In 2004, for the first time in Pakistan’s chequered history, the federal government had to order military offensive against virulent and violent militant outfits in its tribal regions, although troops had been previously deployed in the remote Tirah Valley in Khyber tribal region to correspond with the US military action against Al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden and his associates in the neighbouring Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan.
The action in South Waziristan had begun after some reluctance amid differences between the military and its intelligence wing over the presence of foreign militants in the Wana region. This denial and inability of the state and its various organs to nip the evil in the bud led to catastrophic consequences.
The military offensive, therefore, proved fatal and costly for the government both in terms of the casualties suffered as well as its image. The myth of the mighty state crashed, replaced by the seemingly invincible Nek Muhammad and hordes of his Waziri militants.
Soon, and predictably enough, militancy spread to the Mehsud heartland, across the boundary into North Waziristan Agency (NWA) and beyond.
The July 2007 siege and subsequent clashes to wrestle back the control of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, fomented further troubles, leading to the rise of militant groups in Mohmand and Bajaur Agencies.
In December, 2007, Baitullah Mehsud, the undisputed leader of the Pakistani militants in South Waziristan (SW) moved to establish the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, assembling various factions on a single platform, creating a formidable challenge for Pakistan.
He swiftly established control in Orakzai, appointing his ultra-radical and aggressive young lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to oversee Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions.
Hakeemullah would succeed Baitullah after his death in a drone strike in August, 2009.
In the following years, the military and paramilitary forces launched a series of operations against militants in the length and breadth of Fata. Some were aborted half way, others put off or put on hold, following peace agreements through tribal interlocutors.
Realising these were futile, the Pakistan Army launched a decisive operation against the Mehsud heartland in October, 2009, forcing the TTP leadership to take refuge in the neighbouring NWA, while paramilitary forces fought fierce battles in Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions. By April 2010, Bajaur was declared a conflict-free zone.
In March 2010, security forces launched an ongoing operation in Orakzai. According to security officials, total control over the territory is now in sight. Kurram was also cleared and a road link between Kurram and down-country was reopened after years of blockade by militant groups.
The security forces have been able to reclaim and regain control of much of the lost territory with Bajaur and Mohmand. Kurram is less of a problem now while Orakzai is on the way to be reclaimed.
But three years later, South Waziristan remains a dilemma even with large troop deployment and massive development projects. Only a small number of the displaced Mehsuds have returned or agreed to return home, others are weary and fearful of the revenge and return of the TTP. Ambush, sniper attacks and fire-raids by Mehsud militants, still hiding in the countryside continue unabated.
While the army and the paramilitary forces have been able to re-establish state writ over much of Fata, civil administration is still hamstrung, so the policy of clear, hold and transfer has not been entirely successful.
Today, the Bara subdivision in the Khyber tribal region remains unstable despite several clean up operations. Part of Orakzai, close to Khyber’s Tirah Valley remains uncleared.
Militants fleeing Orakzai have now taken sanctuary in Tirah.
There is a tenuous and somewhat tactical truce between the belligerent groups: the Lashkar-i-Islam, Ansar-ul-Islam and the TTP, but it is only a matter of time before clashes flare-up in Tirah pressurising the plains of Bara, which would spell trouble for the adjacent provincial capital, Peshawar.
By no means is the fight over with the TTP leadership at large. Hakeemullah Mahsud in NWA; Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and the TTP commander from Mohmand who managed to flee across the border into Afghanistan continue to create trouble by attacking Pakistani outposts on the borders.
With the operation in Orakzai nearing an end, all eyes are now fixed on NW: home to Pakistani and foreign militants including the Haqqani Network which has proven itself to be the US’s toughest and most relentless enemy so far. NW is also home to Al-Qaeda central leadership and various strands of foreign militant groups of different nationalities, languages and ethnic groups making NW one of the toughest challenges that the Pakistani security forces have faced so far.
In the words of one senior security official, if and when it happens, the battle in NW will determine the future course of events in Fata with profound security and stability implications for Fata and Pakistan. Time will tell. —Ismail Khan