The resurfacing of the militant Taliban commander Mullah Faqir Muhammad in Bajaur has come as a major blow to the government’s ongoing peace efforts in the troubled border areas. The Maulana’s unexpected reappearance and his seditious speeches on his FM radio station, has taken locals by surprise and caused widespread alarm. The local had seen the Pakistani flag hoisted in the Sewai area by excited young soldiers after they had regained control of territories from the terrorists in March 2010.
They say Mullah Faqir always delivers on what he commits to do, so his warnings are always taken seriously by his opponents and ordinary people alike, which is why his thundering speeches can create panic. I still remember Mullah Faqir’s warning to the Americans and the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the US drone attack on a madressah in Bajaur’s Inam Khuru-Cheenagai area on Oct 30, 2006, that left 80 students dead.
The following day, in his first public appearance which ended a long period he spent underground, Mullah Faqir Muhammad told a huge public gathering in Khar, the main town of Bajaur, that by killing the 80 students the Americans and their ally—i.e., the Pakistani government—had produced thousands of suicide bombers who would soon launch attacks against the Americans and government installations.
His response was quick. On Nov 8, a suicide attack on an army base in Dargai, Malakand Division, killed 42 young recruits. That, in turn, was followed by a series of deadly suicide attacks on installations of the army, the police and the government.
In the present case, a day after he issued warnings to those who had been vocal in their criticism of the Taliban, Malik Tehsil Khan suffered the Taliban’s wrath. An influential malik from the Salarzai tribe, Malik Tehsil Khan, another person who had challenged the authority of the Taliban, was similarly killed, together with seven other people, in a suicide attack on May 27 in the Pashat area of tehsil Salarzai, some three kilometres from the Agency headquarters near the Afghan border.
Mullah Faqir’s forceful comeback has sent a shockwave that has particularly alarmed the returnees who spent more than two-and-a-half years in harsh conditions as internally displaced people. The military operation launched on Aug 6, 2008, forced almost 350,000 Bajauris to flee the area and find refuge in government-run IDP camps in Peshawar and Dir districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Families which were better-off either rented homes or stayed with relatives in Mardan, Peshawar, Dir, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi.
Official estimates show that 800 families were still packing up to return home as part of the government’s repatriation process that started on April 11. Some 23,000 families have gone back to their homes so far, although close to 90,000 individuals who live in camps are yet to be relocated in the native areas, according to estimates of the Fata Disaster Management Authority.
The two years and ten months since the launch of the military operation have seen a large number of deaths, with still more people left injured or maimed. The loss caused by the destruction of material assets, in terms of both personal property and infrastructure, is staggering.
Bajaur Agency has suffered the most significant damage in the decade-long war in the tribal areas. The damage is estimated at $68 billion. Almost 40 villages were completely demolished in the Loi Sam, Tank Khata, Khazana, Zoorband, Hashim, Manogi, Rashakai and Kotki and Khalki areas of Charmang. Official estimates put the figure of damaged homes at 9,580, with 3,000 dwellings completely destroyed.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 shops and other commercial units were destroyed, and this rendered countless thousands of people without livelihood. Fifteen per cent of the people in the area earn their livelihood from the small businesses they own. Fifty percent of the people are associated with agriculture, ten percent serve in government, semi-government and non-governmental organisations. Twenty-five percent are engaged as labourers in the cities and towns of Pakistan and in the Gulf countries, or work as night watchmen, construction workers, shoeshine boys, popcorn sellers, bus conductors, woodcutters and truck loaders.
The destruction of the agricultural, communication and business infrastructure has added to the serious difficulties the people of the area were already facing. After the new crisis befell them, the people are desperately looking for other sources of income. Lack of communicational links kept family members away from each other. The IDPs had no word about their relatives, let alone their having an inkling of whether their personal belongings were still where they had left them.
A total of 106 schools were destroyed. This destruction, so much of it deliberate, left thousands of children without education. The army rebuilt some of the schools that had been destroyed partially. However, most of the schools in Nawagai, Charmang and Mamoond areas are yet to be reopened. This is an extremely unfortunate situation for an area where the literacy rate is abysmal, more so among females. In Bajaur it is as low as 18 percent in the male population and a mere three percent among females. It will never be known what devastating affect the long closure of schools had on the local population, but one thing is certain: the further the rate of education falls in the disturbed area, the more the male members of the population will be drawn to the Taliban, fuelling the insurgency still further. Indeed, they will have little alternative but to join the Taliban.
In a region where a sense of deprivation among people is chronic, the government’s failure to deliver on its promises of providing security and basic facilities of life can only result in frustration and alienation among the population, and this will be exploited by the re-emerging Taliban. Bajaur connects Pakistan’s tribal areas to Afghanistan’s Kunar province, a hub of the Afghan Taliban. It is linked to Malakand Division where the Taliban militia led by Maulana Fazlullah turned the picturesque Swat Valley into a battlefield and played havoc with lives of the local people.
To its east lies Dir, a religiously conservative area. It was here that the leader of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), Maulana Sufi Muhammad, led a contingent of 10,000 jihadi zealots to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban when their government in Kabul was toppled by the US-led attack in late 2001. The jihadi fighters from Swat, Dir and Bajaur made their way into Afghanistan through Bajaur Agency in response to the call of Mullah Muhammd Umar in Afghanistan. To its west is Mohmand Agency, where militants led by Omar Khalid operate.
In view of the strategic location of the area, and the human and material losses caused in the past few years and the growing frustration amongst people, the government needs to come up with a credible development plan with a built-in component of security. If the government fails to do this, and do it immediately, the whole nation will have to bear the consequences, with Bajaur having to bear the brunt once thing go wrong. In the traditional Pakhtun society, power, authority, respect and wealth matter more than anything else. If unemployed young men are empowered through weaponry, the only consequence can be bloodletting. And that is what Mullah Faqir Muhammad seeks.