ALSO ON THE DAWN BLOG
Operation Rah-i-Nijat, ‘the path to deliverance’ is the name given to the military operation in South Waziristan. But as the military makes inroads in the tribal area, evoking a spirit of redemption amongst the locals seems to be the most challenging aspect.
As military troops enter a decisive battle in the heart of the Taliban stronghold, over 120,000 locals have been forced to flee their houses. The exodus is not expected to be as big as that from Swat since the population of the tribal agency is nearly half that of the Malakand division. Still, prompt actions need to be taken.
It is important to note that the differences between the humanitarian crises in Malakand and Waziristan are significant, and involve more than just a numbers game. With the Rah-i-Rast operation in Swat, the military was aided by local lashkars in their fight against insurgents who had occupied the valley. In Waziristan, however, the military is not expected to enjoy local support, which makes things more challenging. Unlike Swat, where militants were outsiders to begin with, the Taliban in Waziristan are amongst the local Mehsud tribe, making things far more complex.
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For that reason, the military’s fight in Waziristan will have to go well beyond warfare. It will not only be about battling militants, but also winning the hearts of the locals.
In an early gesture to counter Taliban propaganda and win hearts and minds, leaflets – both in Urdu and Pashto – containing a message from the Chief of Army Staff were dropped in Mehsud areas. The purpose was to clarify that the army’s war is not against the Mehsud tribe, but against the Taliban in particular. The pamphlets stated:
The aim of current military operation is not to attack proud and patriotic Mehsud but it is to save them from the clutches of ruthless terrorists who have destroyed peace of the whole region.
The message speaks volumes about the mindset of the locals in Waziristan and the challenges in store for the Pakistan government and military.
These initial attempts by the army to distinguish between Taliban militants and ordinary Mehsud tribesmen have not been too effective, though, and the people fleeing from Waziristan appear to be disillusioned by the ongoing operation. Despite reassurances, the locals still feel that their background immediately provokes discrimination. According to reports, most of the IDPs fleeing Waziristan have alleged discrimination by the authorities and say they are being coldly received as compared to those who fled from Swat. The attitude the tribal displaced are encountering is no doubt humiliating and unwelcoming.
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For their part, the authorities justify the strict treatment of refugees by pointing to intelligence reports accusing the majority of the locals of being supportive of the Taliban. The fear of Taliban sneaking out of the tribal area with the displaced locals is higher than ever before. As a result, the IDP camps are not a friendly abode. Most of those fleeing Waziristan are thus refusing to stay in camps, and are renting houses, a decision that makes them vulnerable to security checks (for example, they have been asked to provide adequate paper work as guarantees).
Alarmingly, the anti-Taliban locals are not very hopeful about the operation. Popular belief amongst them pits the army operation as a ‘power show,’ rather than a significant step towards eliminating the Taliban. Forced to evacuate their homes and suffer ill-treatment at the hands of security personnel for a mission that they do not fully believe in makes the IDPs of Waziristan particularly vulnerable to Taliban recruitment.
The fact is, the attitude of the authorities and the public at large towards the Mehsuds is one of caution and fear more than sympathy and concern. Such prejudice only bolsters the Taliban agenda, fueling recruitment from among Mehsud ranks. But the war cannot be won if the Waziristan locals show indifference towards the need for combating Taliban and their infrastructure. Without winning the hearts of the people, the military’s victory will only be temporary. If we want this to be a ‘decisive blow,’ we have to overcome our insecurities and let sympathy overcome prejudice.
Dire situations such as these require us to rise as a nation. Let us extend our support to the IDPs of Waziristan, regardless of their past and their support for the Taliban. This is our chance to help our people break free from the shackles of the Taliban. Let’s take the path of salvation together.