Syed Ayub Khan, like many other residents of North Waziristan, a district in western Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, is concerned over mounting insecurity in his homeland.
Frequent reports of targeted assassinations, clashes, and attacks on security forces leave him worried over the specter of the region relapsing into anarchy.
“We are worried that these people [militants] are reuniting once again,” he told Radio Mashaal of the regrouping of various Pakistani Taliban factions that once controlled large swathes of the mountainous region.
“We fear that the peace we have achieved since the military offensive is being lost,” he added, referring to the large-scale Zarb-e Azb military operation launched in 2014 that forced more than 1 million North Waziristan residents into displacement camps. Beginning in 2017, most were able to return home, but many are anxious about the prospect of being forced to leave again.
“Compared to before Zarb-e Azb, the overall situation is better, but no doubt people are afraid again,” say Naeemullah, a resident who goes by one name only in Miran Shah, the regional administrative headquarters of North Waziristan. “The security forces need to act quickly.” Mounting grievances over unemployment and a lack of services, he added, might recreate favorable conditions for the Taliban to recruit among locals.
Just this week, the Pakistani Army announced it had killed a “terrorist commander” along the border between North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive attack that officials said killed one soldier and wounded three others in a remote part of South Waziristan. Last month the TTP, an umbrella group of the Pakistani Taliban, reunited with two splinter groups in what is seen as a renewed push to revive militant violence.
Locals say such attacks are part of mounting violence in Waziristan, where thousands of soldiers, civilians, and locals were killed during the years of Taliban control and military operations. Zarb-e Azb and Rah-e Nijat, a military operation that began in South Waziristan in 2009, displaced more than 1.5 million civilians from North and South Waziristan.
Their bitter experience has prompted many in Waziristan to wonder what went wrong. Senior army generals repeatedly claimed they had defeated the Pakistani Taliban after the two operations and claimed that thousands of terrorists had been killed.
“The re-emergence of the militants is taking place at an alarming rate,” lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, who represents North Waziristan in the Pakistani parliament, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “We don’t see the state willing to nurture permanent peace in this region,” he said. “In the minds of locals, it is strengthening the perceptions that others are making money out of their suffering.”
Dawar is a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which emerged from Waziristan in 2018. The civil rights movement has criticized the military and the Taliban for the suffering of Pashtuns, who comprise Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority. “I told the parliament yesterday that this is an artificial war,” he said. “If there is political will, you won’t see militants re-emerging.”
Security officials in Waziristan, however, say they have made progress in restoring peace to Waziristan by deploying forces, acting against militants, and creating and strengthening local security forces. They also point to the return of most displaced residents and numerous rehabilitation and development projects as evidence that their approach is working.
But PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen says the selective approach toward militants -- which tolerated some militants as “good Taliban” and went after others as “bad Taliban” for attacks on security forces -- has not worked.
“The military operations focused on capturing and controlling territory, but they failed to curb the movement of militants,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “Thus, the use of overwhelming force caused disproportionate losses to civilians but spared the militants.”
Pashteen says they fear the increased tormenting of civilians in the aftermath of attacks on security forces and through militant attacks is once again turning Waziristan into a battleground. “Violence will force civilians, particularly the educated and middle classes, to flee,” he noted. “This will invariably benefit the combatants by helping them pursue their objectives through violence.”
Security officials in Waziristan, however, take a strikingly different view. Speaking to Radio Mashaal on the condition of anonymity late last month, a senior security official in North Waziristan brushed aside worries over the Taliban’s return. “We are now acting against remnants of militants in intelligence-based operations,” he said. “Some elements still hiding in remote mountains will be handled with an iron hand.”
Intelligence-based operations like that which killed Ihsan Ullah, alias Ihsan Sanray, this week are on the rise. Major General Babar Iftikhar, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said Sanray had “masterminded numerous terrorist activities,” including one earlier this month that killed two officers.
“We are acting to eventually control all elements responsible for fomenting insecurity in the region,” said the security official in North Waziristan.
Shafiullah Gandapur, the head of police in North Waziristan, hopes the region can be as peaceful as other districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. He says that with the support of the military they are working on absorbing thousands of levies, a local paramilitary force, into the newly created police force. “Compared to the situation in former FATA, this region will be peaceful and on par with other areas,” he told Radio Mashaal while referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by its acronym. North and South Waziristan and five other FATA districts were merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018.
Shaukat Ali, the district police officer in South Waziristan, says they are strengthening the police force through training and providing officers with modern weapons. “We have deployed our forces to the vulnerable and sensitive regions,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are equipping them with weapons and are working on improving our ways of gathering information.”
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a senior journalist in Peshawar, says the Pakistani military has no sufficient answer for the increasing attacks on its troops in Waziristan. “It is a worrying situation for the military, government, and residents of this region,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The increasing attacks have led many to criticize the government’s claims of restoring security to the region.”
Back in Miran Shah, Khan says local suffering could spell more trouble for the region. “The problems we face in accessing employment, education and health care aimed ruined markets and homes may have unforeseen consequences,” he said.
Radio Mashaal correspondents Umar Daraz Wazir and Monawar Shah contributed reporting from Miran Shah and Prague.