The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Studies Programme
Farhat Taj, a PhD Research Fellow at the University of Oslo, haswritten an article in Daily Times which takes up issue with what Iwrote in this space on March 13. Although she has chosen to cast aspersions on me by saying that I have "been providing misleading information about the Pakhtuns", which implies that I might be doing so at someone's behest, a calumnious and libellous statement, I will stick to the issues she has raised and avoid the low cut and thrust.
There are two sets of observations she makes. One set relates to the more abstract question of whether Pakhtun tribal society has undergone some changes, the second to a few specific incidents from the Orakzai and Kurram Agencies. There is a third set also, allegations against the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which are easy to make but difficult to prove. They are generally made partially because we can rightly trace many of our current troubles to the military's policies, the original sin, and partly because army bashing, instead of offering issue-based criticism, is now the vogue and finds many buyers on all sides.
I intend, in this space, to pick up a few of her concrete observations and leave the rest to subsequent articles.
Firstly, Ms Taj is wrong in conflating my article with Brigadier Asad Munir's piece because I specifically took up issue with some observations made by the brigadier. Just because I concur with the brigadier on one point does not mean I endorse what he wrote by penning a sequel to his piece.
Ms Taj says I made some observations on the basis of my visit to Hangu 12 years ago. I quoted that visit because some things on that visit struck me as odd; it does not mean that I have stayed away from that area or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas since then. Heavily invested in the region over many years, I have made several trips there. But I was not filling out a form listing the number of visits I have made to that area; I was making a point and mentioned that visit to do so.
Now to the issue of the Alikhel, Ferozekhel and Stoorykhel tribes in Orakzai, starting with the Alikhel. The tribe has five tappas or branches, out of which the panjam is half Shia and half Sunni. The Shia branch is called Babanamasi. Contrary to what Ms Taj says about the Alikhel Sunnis and Shias fighting the Taliban together, the Shia branch left the area before the conflict with the Taliban began in the Agency. This fact can be corroborated from the IDP camps in Kohat. Some of them returned to their homes after the political agent held a jirga and issued a warning to the Taliban through the Alikhel lashkar led by a former JCO, Subedar Momin Khan.
The other four tappas allied to resist the Taliban. The army was stretched, military operations were not popular, this being before the public buy-in came and resulted in Operation Rah-e-Raast in Malakand and Frontier Corps' Operation Black Thunder in Lower Dir and Buner. The operations that had been conducted in South and North Waziristan were weak in the higher direction of this war and generally consisted of extraction operations and snap actions.
(NB: Trouble had been brewing in the agency for quite sometime, the provincial governor from May 2006-January 2008 was Lt-Gen Ali Jan Orakzai (retd). He belonged to the area, and became known for opposing military operations against the Taliban, a stand generally popular with both the right and the left wings.)
Alikhel resisted until their jirga was attacked by a suicide bomber. The attack killed Momin Khan along with more than 100 others, while over 300 tribesmen were injured. Interestingly, not one Shia was killed in this attack, which would not have been possible if the Shia branch were part of the anti-Taliban lashkar. This was the Taliban warning to the Sunni Alikhel for raising a lashkar against them, a campaign which was duly supported by the then political administration of the Agency.
Momin Khan was awarded Sitara-e-Shujaat posthumously. The dead were given Rs300,000 in compensation while the injured got Rs100,000.
The story of the Ferozkhel tribe is even more interesting. They raised a lashkar and their initial campaigns against the Taliban were very successful. Ms Taj mentions that the Ferozkhel captured six Taliban who were handed over to the political administration, which released them after a week. This is amazing disinformation. The Ferozkhel, in fact, captured 14 Taliban (I can give to Ms Taj the names, domiciles and other information on these people) from the Gwin checkpoint in central Orakzai. After this, the lashkar also cleared the Chhapri Ferozkhel area bordering Bara in Khyber Agency. The pressure got the Taliban to start negotiating with the Ferozkhel. They gave the Ferozkhel guarantees that they would not operate in the area and, as a goodwill gesture, the Ferozkhel should release the captured men.
Four Maliks of Ferozkhel, Adil Khan Ferozkhel, Sardar Ferozkhel, Abdur Raheem and Bismillah Ferozkhel allowed the release of these men. Three of these four have since been killed. Bismillah was killed on Oblan Road that goes from Hangu to Kohat; Adil Khan killed in Meerobak; and Abdur Raheem recently killed in Peshawar.
But before this, and after the release of their men, the Taliban attacked and killed seven Ferozkhel Maliks in an ambush, sending a warning to the tribe to stay clear of them and not interfere with their campaign against the government.
The Stoorikhel also raised a lashkar. The tribe has one branch which is Sunni and one that is Shia. The government supporting the effort asked the Shia branch to leave the area to avoid the Taliban painting this in sectarian terms. The Sunni Stoorikhel gathered under the banner of Malik Waris Khan and fought the Taliban for 10 days or so before being defeated. Waris Khan was killed, as were personnel of Levies. Sepoy Qismat Khan was awarded the Sitara-e-Shujaat and Rs800,000 posthumously, while Waris Khan was given the Tamgha-e Imtiaz.
The compensations and awards would not have come if the tribes were fighting the Taliban against the wishes of the government and the security forces. What I have narrated here is a bird's-eye view of complex details. There is a sectarian dimension in the area that goes back into deep past and to which is now added the Taliban factor. There's more to it which I shall try and touch upon in the follow up to this.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2011.