The current debate about solution to militancy in FATA revolves around two extremes; peace talks or military operation. However, looking into militancy trends within different agencies, it seems like policy makers are ignoring the ground realities and are not learning from the strategies of tribal communities. Bajaur is a case in point that can highlight other option apart from either talks or military operation.
Bajaur is the smallest of tribal agencies, situated on the extreme north of FATA, which has been reported as the most vulnerable region for cross border infiltration and attacks from Afghanistan. It got the agency status in 1973 and is considered as the most religious of all the seven agencies. It has 52 Km long border with Afghanistan’s Kunar province which is known for extensive militants’ activities in Afghanistan. It has two subdivisions; Khar sub division including tehsils of Khar, Salazai and Utmankhel and Nawagai subdivision including tehsils of Chmarkand, Nawagai , Mamund and Barang. It is argued that militancy in Bajaur had started due to the trends of Islamization of society in Swat by Sufi Muhammad who is the Head of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Swat Valley. Sufi Mohammad is a former member of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and a veteran of the Afghan jihad, which later on turned into the current anti-government militancy. These anti-government sentiments increased over a period of time which invited the first military operation in August 2008 against Faqir Muhammad. Faqir Muhammad is in Afghanistan these days. Presently, militants in the region belong to different local groups but work under the umbrella of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Military has conducted two phases of the operation Sherdil (Lions Heart) since 2008. In 2011 the agency was cleared of militants.
The militancy in Bajaur has been countered through a multipronged strategy by forming Lashkars (Civil militia comprising of the local civilian supported, in majority cases, by the Government of Pakistan), tribal cohesion and awareness along with military operations against the militants in the agency.
In order to understand the reason of militancy in Bajaur we can have a look at the tehsils and see what was their approach to counter militancy and made them different from others. The Subdivision of Khar which was ruled by Nawab of Khar, Abdus Subhan Khan, till his death in 1993 has been quiet peaceful. Most of the residents are from different tribes including Salarzai tribe. Khar tehsil is the most developed among all tehsils in Bajaur primarily because the first Assistant Political Agent (APA) had his office in Khar, now both APAs have their offices here along with Commandant Bajaur Scout. Later on Government built the communication infrastructure with roads and telephonic services, schools, and hospitals. It has a post graduate college for boys and degree college for girls. The new FATA Medical University along with a cadet college is also being announced here. This developmental status made the tehsil almost out of the militancy.
The second tehsil is Nawagai bordering Mohmand Agency towards south which also remained peaceful. The role of notables including the present Governor KPK Shaukatullah Khan was quiet important here. Chief among them was the role of Maulana Guldad Khan who is educated and played an important role and kept an influence in the area through his informed sermons where he highlighted the ills of militancy to the people of Nawagai. He is the one who declared Tehrik-e-Taliban (Movement of Students) as the Tehrik-e- Zaliman (Movement of Oppressors).
The third tehsil is Salazai where Salarzai Tribe is predominant. This tribe has been fighting militancy through its own peace lashkars. When Army was launching operation Sherdil, the tribal elders of Salarzai approached the Government and offered to defend their own areas through their Lashkar. That is the reason that Salarzais’ have not become IDPs .Many attempts were made by TTP, and TNSM in the past but all efforts were repulsed through a united Lashkar. Salarzais’ through their united efforts under the leadership of sitting MNA Shahabuddin Khan made a firm and determined resolve to fight it on their own. As a result, they have sacrificed a lot in human and material losses but were able to contain militancy.
Barang tehsil is logistically far from border with Afghanistan, people from this tehsil have settled in urban areas of Pakistan and are conservative which also spared them from militancy. Tribes in Utmankhel tehsil have also been conservative and have resisted both military and militants in the past. They are more secular, they have personal enmities which keeps them busy. The population is scattered within their areas with no significant presence of Madrassas (Religious seminary). They are generally considered intolerant towards Mullahs.
The most fertile tehsil for militancy was Mamund where militancy was having its strong hold. All the leadership for TTP and TNSM belongs to this tribe. The area is close to border which makes it lucrative for Afghan insurgents and militants working across the border to work here. Afghan Militant Leader Qari Zia from Nuristan Province across the border in Afghanistan has strong influence with Sufi Muhammad and Faqir Mohammad. The former religious government of Mutahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) in KPK had an MNA from Bajaur who also belonged to this tribe. Mamund is a predominant tribe here. There are a lot of Madrasss here which provided breeding ground for militancy. People of this tribe are generally considered aggressive however they are extremely hospitable. TTP as umbrella group is working here with many local groups whose affiliations are with Faqir Muhammand and Hakimullah Mehsud but work under the same umbrella of TTP. The root of militancy here goes back to Torpatkai (Black Turban associated with TNSM). Historically , since 1947 till 1973 when the agency remained practically independent under Nawab of Khar several attempts were made by Afghan Government to lure the tribesmen to signal their accession to Kabul but all of them failed and later on Afghan funded militia made many attempts followed by regular Afghan Army attacks on Bajaur. So these tribes have historically been engaged for fighting being on the border with Afghanistan. Since there was no government writ the people were exploited later by militants like Faqir Muhammad to form groups. The education infrastructure was weak; most of the children went to Madrassah where they were indoctrinated for religious extremism. However the current rise of militancy can be traced back to the missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 that were meant to target Osama Bin Laden and a Pharmaceutical factory alleged for making chemical weapons. The sympathy for Afghan Mujahideen grew up again in Bajaur. It is believed that Sufi Mohammad along with Faqir Mohammad went to Afghanistan for Jihad after US invasion in Afghanistan in 2001 through Bajaur leading a contingent of 10,000 mostly young innocent fighters. Hundreds of them came from Mamund tribe of Bajaur Agency while majority of the jihadist came from Malakand division predominantly from Dir.
However, the marked rise was observed after the first two drone attacks in January and October 2006 in Bajaur in Damadola where the target was Ayman al Zawahiri who was not present at the time of attack but killed eight men, five women and five children and on a Madrassah in Chinagai village that killed more than 80 students along with their teachers. This flamed the anger among the people of Bajaur and specifically among people from Mamund tribe who bore the brunt. To gain the sympathy of other tribes the TNSM began to influence Sharia law in their strong holds. They made their administrative hold and started collecting taxes and were involved in dispute resolution promoting speedy justice. It was in 2008 that Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Moulvi Omar formed the TTP chapter of Bajaur Agency and held allegiance to TTP lead by Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan Agency. It is argued that Faqir Muhammad floated the idea of TTP as an umbrella organization to Baitullah Mehsud and Gulbahadur. The Taliban began to collect weapons and ammunition apart from other administrative and cultural constraints from local people and allowed only one weapon to keep so that security is provided to others. These measures started to irritate local people and thus they started keeping away from them. These militants have killed dozens of Khans and tribal elders for their opposition. Others were forced to leave the agency.
This shows that people religious sentiments have been exploited by militants for violence and hatred against the state institution and democracy. Militants like Faqir Muhammad have been successful in presenting themselves as saviors of Islam and this trend needs to be confronted. Remote areas where there is less development like Mamund; confronting such sentiments would be difficult without any government efforts and reforms. The government can learn from Salarzais, Nawagais and its own efforts in Khar that can be applied in Mamund to eradicate the area from the wrath of foreign infiltration and influence.
Peace talks are not the only solution, however if necessary it should be initiated irrespective of the narratives moving around in media. However, the government should be cautious in relenting concessions as we have seen previously in Malakand division where Sufi Muhammad was given this but he later betrayed the agreement and military had to intervene. If TTP or any other group is ready to talk, they are talking to a Government which is a democratic government and works under the constitution of Pakistan. The authority that the Government exercises is delegated to it by the people of Pakistan and it can only work within the framework of the constitution so if the Government is engaging itself with TTP or any other group, it will have to bound itself to the constitution of Pakistan and by agreeing to talk to government TTP or any other militant group also accepts the legitimacy of the Government and constitution of Pakistan. However, if talks do not reach their logical conclusion, the Government must be in a position to involve tribal leaders at their own free will and also take vigorous action against violators and perpetrators of just human conscience.
(The article first appeared in The Frontier Post dated 29/09/2013)
The Writer is a PhD Scholar and Programme Manager at FATA Research Centre (FRC) Islamabad.