There was a time not so long ago when the violence emanating from Pakistan had a mythical quality. In no region of this troubled country has the hyperbole of terrorism been so thoroughly lathered than South Waziristan, the tribal agency bordering Afghanistan where, since last weekend, Pakistan’s army has been waging a massive campaign against the Taliban’s most robust stronghold.
The army says Operation Rah-e-Nijat, which means Road out of Misery, will end the "scourge of terrorism" that has drawn international attention to Pakistan since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. But many wonder whether the misery in the region will only deepen with this new campaign.
The inconvenient truths of this narrative make for sobering reading. A spate of terrorist attacks in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar have reminded us that while it is very difficult to protect every square inch of a country beset by an insurgency, it is next to impossible to do so in Pakistan, where disposable young men with explosives strapped to their chest are all too readily recruited.
Hitherto, the Army’s operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and the Swat valley have had devastating consequences for the ethnic Pakhtun communities who live here. Close to 4 million people have been displaced during this war. And although some 2 million are estimated to have returned to other theatres, particularly the Swat valley, where the fighting had drastically reduced, over 200,000 have already fled the current battles in South Waziristan. Given that Waziristan’s total population is no more than 700,000, that constitutes a massive dislocation.
Dislocation has not been the only trauma for civilians caught in the fighting. When the Taliban seeped into their towns and villages from 2001 onwards, they killed hundreds of tribal chiefs and spurned ancient traditions considered unislamic, like poetry and dance. When Pakistani forces indiscriminately bombed them too, often deliberately to punish them merely for belonging to the same clans or tribes as the insurgents, the peoples of these regions lost their lives and livelihoods too.
As the war has continued, Pakistan’s operations have become more sophisticated and, authorities claim, civilian casualties have been greatly reduced. Certainly, on the face of it, that appears to be the case with the present Waziristan war. The army, in combination with local paramilitaries known as the Frontier Corps and Waziri militias formerly aligned with the Pakistan Taliban Movement, invaded the restive region from three directions, hoping to ensnare insurgents in a multiple pincer movement.
But the war has been complicated by several factors. For starters, the Army has imposed a total media blackout. It has also prevented aid agencies from entering South Waziristan and limited the provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced for fear the supplies will be smuggled back to Taliban forces. Whether this concern is valid or not, it has placed refugees in a dire situation.
Intermittent reports of civilian casualties occasioned by massive, indiscriminate Army bombardments have also trickled out of South Waziristan. Like Israel’s war in Gaza and Sri Lanka’s war against its Tamil population, there appears to be perceptible a gulf between the respect the Army professes to have toward civilians and the ugly reality on the ground.
Another problem for Pakistan has been the bizarre decision by NATO forces in Afghanistan to pull away from several key check posts immediately across the porous border from Waziristan which were formerly manned by Western and Afghan National Army troops. Pakistan rightly protested the move only to be met with the glib response that the check posts were too exposed. It is a breathtaking double standard. No doubt if the roles were reversed Pakistani forces would be condemned for deliberately undermining the war effort.
Just how the Waziristan war fits into the broader picture will take time to emerge. Already, however, there are some key signals. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have cobbled together an alliance of convenience with Taliban warlords hitherto loyal to Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mahsud. Yet these same forces remain fiercely loyal to Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban. It appears Pakistan’s security establishment still sees the Taliban as a military asset, so long as its guns are pointed away from Pakistan.
Western planners may not be too shocked to learn this, at least not anymore. As much could be understood by Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner’s very public admission that the Government is keen to withdraw its forces as soon as possible. Every other Western defence planner has expressed similar sentiments.
Former President George Bush gained notoriety with his absurd declaration a mere three months after the Invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the war was over. There will come a time, mark my words, when our own leaders will utter such absurdities. So too will the leaders of Pakistan.
But even if the guns are silenced, and our current foes cease their attacks on the powerful, what will be left of the ordinary people of Afghanistan and Pakistan whose countries have been so devastated by a war they didn’t start?
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