Bajaur: an interim assessment
The Frontier Corps (FC) inspector-general in Bajaur, Major-General Tariq Khan, has told visiting journalists that the army has flushed out militants from some of their strongholds and regained control of most of the troubled spots, including the contested Lowi Sam. The reported death toll has been as follows: about 1,500 militants have been killed while at least 300 foreigners have been captured since August last. On the Pakistani side, 73 soldiers — 42 belonging to the Army and 31 to the FC — have lost their lives while 269 others have been injured.
Is the army going to leave Bajaur in the near future? No, according to Maj-Gen Khan, who thinks it may take “several months to extirpate the militants”. He said, “An immediate withdrawal of the army from the region was not possible as the operation might last another few months” and that “four additional wings of FC would be deployed to the area soon”. The determination of the army to stay put in the agency is in line with the “consensual” resolution of the parliament which recommended operation against militants and negotiation with those willing to abide by the Pakistan Constitution.
The army chief, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, has reiterated that the army will back the parliament’s decision to seek negotiation while protecting the integrity of Pakistan’s territory. The fact that 300 foreigners have been arrested from Bajaur alone reemphasises the role the army has to play to come to the help of the people living in the Tribal Areas. In Bajaur, increasingly the local people are forming posses of armed resistance to the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine and expect the national army to back them up as they take on the alien groups.
This is a positive interim assessment of the operation in Bajaur, markedly different in its aspects from what is going on in Swat, a region that had stayed for five years under the control of the clerical alliance, the MMA, ruling in the NWFP. The operation in Bajaur is more focused because success here is going to affect other tribal areas around it. The terrorists had gotten hold of strategic places like Lowi Sam and converted the houses there into bunkers. The return of Lowi Sam to government control means that the roads to Dir in Swat and Mohmand will now not be easily available to the Taliban to affect the outcome of the battle going on in Swat.
Bajaur is linked even more easily to the province of Kunar in Afghanistan. Lately, there was a trickle of Afghan fighters coming in to help the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their fight against the Pakistan army. The ISAF-NATO forces have been alerted to this trespass that will clearly influence the result of the operation. There is also news that some kind of reinforcement of the Bajaur-Kunar border is being carried out too. According to the army, 200,000 Bajauri people have had to flee from the agency because of the battle taking place on the ground and from the air.
Bajaur was not properly assessed for its strategic value after 2001 as a potential hiding place of the fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda elements. Indeed, Islamabad was completely unmindful of the rapid internal change taking place here. Therefore by 2005, there were some “32,000 Afghans” living in camps in Bajaur, cannon-fodder for such religious movements as Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) with top Al Qaeda leaders surrounded by foreign warriors as they surveyed the agency as their future caliphate from where to challenge the world.
There are many factors that can bring pressure to bear on the operation. Foremost is the task of looking after the displaced Bajauri population at present forced to live in the NWFP. These camps are not very different from the ones in which the displaced Afghans had to live for decades. Their camps may breed the same kind of violence seen in areas where these Afghan refugees have concentrated. The authorities must therefore quickly start reconstruction and psychological rehabilitation of the people in the areas now pacified by the military operation. If possible, the injection of funds into Bajaur must go in parallel to the military operations.
Bajaur has a large population, given its smaller area compared to other tribal agencies. Its economy is rudimentary, as in other agencies, and is dependent on what its expatriates in Karachi and abroad send home. There is a dire need for the generation of a local economy to remove reliance on smuggling. This is the aspect of the problem that has not been looked at before. In some ways the local tribes are dependent for their incomes today on the “foreigners” brought in by Al Qaeda. The Al Qaeda economy must be replaced by Bajaur’s own, brought in by the state agencies from outside with the help of the international community. (Daily Times)