the optics.
The aforementioned reversals are bad news for FATA Pashtuns but there is also going to be a definite fall out for the terror problem in the rest of Pakistan. When FATA becomes a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban will also be used by terror syndicates and criminal mafias in Pakistan. It is particularly dangerous at a time when the so-called Islamic State (IS) is expanding its presence here in the wake of its shrinking space in the Middle East and it is forging working relationships with local terror networks. The center of gravity of terrorism is shifting from the traditional Deobandi extremist circles of southern Punjab to the Wahabi networks of central and upper Punjab, a catchment area for the so-called IS. Will both the houses of Parliament really discuss the reversals in FATA and their fall out for Pakistan and the region?
Writer: Afrasiab Khan Khattak
THE PASHTUN TIMES