By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
Registering the first violent incident of the year in the region, 25 people were killed and more than 87 were injured in a bomb blast at the Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market) area of Parachinar in the Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the morning of January 21, 2017. A statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said that the improvised explosive device (IED) blast took place at 08:50am PST. Government official Shahid Khan stated that the explosion took place when the market was crowded with retailers buying fruits and vegetables. In a text message sent to journalists, the al-Alami (International) faction of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed that it, along with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter Shehryar Mehsud group, carried out the attack. The Shehryar Mehsud group did not independently claim the bombing.
On December 13, 2015, a similar blast in a makeshift market in Parachinar had killed 25 people and injured 62. Two militant groups, LeJ Al Alami and Ansarul Mujahideen, based in the South Waziristan Agency, had claimed responsibility for that blast.
Kurram is one of the most sensitive tribal areas, as it borders three Afghan provinces and, at one point, was a key route for militant movement across the border. It has witnessed scores of sectarian and militant attacks in the past several years. Kurram adjoins the North Waziristan Agency (NWA) where Operation Zarb-i-Azb (‘Sword of the Prophet’, also ‘sharp and cutting’) is in progress against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in NWA on June 15, 2014, in the aftermath of the attack on the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, on June 8-9, 2014, in which at least 33 persons, including all 10 attackers, were killed. Since then, according to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 2,563 terrorists and 232 soldiers have been killed (data till January 22, 2017). [As media access to the areas of conflict is severely limited no independent verification of number of fatalities or identities of those killed is available.] However, Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa claimed, on June 15, 2016, that a total of 3,500 terrorists had been killed, and 992 hideouts destroyed. Referring to the losses faced by the Pakistan Army during the Operation, Bajwa added, 490 soldiers had been killed till that date.
2016 was significant for FATA in terms of violence, as the region recorded a noticeable 10 years low in terrorism-related fatalities. Overall fatalities in the Agency registered a 77.15 per cent decline in 2016, as compared to the previous year, from 1,882 killed in 2015 to 430 in 2016. While civilian fatalities declined by 43.28 per cent, fatalities among terrorist registered a sharp 80.81 per cent decline. SF fatalities also fell by 63.2 per cent.
Fatalities in FATA: 2006-2017
The number of major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) in the Province also decreased by 76.97 per cent in 2016, in comparison to the previous year, principally due to the squeeze in the area of counter-insurgency operations. The Province accounted for 32 major incidents of violence resulting in 382 deaths in 2016, as against 139 such incidents, accounting for 1,868 fatalities in 2015.
There was a considerable decrease in incidents of explosion as well; in comparison to 72 blasts resulting in 140 fatalities in 2015, 2016 recorded 38 blasts resulting in 84 fatalities. However, while the number of suicide attacks in both these years stood at three each, the resultant fatalities increased from 18 in 2015 to 55 in 2016.
Though incidents of sectarian violence registered a decrease, with just one incident in 2016 as compared to three in 2015, that one incident inflicted 37 fatalities and left another 72 wounded, while 2015 saw 32 fatalities and 72 injured. A suicide bomber killed at least 36 people and wounded more than 37 as they attended Friday prayers at a mosque in the Pekhan Killay area of Anbar tehsil in the Mohmand Agency of FATA. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The United States (US) drone programme, which had created havoc among terrorists over the past years, has been downsized, as the Pakistan Army launched operations in NWA, where dreaded terrorists of al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur faction of TTP were sheltered. Washington had long been pressurising Islamabad to launch Operation against these groupings. There were just two drone attacks in FATA in 2016, as compared to 14 such attacks in 2015.
FATA has experienced relative calm in terms of terrorism-related activities, but the tribal people have suffered an enormous burden of destruction. Terrorism-afflicted parts of FATA require special attention for their development, but appear to be a low priority for the authorities concerned. This was reiterated by a special report of a sub-committee of the Senate’s Standing Committee on States and Frontier Regions released on November 25, 2016. The report asserted that “the Fata Annual Development Plans (ADP) for 2015-16 and 2016-17 contain new education and health facilities in different tribal agencies, but such schemes for SWA have been abandoned. The development schemes launched in the region in 2007 and beyond could not be completed because of the law and order situation there.” The committee’s main focus of study was development issues in FATA, particularly in South Waziristan Agency (SWA), and problems being faced by its people.
A total of 5.3 million people in FATA have been displaced as a consequence of counter-terrorism operations since 2008, some of them multiple times. Of these, 4.8 million have returned, with about 700,000 returning in 2016. A multi-cluster assessment of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and returnees in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and FATA confirmed the pressing need for livelihoods and basic social service. IDPs living in temporary camps were unwilling to return to their war ravaged areas. Orakzai Agency was among the areas which had purportedly been cleared of terrorists, but displaced families were unwilling to return, even as the Government threatened to ‘deregister’ them as IDPs. Like Orakzai, other parts of FATA including North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Khyber and Kurram, have been de-notified as conflict zones. During a meeting called by KP Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra at Peshawar on January 5, 2017, to discuss the return, rehabilitation and other issues related to the terrorism-hit people of FATA, the Government decided to deregister the IDPs disinclined to return to their native towns across FATA. According to an official statement, “The families living intentionally as temporarily dislocated persons would be deregistered just on a notice of four weeks time and the public would be informed through media in this respect.”
On January 17, 2017, Mehreen Afridi, Director FATA Youth Forum (FYF), urged the Government to reconstruct infrastructure that had been destroyed in FATA, observing that terrorists had destroyed educational institutions, hospitals and other health centres, roads, bridges and government installations, abodes of tribal people and their businesses during the last decade of terrorism in FATA.
Despite claims regarding the success of the protracted Operation Zarb-e-Azb, terrorist attacks at regular intervals underline the residual risks as well as the duplicity of the state. Before the initiation of the Operation, ample opportunity had been provided for most of the terrorists in FATA to slip out of the country, to take shelter in the bordering areas of Afghanistan. During the course of the Operation, no top-level commander of any militant group has been neutralized. Crucially, Pakistan continues to mobilize and support terrorist formations operating in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani terrorist groups operating domestically have formed close relations with these state sponsored groups, and their cadres are often indistinguishable. The blowback of Islamabad’s duplicitous linkages with the enterprise of terrorism continues to impact on the people of FATA in particular, and of Pakistan in general.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management