By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
In just the latest incident in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on December 6, 2010, at least 45 persons, including tribal elders, Security Force (SF) personnel and journalists, were killed and another 70 were injured, in a suicide attack on a jirga (tribal council) being held outside the office of the Assistant Political Agent, Roshan Khan Mehsud, of the Mohmand Agency at Ghalanai, the Agency headquarters. [The Political Agent is the head of each Tribal Agency, representing the President of Pakistan in FATA, as the tribal agencies are notionally autonomous.] Among the dead were 12 Government officials and eminent journalists Pervez Khan Mohmand, a correspondent of Nawa-i-Waqt and the Waqt News, as well as another journalist, Abdul Wahab, of Express News. Tehsildar (revenue officer), Zabit Khan, is among the injured.
According to Shamsul Islam, the Mohmand Political Agent, a jirga of the peace committee of the Alizai and Safi tribes was in progress at the office to devise a strategy against terrorism in the tribal region, when the two suicide bombers tried to enter into the premises, but blew themselves up when stopped by SF personnel.
Meanwhile, ‘chief’ of the Mohmand chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Umer Khalid, claiming responsibility for the attack declared, “Our two suicide bombers targeted people who were working against the Taliban [TTP]. Those who will work against us and make lashkars [tribal Army] or peace committees will be targeted. Our war is to enforce Sharia [the sacred law of Islam] and anyone who hinders our way or sides with America will meet the same fate.”
Described as the “most dangerous place on the earth” Pakistan’s tribal areas have witnessed ever increasing carnage. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 5,023 persons, including of 4,296 militants, 490 civilians and 237 SF personnel, were killed in 672 incidents of killing in 2010 (all data till December 12), as compared to 5,238 persons, including 4,252 militants, 636 civilians and 350 SFs killed in 835 incidents of killing in 2009. This indicates is a decline of 23 and 32.3 percent respectively in the number of civilians and SFs killed in 2010, as compared to 2009. Militants’ fatalities, on the other hand, have risen marginally. The number of major incidents (involving three or more killings) has decreased from 383 in 2009 to 369 in 2010.
* Data: Till December 12, 2010
A detailed scrutiny of the data suggests that the decline in fatalities does not reflect any dramatic trend towards improvement. For instance, there were six suicide attacks in 2009, in which 116 persons were killed and more than 169 were injured; 2010 has already recorded 12 suicide attacks, with 266 fatalities and over 361 injured. Such a trend can only indicate rising radicalization and the raising and training of the most extreme of fanatical cadres.
Prominent among the suicide attacks in FATA in 2010 were:
August 23: 26 persons, including a former member of the National Assembly (NA), were killed and 40 were injured, when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque in Wana town of South Waziristan Agency (SWA).
July 9: At least 106 persons, including women and children, were killed and 69 were injured, as two suicide bombers blew themselves up at political offices, just seconds apart from each other, in the Yakka Ghund tehsil (revenue unit) of Mohmand Agency.
February 18: At least 30 persons, including a Lashkar-e-Islam ‘commander’, were killed and 110 persons were injured in a suicide attack near a mosque in the Akakhel area of Tirah Valley in the Khyber Agency.
Moreover, the number of bomb explosions has also increased, with 112 incidents recorded in 2009, resulting in 266 fatalities and 393 injured, while there were 174 attacks in 2010, resulting in 353 fatalities and 529 injured.
This clearly reflects a shifting militant strategy, rather than any loss of will or change in intent, even as the TTP has been brought under pressure by sustained US drone attacks as well as widespread and often indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Pakistani Forces. Reports indicate that missile attacks by US drones in the FATA have more than tripled since January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama took over the Presidency in the US. According to a BBC Urdu Service report published on July 24, 2010, there were 25 drone strikes between January 2008 and January 2009, in which slightly fewer than 200 people were killed. In year 2010, drone attacks in FATA have risen substantially, with partial SATP data recording at least 82 such attacks, resulting in at least 719 fatalities in 2010. SATP data recorded 46 such attacks in 2009, leaving 536 dead, indicating an increase of 34 percent in fatalities due to drone attacks in 2010. The most significant drone attacks in 2010 include:
November 16: 20 alleged militants were killed when US drone missiles hit a house and a speeding vehicle in Bangi Dar village in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of FATA.
September 26: A US drone attacks killed at least 30 persons inside Pakistan in areas near Miranshah in NWA.
September 21: At least 28 persons were killed in three US led drone strikes in the remote areas of SWA and NWA.
September 15: At least 21 alleged militants, including 14 foreign nationals, were killed when US drones carried out two attacks on al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network hideouts in NWA.
May 11: US drones killed 21 alleged TTP militants in two separate strikes in the NWA.
January 17: A US drone strike killed at least 20 alleged TTP militants, including foreign terrorists (Uzbeks), in the SWA.
The US has succeeded in eliminating some leadership elements in the target terrorist groups through drone attacks. According to a report in The Long War Journal, drone strikes have killed 15 senior and an equal number of mid-level al Qaeda leaders, and four senior and five mid-level Taliban/TTP leaders since 2004. Some of the most significant kills include Baitullah Mehsud (former TTP ‘commander’); Osama al Kini alias Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam (al Qaeda’s operations chief for Pakistan); Mustafa Abu Yazid alias Sheikh Saeed al Masri (an al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and top financial controller); Mohammed Haqqani (a mid-level Haqqani Network ‘military commander’ and brother of the outfit’s leader Sirajuddin Haqqani); Abdul Basit Usman (the US had a USD one million bounty on his head); and Abu Jihad al Masri (the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda’s intelligence branch). Stung by these losses, the TTP, on April 5, 2010, threatened more terrorist and suicide strikes unless the US ended its drone attacks in FATA.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Forces, which have failed consistently to take any concrete action against groups such as al Qaeda, (Afghan) Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), among others, has focused its entire attention on the TTP in FATA, as Islamabad realizes that any failure to rein in this group will destabilize widening areas within the country. FATA has emerged as a principal sanctuary for TTP terrorists and the SFs have, consequently, launched major operations in the region through 2009-10.
Notable among these was Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation), launched in the SWA area on June 19, 2009. After a three-month blockade of the Agency and intermittent skirmishes with militants, the Pakistani military announced, on October 2, 2009, that it would begin a large-scale operation to ‘wipe out’ TTP and al Qaeda militants in the area. By December 12, 2009, the operation, according to the Army, was ‘over’, as the Forces had ‘taken control’ of the whole of SWA. However, none of the top TTP leaders had been killed or captured. The Governments’ next objective was to ‘recover’ the Orakzai region, where most of the TTP forces relocated. 619 militants and 80 soldiers of the Pakistan Army were killed during this offensive. 243 soldiers were injured and 83 militants were arrested. On December 7, 2010, the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani asserted that the entire SWA had been virtually ‘cleared’ of militants.
Nevertheless, the skirmishes continued, forcing the SFs to launch Operation Khwakh Ba De Sham (I will See You) in Orakzai and Kurram Agencies on March 23, 2010. This was originally planned as a two-week end-stage operation, but the Army evidently miscalculated the militants’ strength, and the Operation dragged on beyond four months, with higher-than-expected casualties. The Army, of course, announced the successful conclusion of the operation in Orakzai Agency on June 1. As with previous claims, however, this proved hollow, and, on June 2, various local and official sources claimed that more than half the Orakzai Agency was yet to be ‘cleared’ of the TTP. Data on fatalities subsequently bore out these claims: in the 70 days between the commencement of the Operation on March 24 and its supposed ‘successful termination’ on June 1, the SATP database recorded a total of 1,705 fatalities, including 1,669 militants and 36 SF personnel. In the 51 days, between June 2, and July 21, after the Operations had purportedly ‘ended’, 522 persons, including 505 militants and 17 SFs were killed.
Indeed, operations in Orakzai Agency are still far from over. A total of 844 persons, including 807 militants, 33 SF personnel and four civilians have been killed in the Agency after July 22 (till December 12). Frontier Corps Inspector General Nadir Zeb nevertheless claimed, on October 26, 2010, that the SFs had ‘cleared’ almost 90 per cent of Orakzai Agency , but conceded that a ‘limited operation’ was still underway against the militants in the Mamozai area of Orakzai Agency.
There is still confusion regarding the number of IDPs from Orakzai. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the number of uprooted persons from Orakzai and the neighbouring Kurram Agencies had reached 197,667 as on April 4. However, by November 29, according to Relief Web, this number had touched 328,054. Of these, the uprooted people from Orakzai constituted 71 per cent of the total. A UN report on April 9 had indicated that more than 200,000 civilians had fled a military offensive and violence in the tribal Districts near the Afghanistan border. “More than 35,000 families or approximately 210,000 individuals from Orakzai and Kurram Agencies have been registered as IDPs since November last year,” UN refugee agency spokeswoman Ariane Rummery disclosed. On December 3, 2010, the Political Agent of Orakzai Agency Riaz Khan Mahsud claimed that a total of 2,770 families, comprising over 15,000 individuals, had returned home over the preceding five days in the third phase of repatriation of the IDPs to Orakzai Agency. He added that a total of 15,000 families were likely to return home in the third phase. Only 9,600 families had returned to their homes in the preceding two phases.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani unveiled a ‘relief package’ for militancy-affected areas of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier Province, NWFP) on June 1, 2010, announcing tax concessions, rebates in duties and relief in utility bills – in addition to allocating an additional one per cent share to the province from the Federal divisible pool. Under the relief package, areas in the province would be divided into three categories: ‘the worst affected’, ‘affected’ and ‘least affected’. The Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, South and North Waziristan Agencies were categorised as the worst affected. The Federal Government announced an exemption for withholding income tax for areas falling in ‘the worst affected’ and ‘affected’ categories until June 30, 2011. However, no subsequent details have been made available regarding the implementation of this package.
The TTP has extended critical support to al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives in FATA. According to leaked US diplomatic documents exposed by Wikileaks, former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had told the US that remnants of al Qaeda were hiding in the mountainous border region of his country.
AS the operations in the South Waziristan and Orakzai Agencies gathered force, the militants have fled into the neighbouring NWA. Despite pressure from the United States and the NATO to conduct an operation against terrorists holed up in NWA, along the Afghanistan border, Pakistan has made it clear that a decision on “when, how and what [should be done]” would be made by Islamabad. “While we understand the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] concerns, any question relating to when, how and what is to be done in North Waziristan is based on judgment, keeping in mind our capacities, priorities and overall national interest. This in no way should be interpreted as lack of Pakistani resolve,” the Foreign Office declared in a statement issued on October 15, 2010.
The gains of extended operations in the South Waziristan and Orakzai Agencies have, at best, been cosmetic, and even the limited pressure exerted against the terrorists will quickly dissipate unless operations are taken forward into the NWA. Crucially, moreover, with lines between various terrorist formations blurring progressively, every attempt to target the TTP, even while the state continues to patronize and protect other Islamist terrorist formations, will only create the grounds for further consolidation of all terrorist groups. The blowback of Islamabad’s long sponsorship of terrorism can hardly be terminated by selective and fitful action against particular terrorist formations, even as the general environment in the country remains benign towards a range of other Islamist terrorist groupings.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
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