By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Tirah is a belt of valleys providing a convenient passage into Afghanistan, with a population of 1.5 million. Fertile for what Afghanis do best: opium, poppy fields have flourished in the region and the government has been for years trying to curb the epidemic. But the Tirah Valley people are slippery under the quivering thumb of the establishment since colonial times. It was in 2003 that the Pakistan Army entered the valley, that too after 9/11 and escalating Talibanization of the northern region when it was believed that Osama bin Laden could be hiding in one of these self governing regions.
For a month now, since March 2013, Tirah Valley has been making headlines. As over 300 militants have been eliminated and more than 30 army personnel have achieved martyrdom in less than thirty days. Due to fierce resistance, the military operation has gained momentum. Like the Swat operation, where Taliban had allied themselves with the local government promising better law enforcement and good riddance from the sloppy civil courts, in Tirah the emergence of TTP has also been gradual. Owing to poor infrastructure and isolation of the region (a tribal area that avoids foreign interference), news of the hundreds killed while resisting TTPs advancement in to the region, never reached mainstream media sources.
Three militant outfits are operating in the region presently: Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), and Ansar ul Islam (AI) . The AI and LI have been battling with each other in the region for more than seven years over sectarian differences. When the LI joined hands with the TTP, AI reached out to the Pakistan army to protect its position against its adversary. It is noteworthy that the AI, a militant organization, has previously been banned for protecting the area from foreign influence (i.e. the government). How this support for the AI is any different from that of the Taliban back in the 1980s is not clear. For Pakistan, at the moment, fighting the Taliban is more crucial. What demons this war gives birth to can be dealt with later perhaps.
The TTP has not taken over the valley overnight, nor without assistance. Since last June, one step at a time the Tirah tribes have been coming under their fold. Even today, as the army marches against the Taliban with bursting force, launching aerial assaults to drive the Taliban out, few know the gravity of the situation. Few realize the dire consequences of this belt coming under full control of anti-state outfits. Thousands of the valley’s inhabitants have migrated out of their homes towards Peshawar. What will become of them and their families knowing the situation of IDPs amidst a fragile economy is another burden we are temporarily ignoring for a false peace of mind.
With three vital entry points: into Peshawar, Orakzai and the Khyber Pass (the main passageway for NATO supplies) the valley is an important stronghold for the TTP. With no road access, the army was initially only relying on aerial assaults. So far with scanty news, all we get a few days later is a death count of militants versus soldiers. Nothing about civilian casualties. Turns out we have an alternative for the drone strikes that have caused much discord between us and the United States. But the problems with an operation where only Pakistani blood is being spilt are manifold.
These quandaries can take the shape of a thought process. Firstly, Tirah was not above the regular drone drill. Rather the area has been a frequent target. Yet the LI joined hands with the Taliban, killed hundreds of civilians while fighting the local AI, took over the entire region over the course of a year. All of this while drone strikes were happening with unhampered discretion. Should this not make us question the effectiveness of drone strikes? The AI , temporary partner of the Government of Pakistan in this operation, is not our friend either. It is these temporary alliances with local militant outfits, and keeping our enemies ‘closer’ that has strengthened them to begin with. Before the Taliban took over completely, Ansar-ul-Islam were adamant that they could handle the situation. But with stiff resistance from TTP backed LI. Eventually the Pakistan army was forced to step in and save the region. The main question that arises from such situations is: why should we trust the security of such volatile and strategically important regions with militias who are not completely supportive of the government?
Initially when the wave of conflict erupted last month, media and ISPR reported that two militant groups were at war with each other and the death toll from both sides was being reported as “militant death toll”. TTP extended full support to LI, and AI was almost driven out of the region and increased TTP influence in the region was becoming evident. It was at this point when civilian casualties escalated and mass migration from the Tirah Valley started that the army stepped in. With General Elections only days away, it would have been catastrophic if hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of the valley had become IDPs. Additionally with Peshawar well within the range of rocket launchers the threat of TTP advancement in to the developed regions of the country had become too real. The AI-Army alliance is strategic and passing. Whether the army death toll includes the AI, or they aren’t dying at all is not certain. It is possible that the militant death include the AI, TTP, and LI, which would quite literally be true.
The new tagline for justifying drone strikes is ‘Unwilling and Unable’. The US claims that Pakistan is both, unwilling and unable to get rid of terrorists, and hence drones, are a final resort to secure their own national interest is justified. How they come up with new justifications for overstepping the boundaries and disrespecting sovereignty is fascinating. But after delegating the responsibility of keeping the terrorists out to anti-state elements, who haven’t pledged any loyalties to the region, what can we say about Pakistan’s sovereignty? Some argue that more than delegating authority the military and political establishments’ apparent absence was more about respecting the existing status quo that has been for centuries.
The expanding terrorism in the Northern areas can be solved not by drone attacks or killing the terrorists alone, rather by better law enforcement and presence of state sponsored security. The operation that Pakistan army troops are sacrificing their lives for concerns the US’ national security as well. After the drone method has proven ineffective and immoral both countries should look into alternatives. The US needs to decide: in or out? If out then they should completely rely on what the Pakistan army executes. But if they believe we are unwilling and unable then they must join in any battle against the Taliban, even if some blood will be spilt. But this would mean allowing US troops into our territory, and that is another breach of our sovereignty. And hence the dearth of solutions. As the army continues to sacrifice lives, while we acknowledge the courage it takes to execute such an operation, we must realize these lives and those of the civilians can be saved if preventive measures are taken. The upcoming government must get all local and foreign stakeholders on board and strategize better governance in the northern areas of Pakistan. The gun is only a temporary solution.