Pakistan: A Long Darkness In Waziristan – Analysis
By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On May 4, 2023, nine persons, including six Pakistan Army soldiers and three terrorists were killed during a gunfight with terrorists in the Dirduni area of North Waziristan District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
On April 15, 2023, eight terrorists and two soldiers were killed in an intelligence-based operation (IBO) in the Zarmilan area of South Waziristan District in KP. Weapons and ammunition were recovered from the killed terrorists.
On April 8, 2023, two terrorists were shot dead in two different operations in North and South Waziristan. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) disclosed that, in Razmak, North Waziristan, troops effectively engaged the terrorists amidst an intense exchange of fire, leaving one terrorist dead. Security Forces (SFs) also recovered weapons and ammunition from the killed terrorist. Meanwhile, in an encounter between troops and terrorists in the Karama area of South Waziristan, SFs effectively engaged the terrorists, killing one in the shootout, the statement added. One soldier, Naik Fazal Janan, was also killed during the latter shootout.
On April 7, 2023, a Police Constable, Zahidullah, was killed in the Khadikhel Market area in North Waziristan.
On April 5, 2023, eight terrorists and a soldier were killed during an IBO in the Shinwarsak area of South Waziristan District.
On March 31, 2023, a soldier, Sepoy Irsha Ullah, was killed during an exchange of fire with terrorists in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan District. According to an ISPR press release, “sanitisation” activity was being carried out to eliminate any terrorists found in the area.
On March 21, 2023, an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official, Brigadier Mustafa Kamal Barki, was killed while seven others sustained injuries, during an exchange of fire with terrorists near the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan District.
On March 15, 2023, eight terrorists and two children were killed and two SF personnel sustained injuries in an exchange of fire during an operation in the Zinghara area of South Waziristan District. Weapons, ammunition, and a cache of equipment were recovered from the killed terrorists.
According to partial data collated by South Asia Terrorism Portal, since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, there have been 122 incidents – 93 in North Waziristan and 29 in South Waziristan – in which 341 people have been killed, so far (data till May 7, 2023). Of the 341 killed, 244 were killed in North Waziristan (16 civilians, 89 SF personnel, 139 terrorists), and the remaining 97 in South Waziristan (11 civilians, 27 SF personnel and 59 terrorists).
Waziristan is named after the Pashtun Wazir or Waziri tribe. The region is a mountainous stretch in northwest Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, divided into two districts: North Waziristan and South Waziristan. North Waziristan comprises the area west and south-west of Peshawar, between the Tochi River to the north and the Gomal River to the south, with its District Headquarters at Miran Shah. South Waziristan is bounded to the north by North Waziristan, to the north-east by Bannu and Lakki Marwat Districts, to the east by Tank and Dera Ismail Khan Districts, to the south by the Zhob District of Balochistan Province and Dera Ismail Khan District, and to the west by Afghanistan. Wana is District Headquarters of South Waziristan.
The volatile mix of terrorism and tribal affinities in the region is not a post 9/11 phenomenon; the mountains of Waziristan were long used as a base by mujahideen (‘holy warriors’) during the Afghan Wars against the Soviet occupation. The fighters, including a multi-national force drawn from across the Muslim world, had been armed and trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When the Russians withdrew, many of those fighters settled down in Waziristan and became part of the local population. However, after 9/11, when the US Operation Enduring Freedom commenced in Afghanistan in 2001, the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan and the Shakai Valley of South Waziristan, provided shelter to fleeing terrorists from Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2010, the Pakistani Army conducted several operations in Waziristan to flush out militants: Operation Al Mizan (The Balance) in 2002; Operation Zalzala (Earthquake) in 2008 and Operation Rah-e-Nijaat (The Path to Salvation) in 2009, but with little success. There was a dramatic escalation in terrorism after the emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, in the wake of the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007, even as terrorist attacks increasingly turned inwards, creating unprecedented challenges for Pakistani Security Forces. Things began to change with the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet), on June 15, 2014, in the aftermath of the attack on the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, on June 8-9, 2014. After the start of Zarb-e-Azb, a July 7, 2014, report claimed that up to 80 per cent of terrorists fled after rumours of an Army assault emerged in early May, most of them across the porous border into Afghanistan. Zarb-e-Azbofficially ended on April 18, 2016. After, the end of Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistan military launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord) on February 22, 2017. Similarly, a March 8, 2017, report had confirmed that many terrorists managed to escape, slipping across the border into eastern Afghanistan.
A January 31, 2023, report described how local populations were once again experiencing the heavy Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) presence in Waziristan, and how the region had become heavily militarized. Historically, Waziristan has been at the centre of TTP attacks and brutal security operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the erstwhile Federally Administrated Tribal Region (FATA), which was merged into KP in 2018. Locals blamed the influx of TTP fighters from Afghanistan, as the Afghan Taliban was now controlling the many security checkpoints at night.
Interestingly, as reported on April 10, 2023, Pakistan’s fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) rejected the National Security Council’s decision to resume military operations in the tribal areas. In its 41st meeting, with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the chair, the National Security Council approved military operations to flush out the banned TTP terrorists from the tribal areas. On April 9, the Jamaat-e-Islami Lower South Waziristan Chapter staged a protest in Wana Bazaar and took out a rally. The protest demonstration was led by JI District President, Mohammad Nadeem Wazir, General Secretary Asadullah, and included other leaders, prominently, Saif ur Rehman, Mumtaz Khalil and Umar Wazir.
Earlier, on December 23, 2022, the Police declared South and North Waziristan, along with Districts of Lakki Marwat and Bannu, ‘terrorist trouble spots’. Additional Inspector General of Police (operations) Mohammad Ali Babakhel stated,
Southern districts, including North and South Waziristan [from among the newly-merged tribal districts] as well as Lakki Marwat and Bannu districts [from settled areas], are trouble spots.
The constant threat and insecure environment of the Waziristan area has had direct impact on various other dimensions. For Instance, due to the dangerous security situation in the Waziristan region, the polio inoculation campaign has been delayed. As reported on January 20, 2023, no polio campaign had been conducted in the Mehsud belt of South Waziristan for the preceding six months, as it was not ‘allowed’ by the terrorists. Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator, Emergency Operation Center, disclosed that 99 per cent of women in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan had not been included in the polio teams. He called frontline workers an asset to the campaign and stressed that there was dire need to improve the security situation to allow them to function. As many as 20 polio cases had been reported till September 2022, 17 of these from the North Waziristan District. As of 2022, just two countries in the world remain affected by the polio virus – Pakistan and Afghanistan, principally because the polio vaccination campaigns are violently resisted by Islamist terrorists and extremists, with vaccination teams and their security details coming under repeated lethal attacks.
Moreover, an April 21, 2023, report underlined the abysmal condition of the education sector in North and South Waziristan, with derelict school buildings and the non-availability of teaching and other staff. Hundreds of students are forced to leave schools as no classes are conducted. Books and stationery are also unavailable.
There have also been violent terrorist attacks on schools, for example, on December 1, 2022, one man was killed and a security official was injured in an attack on the Army Public School for Girls in the Azam Warsak area of South Waziristan. Terrorists opened fire from a nearby mountain during Parents’ Day celebrations at the school. However, the students, parents, staff and security personnel who were present inside the school at the time of the attack, remained unhurt.
The terrorists have also been involved in cases of kidnapping and extortion in Waziristan. On January 21, 2023, SFs recovered all the four abducted employees of a private petroleum exploration company and killed four terrorists in an IBO at Khatti village in North Waziristan. The petroleum exploration company had been engaged in oil and gas exploration in the Speenwam and Shawa areas of North Waziristan. In February 2021, four workers of the same company were abducted and later released, reportedly, after payment of the ransom. According to Police, as reported on January 22, 2023, “In 2021, terrorists carried out five attacks on the company employees in which three people were killed. Last year, four people were killed in two attacks.” Earlier on December 24, 2022, dead bodies of three members of an abducted family were also recovered by Police from the Manra area of Birmil Tehsil (revenue unit) in South Waziristan.
The security situation in both North and South Waziristan is precarious. With increased military operations and escalating terrorist activities, the region is once again at the vortex of violence and instability. The dominant presence of the Afghan Taliban across the Durand and its ideological affinity and tacit support to the TTP, Pakistan is bound to experience a grim situation in coming months.
- Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management