A yearlong string of targeted assassinations in western Pakistan’s North Waziristan region has prompted mass protests and accusations that the country’s powerful military is failing to prevent the return of the Taliban militants.
Tribal leaders, activists, and politicians from the region are asking why the security forces are failing to protect people after claiming to have cleansed the region of Taliban and their Al-Qaeda and Central Asian militant allies.
Senior military officials, however, reject such criticism and are adamant they will not allow the strategic region bordering Afghanistan to revert to a terrorist sanctuary.
“We want to ask why North Waziristan was destroyed when the military failed to eradicate terrorism,” lawmaker Mohsin Dawar told a large protest in the district center, Miran Shah, on April 14. “Now that the long-haired [militants] are roaming free again, what was the benefit of such a large operation?”
Dawar was referring to the Zarb-e Azab operation launched in June 2014. Officials claim that the operation, which involved tens of thousands of troops, eradicated terrorist sanctuaries in the region by killing thousands of militants and forcing the rest to flee.
But many Waziristan residents say they paid a steep price for the offensive. For several years, more than 1 million civilian members of the region’s Wazir and Dawar Pashtun tribes sought shelter in neighboring Bannu district and parts of Afghanistan after being ordered to abandon their homes on a few hours’ notice in June 2014.
“Was it launched only so that some [Taliban] can be shown to have surrendered?” Dawar asked, garnering cheers from an estimated 100,000 participants of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest.
Known by its initials, the PTM has been demanding security and rights for the Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns, for over a year. The movement emerged from Waziristan, administratively divided into North and South Waziristan tribal districts.
The region was once the epicenter of Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda established safe havens there following the demise of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
Residents of Waziristan and five more districts in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province paid a high price. They first endured violence and harsh rule by the militants. Military operations aimed at confronting the militants displaced more than 6 million Pashtun civilians in the decade following the launch of the first major offensive in 2004.
A tribal leader in North Waziristan who requested anonymity citing fears of reprisals from militants and officials, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that residents of the region are fuming over the return of the militants.
“The poorest among us have suffered the hardest because they lost loved ones, houses, and livelihoods,” he said of the sentiment in the region. “But their sacrifices were in vain because the army has not killed the top 10 [militant] leaders. Even the top 100 were spared.”
Locals say that for nearly a year, officials have been discussing the possible return of Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Sadiq Noor. The two ruled North Waziristan for more than a decade after the region became a militant hub in late 2001. After the launch of Zarb-e Azb in late 2001, they moved to remote alpine valleys along North Waziristan’s border with Afghanistan.
The tribal leader said most of the 40 people killed over the past year in what appears to be an assassination campaign in North Waziristan were former Taliban members or sympathizers who had surrendered to the authorities or had helped the military take on their former comrades.
“We are extremely anxious that these assassinations will once again push Waziristan into turmoil,” he said. “We really need a fact-finding commission to look into this issue.”
Authorities have so far failed to resolve any of the murders even now that regular Pakistani laws apply to Waziristan and the rest of FATA after it was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. “No one has been arrested in connection with the murders,” the tribal leader noted.
Dawar, the lawmaker representing North Waziristan in the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, says the region’s residents are horrified over the prospects of the militants’ return because the military forced the residents to give up their weapons as part of a disarmament drive during the military operation.
“Most of the victims have been killed inside their homes, in front of their wives, parents, and children,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “Our people are now asking, what was the point of taking away our weapons and destroying our houses and bazaars when we are not safe inside our houses?”
Civil and military officials in north Waziristan, however, tell a different story. While requesting not to be quoted by name, senior officials in the region say that reintegration of former Taliban fighters is an important component of overall stabilization efforts in Waziristan and other Pashtun regions that suffered under the Taliban.
Officials point to the vocational training they have been imparting to thousands of militants to prevent them from joining jihadist factions and to help them reintegrate into society.
The officials say they have robust mechanisms to monitor the surrendered militants. They say Bahadur and Noor will be required to stick to the same rules if they abandon violence and seek a return to normal civilian life.
Earlier this month Major General Mumtaz Hussain, the most senior military official in North Waziristan, assured the region’s residents that the era of insecurity and bloodshed is over for good.
“I am not seeking bullets and explosives for the Pashtuns. I want them to have peace,” he told a gathering on April 8. “God willing, we will now only see flowers and love, and only hear talk of understanding and peace.”
But Waziristan residents remain anxious. Malik Ghulam, a tribal leader in the region, recently told Radio Mashaal that the targeted assassinations have shattered their hopes for living in peace in their homeland.
“We are not terrorists,” he said. “We are only seeking to live in peace like some other regions of Pakistan.”
Radio Mashaal correspondents Umar Daraz Wazir and Zafar Khan contributed reporting to this story.