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Pakistan army for another wave of displacement

While eyes were focused on North Waziristan due to the persistent US demand for a big operation by Pakistan’s military against the militants in that volatile tribal region, the security forces had to undertake a more immediate action in the Mohmand Agency.

The militants affiliated with the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and controlling parts of Mohmand Agency had over a period of time become a potent threat and acquired the capacity to attack targets and assassinate rivals outside their traditional strongholds in faraway places like Charsadda and Peshawar. Led by their young commander Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid, they were attacking not only the security forces but also tribesmen who dared oppose them or became part of pro-government lashkars and peace committees.

The coordinated night-time attack sometime back by a large number of militants on five different military posts in the Safi and Baizai areas in Mohmand Agency was a matter of great concern because a depleted TTP as was being claimed couldn’t be expected to mount an assault of such proportions. The militants had earlier carried out two big suicide bombings at heavily-guarded offices of the political administration in Ekkaghund and Ghallanai towns and caused death and destruction at a scale never seen before in Mohmand Agency.

The ongoing action in Mohmand Agency isn’t like the ‘steam-roller’ assaults that Pakistan’s military conducted in 2009 in Swat and rest of Malakand division or in South Waziristan. On that occasion, thousands of heavily-equipped troops backed from the air were sent into mountainous terrain to sweep everything before them. The Mohmand Agency operation is smaller in scale and intensity and focused on selected areas in the Safi, Pandyali, Ambar and Baizai tehsils, or sub-divisions. But it is fairly big compared to the previous security operations in this rain-fed, poverty-stricken area sharing boundary with Bajaur Agecny, another militancy-hit tribal region.

The military action against the militants in Mohmand Agency, bordering Afghanistan like six out of the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), intensified on January 27 and is still continuing. The security forces, already deployed and engaged in operations against the militants, were reinforced for this larger action. Air power involving jet-fighters and gunship helicopters and heavy artillery are reportedly being used in the operation, but the scale of the damage suffered by the militants is unclear.

One thing that is clear though is the level of human suffering. There is once again the familiar sight of displaced people abandoning everything and trying to leave the conflict zone for relatively safer places. Pictures of children in long queues with all kinds of utensils at food distribution centres are again visible. It makes one think about the feelings of dependence and helplessness that these young boys and girls would carry as they grow up. This has now happened to thousands of children in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as militancy, military operations and last year’s devastating summer floods have uprooted communities, destroyed livelihoods and made families dependent on handouts.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Mohmand Agency are presently staying at two relief camps set up with help from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Nahqi and Danishkol. The numbers are rising as over 30,000 IDPs have already reached the two camps and more are on the way. The UNHCR has warned that up to 90,000 would be displaced by the end of February if the fighting intensified. If that case the bare minimum facilities available at Nahqi and Danishkol camps would be overwhelmed. Already, a year old baby girl, Amna, died at the Nahqi camp due to severe cold.

This is the first time that such relief camps have been set up in the tribal areas. In the past, the IDPs would head for Peshawar and its surroundings where security and basic services at the camps were better and prospects of finding work were higher. Many displaced families also made a conscious decision to settle elsewhere instead of returning to Mohmand Agency where there wasn’t much hope of improvement in the security situation in the foreseeable future. Most of the IDPs have been uprooted more than once and have no longer the energy and the resources to return home in an area where the conflict hasn’t really ended and the risk of getting caught in the crossfire is high. Innocent civilians have been blown up by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by the militants to attack security forces’ convoys or the vehicles of pro-government tribesmen. Also, artillery and mortar shells fired by the security forces in areas controlled by the militants have landed on houses and killed civilians including women and children. Life has become one living hell for the people in the conflict areas.

As the authorities and the UNHCR expect the duration of the recent displacement in Mohmand Agency to be relatively short and not exceed a period of three months, the IDPs are encouraged to stay in the Nahqi and Danishkol camps and prevented from moving to Peshawar and other destinations. The UNHCR has been urging the Pakistan government to allow freedom of movement to the displaced people so that they could stay with relatives and host families in Peshawar and other settled areas. It also expressed concern over complaints by the IDPs that young and middle-aged men were finding it difficult to leave the conflict zone.

Obviously, the security forces are screening them to identify militants, but such an exercise also creates bitterness. So strict is the identification parade that even patients needing urgent medical care have sometimes been unable to move out of Mohmand Agency and reach Peshawar to seek better treatment. Two tribesmen had to make a public appeal to the authorities through the media to be allowed to shift to Peshawar their three brothers (Ikhtiar Khan, Jan Khan and Hasan Khan) under treatment at the ill-equipped and under-staffed Agency Headquarters Hospital in Ghallanai, the administrative centre of Mohmand Agency, after suffering grievous injuries when a mortar shell hit their house. This is unjustified and is no way to win the hearts and minds in the long drawn out battle in which the militants would become weak if isolated by weaning away the people from them.

Predictably, the militants have retaliated by stepping up attacks on the police, exploding roadside bombs and blowing up schools in and around Peshawar. Government officials are convinced that the retaliatory strikes by the militants against mostly soft targets was evidence of the fact that they have suffered painful blows in the military action in Mohmand Agency. However, the militants haven’t been able to launch revenge attacks in Mohmand Agency close to the scene of action. It is possible the militants’ strikes including the first suicide bombing in Peshawar for months in which deputy superintendent of police Abdur Rasheed Khan was killed along with two other cops are being carried out by the TTP elements from Khyber and Orakzai agencies and Darra Adamkhel in a bid to release the pressure on their comrades in Mohmand Agency. This has been a familiar tactic by the militants, though their capacity to inflict harm has been diminished due to complete loss of public support and successive military operations against them.

The example of Mohmand Agency explains the difficult task of rooting out militancy and stabilising an area. In past military operations, thousands of people were displaced and even now up to 140,000 IDPs from Mohmand Agency are staying away from homes in camps near Peshawar or on their own elsewhere. In fact, the number of IDPs from all the militancy-stricken tribal areas including Mohmand is around one million. It is going to be an uphill task to repatriate and rehabilitate them while pursuing the fleeing militants from one tribal region to another through successive military operations.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim

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