The border areas of Dir and Bajaur have emerged as a new hub of militancy in Pakistan, and stand to threaten peace efforts.
Himal SouthAsian, Web Exclusive
28 June 2011
By Zia Ur Rehman
In the past two months, Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along with Dir district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, saw three cross-border incursions, allegedly carried out by Pakistani militants with help from Afghan allies. These attacks, which took place despite several army operations in Pakistan and the NATO presence across the border in Afghanistan, demonstrated the continued strength of militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The situation also prompted discussion on cross-border militant movement during the recent meeting of the high-level Afghanistan-Pakistan joint commission in Islamabad.
The most recent cross-border attack occurred on 16 June, when more than 200 militants crossed the border and raided the houses of local anti-Taliban militia in the Mamond area of Bajaur, killing around nine civilians. Casualties rose to 15 militants and 12 security personnel during subsequent clashes between the Pakistani security forces and the militants. Earlier, on 1 June, a three-day clash resulted in the deaths of dozens of people in Barawal, in Upper Dir, after hundreds of heavily armed militants targeted a poorly defended security post in Shaltalu. Likewise, on 22 April, a border security post in Lower Dir came under attack by militants, resulting in the death of more than 16 security personnel. Residents of Barawal are now requesting the government not to install additional security posts in their areas, for fear of inciting new attacks.
While the Pakistan government blames the Afghan Taliban for this violence, local tribal elders and security experts believe otherwise.
According to the latter, these attacks have probably been carried out by Pakistani militants, especially accomplices of Maulana Fazlullah, head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat, with help from Afghan militants. Reportedly, following the 2009 military operation in Swat, Fazlullah and his commanders fled to nearby provinces in Afghanistan, and some believe that these exiled forces have now been returning and targeting their rivals, including the security forces. The TTP claimed responsibility for the 1 June attacks in Dir, thus seeming corroborate this assertion. Omar Hassan Ahrabi, a spokesperson for the TTP in Malakand Division, said that the group had carried out the attacks together ‘with [its] Afghan allies’, adding that the attackers had managed to seize Pakistani anti-aircraft weapons before returning safely to hideouts in Afghanistan.
Apart from the possibility of Pakistani militants regrouping in Malakand and Bajaur, many security observers suggest that these groups are adopting a new strategy of large-scale attacks against government and security forces. Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, a TTP leader in Bajaur previously thought dead, recently stated that the TTP, in collaboration with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, plans to target state and security agencies. While the reappearance of Faqir Muhammad is already a major blow to ongoing peace efforts in insurgency-affected areas, such large-scale attacks will make the attempt at debilitating the group even harder.
In the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, the group has stepped up suicide bombings, attacks on paramilitary cadets, a naval base and a US consulate convoy. This has challenged government assertions that army operations against the militants have succeeded. Indeed, instead of weakening the militants, the army operations seem to have merely translocated the hub of militancy from tribal areas to provincial areas such as Dir. Local people in Upper Dir claim that the militants have begun roaming on their hills. And while nine schools in the area have been reportedly destroyed by the militants, others have remained closed after receiving threatening letters from the TTP. Beginning this year, the TTP militants have also started targeting ‘pro-government’ elders and police personnel – sending not only shockwaves among locals of Dir, but also belying the military’s claims of clearing the area of the militants.
The latest attacks on civilians seem to be the militants’ way of deterring the locals from forming an armed anti-Taliban militia, as they have done in the past. In mid-June 2009, such an armed militia had killed two militant commanders in Dogh Daara, Dir. After the recent militant attack on Dir, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has announced stronger support for such village militias. Nonetheless, past experience looms large; previous experimentation with militias has had catastrophic outcomes, as the militants struck back with suicide bombings, killing villagers and tribesmen indiscriminately. In June 2010, for instance, a suicide attack at a local mosque in Dogh Daara killed 30 tribesmen. In addition to indiscriminate suicide bombings, the militants have also tended to kidnap militia personnel and take them to bordering provinces in Afghanistan.
The security and government officials say that the TTP militants will not be able to regain control of the Dir region. Instead, it will likely restrict their fighting to hit-and-run tactics, an ideal guerrilla-warfare approach in the rugged terrain of Dir. More worryingly threat posed by these cross-border attacks has already had a significant impact on neighbouring districts and tribal areas. Because Dir borders Bajaur, districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Swat and Chitral, and Afghanistan, it will not only provide a strategic base for attacks in these areas, but will also act as a sanctuary for militants fleeing military operations in neighbouring regions. Afghanistan has already accused the Pakistani militants for attacks on its soil, in particular in Kunar and Nuristan provinces bordering Pakistan. It is therefore imperative that the governments of Islamabad and Kabul collectively tackle the issue of cross-border militant incursions – before the attacks become as ‘large-scale’ as the militants seem to be threatening.
~ Zia Ur Rehman is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi.