MIRANSHAH: North Waziristan was once a boiling cauldron of terror. A potpourri of local and foreign terrorists held sway here. The state writ was virtually nonexistent. The Haqqani Network, the deadliest collaborators of the Afghan Taliban, used the lawless region to perpetrate their bloody campaign. All that is history now.
The rubble of a madrassah, at stone’s throw from the Afghan border, is all that is left of the Haqqani Network in the region. The ravaged structure is visible from Pakistan Army’s Ghulam Khan Fort overlooking the rugged mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Until 2014, the madrassah was believed to be the headquarters of the Haqqanis, who are blamed for some of the most spectacular attacks on the US-led western forces in Afghanistan.
It was perhaps for this reason that the region remained in the crosshairs of the CIA-led not-so-covert drone campaign for years.
The military has wrested back the control of North Waziristan where a medley of local and foreign militants reigned until 2014. And the US drone strikes have also ceased since most ‘high-value targets’ have either been taken out by Pakistan Army or have slipped into Afghanistan.
This was the result of a sustained military campaign by Pakistan, which has not only driven away local militants but also their Haqqani cohorts, said a senior military officer, who is now spearheading efforts to consolidate the operation gains.
When the Pakistan military had launched the operation in 2014, there was scepticism in the Western media that militants of all hues would be targeted indiscriminately.
On Sunday, the military’s media wing, the ISPR, took a select group of local and foreign journalists on a guided tour to North Waziristan to show them the metamorphosis of the once dreaded region.
“The results [of the operation] are in front of you,” said the chief military spokesperson, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor. “The military campaign has eliminated all those [terrorist] sanctuaries,” he told The Express Tribune.
While he gave a detailed presentation on how security forces have purged the region of terrorist groups, military guards atop Ghulam Khan Fort monitored the movement of locals in the area.
After flushing out militants, the military is now taking steps to secure the porous border with Afghanistan to stop them from sneaking back in. A robust border mechanism has been put in place whereby the 2,600-kilometre long frontier is being fenced.
According to the military’s estimates, the colossal fence dotted with surveillance forts will be completed by the end of this year. “The fence has already showing results: A phenomenal drop in physical attacks by terrorists from across the border,” Maj Gen Ghafoor said.
The Afghan government has reservations over the fencing since it does not recognise the Durand Line as an international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But security officials said Afghan troops were very happy with the fencing because it has considerably reduced the movement of unwanted elements.
The border fencing is not only meant to consolidate the gains of Pakistan’s anti-terror campaign but also aimed at dealing with possible spillover of any chaos in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US-led forces.
“A peace deal in Afghanistan would have a good impact on Pakistan. If it doesn’t come through or takes longer to materialize, we are putting in place safeguards on our side. This fence will help us in reducing the direct impact on our side of the border.”
Life in the post-operation North Waziristan is limping back to normalcy. Authorities have eased travel restrictions. “Now, you don’t need to get prior permission to visit Waziristan,” said the military spokesperson.
The touring mediapersons were driven to a market in Miramshah, the main town of North Waziristan where once terrorists roamed freely in their double-cabin SUVs. “The situation has improved significantly. We are happy with the progress,” Muhammad Ahsan, a trader, told The Express Tribune.
Maj Gen Ghafoor also strolled down the market where shoppers and traders jostled to shake his hands and shoot selfies with him.
“This was unthinkable a few years ago. We could not visit this market let alone mingling with locals,” said an intelligence official, who has witnessed the region’s transformation since the military operation.
A modern market has now replaced Miramshah Bazaar, which was reduced to heap of rubbles during the military campaign. Authorities have built asphalted roads and upgraded hospitals and schools.
But some complaints of local tribesmen have yet not been addressed. They have not been compensated for the losses they suffered during the military campaign, while cellular service has also been not restored in the region.
One mobile phones dealer said he had no business since cellular service was not available in the area.
A senior military official, however, said work was already under way to restore cellular service in North Waziristan.
Another rampant complaint is the rigorous security checks the locals have to go through on a daily basis while entering North Waziristan.
The Pashtoon Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has repeatedly agitated the issue. At the Divisional Headquarters in Miramshah, the mediapersons were shown how each and every check-post was being monitored through CCTV cameras by the commanders.
“If there is an issue at any check post, the local commanders respond to it immediately,” said another senior official, who briefed the mediapersons about the steps to address the concerns of locals.
The official said that the situation had improved considerably in 2019 and the PTM instead of staging rallies in Karachi and other cities should visit the area and see the progress for themselves.
“In North Waziristan alone as many as 4,500 security personnel were martyred,” said Maj Gen Ghafoor. “The army and other security forces have given these sacrifices for the security of the people of this area,” he said.