The South Asia Channel

‘Clearing’ Kurram

‘Clearing’ Kurram

On Aug. 18, Pakistan’s most powerful man, Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, secretly flew to Kurram agency in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and declared it free of "miscreants."

No doubt the Pakistani Army did a great job clearing militants from Central Kurram, the focus of the operation, as it did in areas like the Swat Valley. But Kayani’s visit and announcement raise the following question: What do "clear" and "miscreants" mean for a Pakistani Army fighting to regain control of the area from a discreet force that can shift, hit, kill, and target anywhere, any place, and any time? And if the area had been successfully cleared, why did Kayani not travel by road, and why did he not meet the open jirgas of tribal elders in that area, as was the tradition when top Pakistani officials visited the tribal belt before 2001?

Indeed, it would have been great fun if Kayani had taken the governor of Khyber-Puktunkhwa province (the federal government figure who is actually in charge of administering the FATA) along with him, traveling by road to the "cleared" area so that the youth of Kurram could welcome them with the beating of drums and traditional dance, attan, instead of welcoming Kayani’s visit from afar while begging him to finish the job and lift the siege on Kurram’s main city, Parachinar. Only then would the people of Kurram come to believe that their area had truly been secured.

However, what is clear in Kurram and the rest of the tribal areas is that the people continue to live under the threat of terrorists operating under different names, from Jaish to Lashkar to Tehrik, despite numerous operations and claims of victory by Pakistan’s security forces.

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Although the Army announced that the Kurram operation was launched after a demand from the area’s tribal elders, locals contradicted that statement in conversations with the author, saying they never asked for the military operation, whose key objective was to open the Tal-Parachinar road for people traveling to Parachinar, the center of Upper Kurram, from Peshawar via Sadda, the headquarters of Lower Kurram Agency. Instead, they had been asking for more than two years for the government simply to provide them basic security, with no response in return.

However, locals told this writer, they still cannot travel on the Tal-Parachinar road without risking their security, despite the two-month-long operation and ensuing "victory."

All the available accounts from Central Kurram suggest that one of the major impacts of the operation was that it forced the local population to leave their homes, allowing the Taliban to go from village to village, burning the villages vacated by the people. According to reports aired by the Pashto-language radio station Mashaal, so far 16 villages have been burned to the ground by the Taliban in spite of the Army operation, with each village consisting of an average of 50 to 60 houses.

Similar operations have already been conducted in other tribal agencies — South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and the Bara area of Khyber, where the security forces have been engaged in combat operations for the past two years while the people live under a curfew  — and been declared successes. All the while, the displaced people from those areas continue to live in tents, leaving the field open for the Army and the Taliban. Once the playing fields for their children, the land of the tribesmen is now known as a recruiting center for suicide bombers and jihadists.

FATA’s nearly 7 million tribesmen, once fiercely independent, stunningly hospitable, and unbelievably proud, are now living as a vanquished nation robbed of their land, resources, independence, customs, and traditions by the imported jihadists and the state security agencies.

Many in these tribal areas can’t live and even visit their homes and villages for fear of being kidnapped by armed bandits, killed by the Taliban, arrested by the Army or intelligence agencies, or targeted accidentally by American drones. And those who have not left or have since returned can’t dare to utter a word either against the Army or against the militants.

Two weeks ago, when armed Taliban raided some shops in the central bazaar in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, and burned pieces of women’s garments for being un-Islamic and too thin, this writer tried to talk to some shop owners about the incident. Those who would speak agreed to do so only on the condition that they would not condemn the act and would only discuss their financial losses. Yet the situation is little different between the Taliban-controlled Miram Shah and in "cleared" areas of Mohmand, South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Kurram.

In fact, the threat for the common citizen in all those areas is as widespread as it was before the military operations. And this is the reason they are staying in tented villages despite the hot summer and chilly winter, with no proper food, water, medicines, and schooling for their children. Many others have migrated to other cities and towns, shutting down their businesses and leaving their farms.

While the sacrifices of the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps over the years are no secret, the failure to achieve peace and security despite the substantial use of force and displacement of hundreds of thousands leaves room for many questions — most importantly, whether the Army is unwilling to definitively crush the militants, or instead if it is incapable of doing so.

In Kurram, the road to Parachinar has been closed by militants for the last few years, while the security forces have merely looked on. Suddenly and unexpectedly, these same forces announced a clearing operation, but only in an area where the situation was quite calm and peaceful. Thousands of families were displaced to live in camps, and then suddenly the Army announced victory one evening while the displaced people, as scared as before, find their situation unchanged.  

The road to Upper Kurram that goes from Peshawar to Parachinar via Tal is still closed, and the people, scared of being kidnapped or killed, still travel through the Afghan cities of Jalalabad, Kabul, Khost, and Gardez to reach Parachinar.

Many locals with whom this writer talked on the phone say the real militant problem existed in Lower Kurram, while the Army was engaged for the past two months in Central Kurram. During the whole operation, it was not made clear who or which group of militants was being targeted, or whether any prominent militant leaders had been killed or arrested.

It is equal parts interesting and tragic that only a day after Gen. Kayani’s visit to Central Kurram and the announcement regarding the "clearance" of the area, a teenage bomber wreaked havoc on worshippers in a mosque offering Friday congregational prayers in the Jamrud subdivision of Khyber agency, an area previously declared "clear" of militants.

Seeing the bomb blasts in a supposedly secure area, how could people in Kurram be expected to believe that their lives and property would be safe following the military operation in their backyard? And while the key road to Parachinar stays closed, it does not matter much for the people if some portion of the agency is cleared or not; the agency will always struggle to survive while its heart remains blocked.

Daud Khattak is a journalist working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language Mashaal Radio in Prague.