By Sean Mann Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - 2:38 PM
By mid-2008, the local branches of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had forced out Pakistani security forces and taken power in large portions of Mohmand and Bajaur, the northernmost of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). For three years the militant group exercised open territorial control, levying taxes and administering its own brand of justice in the mountainous areas along the Afghan border. Pakistani military operations aimed at destroying the TTP insurgency came in regular cycles, yet each declaration of success was followed by the swift resurgence of militant power. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled the violence to reside in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps or with family members elsewhere in Pakistan.
Recently, however, the tide in Mohmand and Bajaur has turned decisively in the Pakistani military's favor. For the first time in four years, militants have lost the territory they once openly controlled. Whether the tide turns back, or whether these tribal areas even matter given the larger challenges Pakistan faces, is another question entirely.
Information from the FATA is scarce, as few independent reporters are fearless enough to venture into the area, and their number is dwindling. Over coffee in Islamabad last February, Asia Times Online's Syed Saleem Shahzad told me, "journalist access in the tribal areas is difficult now, you need strong contacts with the government, the locals, and also with the militants." Tragically, three months later Shahzad's body was found dumped in a canal southeast of the capital. Many blame the Pakistani security services for his death, and interpret his killing as intended to intimidate the Pakistani media.
Given that the military's public relations wing possesses a near-monopoly on information coming out of the FATA, it is no wonder that recent declarations of victory over the TTP in Mohmand and Bajaur have gone largely unnoticed. Military announcements now fall on deaf ears, as U.S. policymakers, not to mention the Pakistani public, have become jaded by earlier declarations of success that later proved meaningless. In this information vacuum the best indicator that security has truly improved is the sustained return of IDPs to their homes.
In June 2011, the Pakistani government declared the entirety of Bajaur safe for IDP return, with the sole exception being Loi Sam, a market town flattened by Pakistani airstrikes in 2008. Jalozai camp near Peshawar has been emptied of tens of thousands of IDPs, many of them families whofled Bajaur two or three years prior and are only now returning home. Additionally, of the two camps established to house Mohmand IDPs, Danish Kol is empty and Nahakki camp is nearly so. While the government has attempted to coerce IDPs to return to their home areas in the past, this has had only limited results, as IDPs have shown they are more than willing to flee insecure areas once again if the security problems have not been resolved. In this context, it is remarkable that IDPs have stayed put since their return to Mohmand and Bajaur earlier in the year.
The paramilitary Frontier Corps, backed by the army, has reestablished its presence in troubled hotspots along the border, including the Chamarkand, Nawagai, and Mamund areas of Bajaur, and the Lakaro, Khwezai and Bezai areas of Mohmand. Local tribal militias, referred to as "Peace Committees" or lashkars, receive nominal government support to police their villages, supplementing the established Khassadar and paramilitary forces whose membership is culled from the local populations. The TTP no longer openly patrols the roads and villages, replaced instead by government checkpoints.
Though they no longer control territory in the area, the insurgency has by no means vanished. Some fighters have chosen to lay low, putting down their weapons and returning to agrarian life, at least for now. Others, including the militant leadership, have fled across the border into the insecure Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Just as North and South Waziristan have served as a safe haven for Afghanistan-focused militants such as the Haqqani Network, the mountainous borderlands of Eastern Afghanistan are now functioning as safe havens for militants expelled from North FATA by the Pakistani state.
Lack of territory inside Pakistan has not prevented the Bajaur and Mohmand TTP from continuing their campaigns of terror and intimidation, however. Pro-government tribal leaders have been assassinated, Frontier Corps checkposts attacked in cross-border raids, and most recently 30 teenagers were kidnapped in the Mamund area of Bajaur. Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the Bajaur TTP, has reestablished an illegal radio station and is again broadcasting propaganda along the border. Local militants who agreed to cease attacks against the state in return for amnesty could easily mobilize again if the TTP appears poised to retake control of the borderlands.
Meanwhile, sectarian violence in the nearby tribal area of Kurram has resisted both the efforts of Afghan militant leaders and the Pakistani government for mediation - with the Shi'a Pashtuns stuck in the area's major city, Parachinar, still deeply suspicious of the true intentions of both would-be peacebrokers. Zones of Shi'a and Sunni control have hardened, as the TTP and other sectarian militant groups such as Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (and its subsidiary Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) have proved unwavering in their attacks on Shi'a traveling along the main road through Lower Kurram. Pakistani military operations began in July of this year in Central Kurram, a mountainous Sunni-dominated region along the Afghan border long ignored by the state. Tens of thousands of IDPs have fled the area. Though the military declared the operations a success in mid-August, only asmall minority of IDPs have since begun to return home, and questions remain about the value of staging operations in Central Kurram, rather than other parts of the agency.
Militants in other parts of FATA also remain strong. In much of Khyber, armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam, Ansar-ul-Islam, and the TTP view each other, rather than the government, as their main competition for power. An uneasy truce between Afghanistan-focused militants and the Frontier Corps persists in North Waziristan, even as sporadic fighting between the TTP and the state continues in South Waziristan. In addition, other challenges increasingly overshadow the conflict in FATA, including concerns about tensions with India, extremist infiltration of the armed forces, and escalating confessional violence in Karachi.
Sustaining the state's victory in Mohmand and Bajaur will depend on its ability to provide services and especially security to the returning IDPs. The years-long conflict between the military and insurgents has devastated both the traditional civilian authorities and the tribal leadership of FATA. The military has used the ongoing conflict as a justification for blocking the implementation of long overdue political reforms meant to start incorporating the tribal areas into the mainstream of Pakistani politics and law. Whether the government can maintain security and normalize life in Mohmand and Bajaur will be a crucial test of its ability to succeed in the rest of the tribal areas.
Sean Mann is currently in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. He speaks Pashto, and spent the previous year conducting research on the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.