By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
Tribal leader Malik Khan Gull and his son were killed in an explosion in the Tank area of Dera Ismail Khan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on November 25, 2019. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack thus far.
A pro-government tribal elder was killed in an explosion near the Pakistan-Afghan border in the Upper Dir District of KP on August 18, 2019. Four others were also killed in the attack. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
A tribal elder, Wali Khan Achakzai, and two of his guards were killed in a blast at Chaman town of Killa Abdullah District in Balochistan on May 8, 2019. Levies forces said Achakzai was returning home from work when the blast occurred, completely destroying the car and killing all three on the spot.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), during the first 11 months and eight days of the current year (2019), there have been five such incidents, resulting in death of six tribal elders across Pakistan’s tribal areas. During the corresponding period of 2018, five tribal elders had died in three incidents; and in the remaining period of 2018, there was one more incident resulting in one death. Throughout 2017, there were two such deaths in two incidents, and another two deaths in two incidents in 2016.
Attacks on Tribal Elders in Pakistan: 2005-2019
Source: SATP, *Data till December 8, 2019
Fatalities peaked at 42 in 24 incidents in 2010, but dropped to just two each in 2016 and 2017. Worryingly, there have been four and five incidents, respectively, in 2018 and 2019, with six fatalities in each of the two years.
SATP’s partial data, based on erratic reporting in the Pakistani media, confirms the killing of at least 170 tribal elders since 2005 in 116 incidents. The first such incident, documented by the SATP database, occurred on May 29, 2005, when former Federal Minister and Senator, Malik Faridullah Khan Wazir, was assassinated along with two other tribal elders, reportedly by four al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in the Jandola area of the South Waziristan Agency in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The terrorist attacks on tribal elders and their families are the result of the abject failure of the state mechanism in providing security to leaders who, despite of their tribal lineage and linkages with different militant groups, supported the Government in its war against terrorism. Brigadier (Retd.) Mehmood Shah, former FATA Security Secretary, had stated on May 11, 2017, that the Taliban began targeting tribal elders in 2005 after the elders voiced their support for the Government, Army and intelligence agencies. He had then observed,
At the end of 2004, the tribal elders signed agreements with the political administration, [allowing] for the arrest of Taliban members in tribal areas. The agreements aimed to discourage the Taliban’s presence and power in the region, which previously the tribal community tolerated. That enraged the militants and they started killing elders.
Not surprisingly, during the peak of militancy in Pakistan between 2008 and 2015, at least 127 tribal elders were killed in the tribal areas, accounting for 78 per cent of the total of 170 of tribal elders killed between 2005 and 2019.
In the meantime, the Army launched major counter-insurgency operations – Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet) on June 15, 2014, and Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord) on February 22, 2017 – directed against domestically oriented terror groups. These operations forced terrorist formations operating in the tribal areas to escape the region and take shelter in areas across the border, inside Afghanistan.
Moreover, the war like situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas forced a large number of people to leave the region. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) report of January 18, 2018, between 2008 and 2014, more than five million people were displaced from FATA due to the security operations by the military against non-state armed groups.
With an overwhelming proportion of the population moving out, only two tribal elders were killed in each year in 2016 and 2017, as against 14 such killings during 2015.
The attacks targeting Tribal elders have, however, registered a spike thereafter. Indeed, tribesmen from different parts of North Waziristan staged a protest demonstration at Mirali town on May 14, 2018, against the increasing violence in the area, especially the targeted killings of tribal elders. Tribal elder Malik Ghulam Dawar observed that tribesmen were facing severe unrest due to regular targeted killing incidents. He added that they had abandoned their homes and had become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). However, now, on repatriation, they are once again facing violence. He further stated that such incidents confirm the presence of anti-social elements in the area, and the Government needs to fulfill its responsibilities.
Despite Government apathy, the tribal elders along with their tribes had been supporting the Government and Army in the fight against terrorism. Whenever operations have been launched in the tribal areas, the tribal elders backed by their tribal militias, have come forward to provide manpower and logistics support to state forces.
The Government and Army have acknowledged, from time to time, the support and sacrifices by tribal elders and their tribal militia. Recently, on September 27, 2019, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Miramshah town in North Waziristan and interacted with tribal elders from the North and South Waziristan Districts. According to a press release issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the COAS emphasised that cross-border terrorist incidents were gradually reducing due to the ‘hardening’ of the Pak-Afghan border through fencing and other measures. He urged tribal elders to continue playing their role in guiding the youth, stating: “Combination of experience & wisdom of elders with energy and talent of the youth is recipe for success.”
Regrettably, the Government has failed to protect the elders on whose support it has substantially depended. The state’s continued apathy towards the tribal elders has emboldened terrorists, and former will, in all likelihood continue to die at the hands of the latter.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management