July 9’s devastating attack at the gate of the political administration’s office in Yaka Gund, Mohmand Agency, where members of peace committees were supposed to meet, is so far the bloodiest since the campaign against terrorists began in all earnest two years ago. Over 100 people have lost their lives and over two hundred were injured, some so badly that their lives might not be worth living. However, while the attack has been carried out in Mohmand, it cannot be separated from the worsening situation in Bajaur Agency, and to a lesser degree, Dir district. In fact it would be fair to say that though Mohmand felt the tremors, the force behind the lethal jolt came from Bajaur.
This is further evidence of the changing nature of Bajaur Agency’s centrality to the war against organised militancy. From a keystone of the larger successful military campaign in the south, Malakand on the whole and Swat in particular, Bajaur has become a staging ground of a revived, and ferocious, terror campaign mocking official claims of having established the state’s writ in this region.
We all know that the victory in Swat against the gangs of Mullah Fazlullah was built on the efforts in Bajaur. In the initial stages of doubt about the military’s ability to crush the Taliban, the operations in Loi Sam and Inayat Killay were used to pump up morale. Also the Swat militants were hemmed in from Bajaur, and hammered in their heartland in the Swat valley. If Faqir Muhammad’s network had not been disabled in Bajaur, nothing would have stopped the Swat insurgents from recuperating in the neighbourhood and relaunching themselves again on the battlefield. Also it was in Bajaur and Mohmand that the Frontier Corps came of age as a force — a fact that was crucial in shaping the environment for a rewarding assault in Swat. Just as crucial is the fact that in the Salarzai area, for the first time a tribal lashkar was organised at a large scale to supplant the military campaign to deny the militants space. For these reasons Bajaur was to become a model of ‘clear, hold and build’ concept as there was much planning done to bring back the internally displaced persons and to put this area on the path to enviable progress.
Ironically, this centre of hope in the tribal belt has begun to slip badly, sending shockwaves of instability that might even rock Swat. Bajaur’s slow slide into growing trouble is because of Kunar governor, 55-year-old Haji Syed Fazlullah Wahidi. For almost a year he has provided sanctuary in his area to retreating militants. New reports suggest that he is actively recruiting the locals offering up to Rs25,000 for bringing in foot-soldiers and spies. I have seen the documentary evidence of agreements that some prominent locals have struck with the governor’s native interlocutors identifying Pakistan’s security forces as the common enemy and vowing to arm and replenish the Tehreek-i-Taliban in the areas where Bajaur and Mohmand meet. It is inconceivable that the Kunar governor is running this organised terror campaign on his own without the knowledge and approval of Nato and Isaf’s commanders.
But that’s half the problem. The other half is internal. Bajaur is a classic case of opportunity lost through neglect and lack of vision. Two years after the militants were blown away, the area is damaged and broken with no signs of any revival much less reconstruction. The local administration is weak and forever short on funds. There has been no effective planning to block and weed out militants who melted back into the local population. There are disturbing reports of members of anti-Taliban lashkars being bought off by militants through front men. Faqir Muhammad is still at large and for some odd reason his brother is seen moving around freely. More dispiriting is that official policy has been almost static in the face of rapidly changing militant tactics. Our forces continue to plough the increasingly problematic counter-insurgency furrow that has the militant in focus rather than the public. But the biggest let-down in Bajaur has been the total abdication of responsibility by the central government leadership. Islamabad slept while Bajaur started to simmer and then began to burn. And now the fire is spreading everywhere.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2010.