The South Asia Channel

Rolling back the Taliban in Pakistan

By mid-2008, the local branches of the Tehrik-i-TalibanPakistan (TTP) had forced out Pakistani security forces and taken power inlarge portions of Mohmand and Bajaur, the northernmost of the FederallyAdministered Tribal Areas (FATA). For three years the militant group exercisedopen territorial control, levying taxes and administering its own brand ofjustice in the mountainous areas along the ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

By mid-2008, the local branches of the Tehrik-i-TalibanPakistan (TTP) had forced out Pakistani security forces and taken power inlarge portions of Mohmand and Bajaur, the northernmost of the FederallyAdministered Tribal Areas (FATA). For three years the militant group exercisedopen territorial control, levying taxes and administering its own brand ofjustice in the mountainous areas along the Afghan border. Pakistani militaryoperations aimed at destroying the TTP insurgency came in regular cycles, yeteach declaration of success was followed by the swift resurgence of militantpower. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled the violence to reside inInternally Displaced Person (IDP) camps or with family members elsewhere inPakistan.

Recently, however, the tide in Mohmand and Bajaur has turneddecisively in the Pakistani military’s favor. For the first time in four years,militants have lost the territory they once openly controlled. Whether the tideturns back, or whether these tribal areas even matter given the largerchallenges Pakistan faces, is another question entirely.

Information from the FATA is scarce, as few independentreporters are fearless enough to venture into the area, and their number isdwindling. Over coffee in Islamabad last February, Asia Times Online’s SyedSaleem Shahzad told me, "journalist access in the tribal areas is difficultnow, you need strong contacts with the government, the locals, and also withthe militants." Tragically, three months later Shahzad’s body was found dumpedin a canal southeast of the capital. Many blamethe Pakistani security services for his death, and interpret his killing asintended to intimidate the Pakistani media.

Given that the military’s public relations wing possesses anear-monopoly on information coming out of the FATA, it is no wonder thatrecent declarations of victory over the TTP in Mohmand and Bajaur have gonelargely unnoticed. Military announcements now fall on deaf ears, as U.S.policymakers, not to mention the Pakistani public, have become jaded by earlierdeclarations of success that later proved meaningless. In this informationvacuum the best indicator that security has truly improved is the sustainedreturn of IDPs to their homes.

In June 2011, the Pakistani government declared the entirety of Bajaur safe for IDPreturn, with the soleexception being Loi Sam, a market town flattened by Pakistani airstrikes in2008. Jalozai camp near Peshawar has been emptied of tens of thousands of IDPs,many of them families who fledBajaur two or three years prior and are only now returning home.Additionally, of the two camps established tohouse Mohmand IDPs, Danish Kol is empty and Nahakki camp is nearly so. Whilethe government has attempted to coerce IDPs to return to their home areas inthe past, this has had only limited results, as IDPs have shown they are morethan willing to flee insecure areas once again if the security problems havenot been resolved. In this context, it is remarkable that IDPs have stayed putsince their return to Mohmand and Bajaur earlier in the year.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps, backed by the army, hasreestablished its presence in troubled hotspots along the border, including theChamarkand, Nawagai, and Mamund areas of Bajaur, and the Lakaro, Khwezai andBezai areas of Mohmand. Local tribal militias, referred to as "PeaceCommittees" or lashkars, receive nominal government support to police theirvillages, supplementing the established Khassadarand paramilitary forces whose membership is culled from the local populations.The TTP no longer openly patrols the roads and villages, replaced instead bygovernment checkpoints.

Though they no longer control territory in the area, theinsurgency has by no means vanished. Some fighters have chosen to lay low,putting down their weapons and returning to agrarian life, at least for now.Others, including the militant leadership, have fled across the border into theinsecure Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Just as North and South Waziristanhave served as a safe haven for Afghanistan-focused militants such as theHaqqani Network, the mountainous borderlands of Eastern Afghanistan are nowfunctioning as safe havens for militants expelled from North FATA by thePakistani state.

Lack of territory inside Pakistan has not prevented theBajaur and Mohmand TTP from continuing their campaigns of terror andintimidation, however. Pro-government tribal leaders have been assassinated,Frontier Corps checkposts attacked in cross-border raids, and most recently 30teenagers were kidnappedin the Mamund area of Bajaur. Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the Bajaur TTP, hasreestablishedan illegal radio station and is again broadcasting propaganda along theborder. Local militants who agreedto cease attacks against the state in return for amnesty could easilymobilize again if the TTP appears poised to retake control of the borderlands.

Meanwhile, sectarian violence in the nearby tribal area ofKurram has resisted both the efforts of Afghan militant leaders and thePakistani government for mediation – with the Shi’a Pashtuns stuck in thearea’s major city, Parachinar, still deeply suspicious of the true intentionsof both would-be peacebrokers. Zones of Shi’a and Sunni control have hardened,as the TTP and other sectarian militant groups such as Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan(and its subsidiary Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) have proved unwaveringin their attacks on Shi’a traveling along the main road through Lower Kurram.Pakistani military operations began in July of this year in Central Kurram, amountainous Sunni-dominated region along the Afghan border long ignored by thestate. Tens of thousands of IDPs have fled the area. Though the militarydeclared the operations a success in mid-August, only a smallminority of IDPs have since begun to return home, and questionsremain about the value of staging operations in Central Kurram, rather thanother parts of the agency.

Militants in other parts of FATA also remain strong. In muchof Khyber, armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam, Ansar-ul-Islam, and the TTPview each other, rather than the government, as their main competition forpower. An uneasy truce between Afghanistan-focused militants and the FrontierCorps persists in North Waziristan, even as sporadicfighting between the TTP and the state continues in South Waziristan. Inaddition, other challenges increasingly overshadow the conflict in FATA,including concerns about tensions with India, extremistinfiltration of the armed forces, and escalatingconfessional violence in Karachi.

Sustaining the state’s victory in Mohmand and Bajaur willdepend on its ability to provide services and especially security to thereturning IDPs. The years-long conflict between the military and insurgents hasdevastated both the traditional civilian authorities and the tribal leadershipof FATA. The military has used the ongoing conflict as a justification forblocking the implementation of long overdue political reforms meant to startincorporating the tribal areas into the mainstream of Pakistani politics andlaw. Whether the government can maintain security and normalize life in Mohmandand Bajaur will be a crucial test of its ability to succeed in the rest of thetribal areas.

Sean Mann is currentlyin the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University.He speaks Pashto, and spent the previous year conducting research on the borderareas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.