The killing of thousands of clan leaders in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas has destroyed leadership among the ethnic Pashtun tribes inhabiting one of the country’s most embattled regions.
For more than a decade, numerous extremist groups allied with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have relied on the targeted assassination of powerful tribal chiefs as a cornerstone of their strategy to establish control and protect their sanctuaries.
Years of Pakistani military operations against these groups have not helped Islamabad establish authority in large swaths of FATA, nor have they succeeded in apprehending and punishing those behind the assassinations.
Sher Muhammad Khan, a human rights campaigner, said that nearly 2,000 elders have been killed across FATA since the onset of an Islamist extremist insurgency in the region a decade ago.
He told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that Waziristan, formally divided into North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal districts, has been the epicenter of the insurgents’ strategy as nearly 1,200 clan elders have been killed there, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"The tribal leaders who wanted to prevent their homeland from war and worked for peace have been systematically eliminated," he said. "They are being singled out for seeking peace and punished for living under their ancient tribal traditions."
Khan said that the government has yet to arrest perpetrators of such crimes and come up with a strategy to prevent similar murders.
In one of the most recent attacks, unknown assailants killed Malak Qadir Khan in North Waziristan last week. Ali Wazir, a tribal leader in neighboring South Waziristan, told Radio Mashaal that Khan was known as the "Chief of Waziristan" for his influence among the Wazir, Mehsud and Daur tribes of the region.
"His killing was a major loss to everyone in our region," he said. "But such murders also help people to figure out who is behind such killings and the incalculable social impact of such killings."
Tribal leaders are central to Pashtun tribal society. They adjudicate disputes in tribal councils called jirgas, provide political leadership and control youngsters in their families and clans who must obey their commands.
Malak Ataullah, a tribal leader, sees a grand conspiracy behind the killings.
He told Radio Mashaal that the assassination campaign is aimed at pulling the FATA tribes back to the stone age.
"Their aim is to eliminate everyone who can ask why this [insurgency] is happening [in FATA] or can prevent people from making mischief in their homeland," he said. "All this is ultimately aimed to remodel the tribal society so they will not resist an aggressor collectively and won't be able to defend their homeland."
The Al-Qaeda allied Pakistani Taliban insurgency emerged in Waziristan in 2003. More than 50,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers have been killed in militant violence and military operations since then. Islamabad has so far failed to establish authority in the mountainous region through force or negotiations with the Taliban.
Nearly one million residents of the region are displaced.