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Understanding Waziristan’s Agony

Children displaced from the North Waziristan , wait for a meal in a temporary shelter in Bannu (file photo).
Children displaced from the North Waziristan , wait for a meal in a temporary shelter in Bannu (file photo).

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently visited Bannu, a bustling city in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province -- the gateway to Waziristan.

The vast tribal region borders southeastern Afghanistan and has been the epicenter of conflict in the two neighboring countries. Al-Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban hosts retreated to and established a safe haven in Waziristan after fleeing the U.S.-led military attack on Afghanistan in late 2001.

Sharif lambasted the opposition and announced plans for cash grants, building a university, and an airport to woo Bannu voters. But he offered mere words to the more than 1 million displaced Pashtun residents of Waziristan. Now living in abject poverty in Bannu, they were forced to leave their homeland after the Pakistani military launched what it billed as one of the biggest offensives against so-called terrorists in 2014.​

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​“The displaced of North Waziristan are dearer to us than our lives,” he told thousands of cheering supporters, referring to the part of Waziristan targeted by the ongoing offensive. “We are working for their early return to their homeland and providing them with health care and education.”

Sharif's claims best illustrate Pakistan’s attitude to the western Pashtun tribal backyard. Since the country’s independence in 1947, rulers in Islamabad have praised the courage and loyalty of the estimated 7 million Pashtun residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). But by failing to provide real economic opportunities and modern governance, successive governments have failed to integrate their homeland into Pakistan.

Pashtuns of FATA have paid a high price for Islamabad’s folly. Since 2003, when Al-Qaeda stirred a local Taliban uprising against the Pakistani military, Waziristan, divided into the South and North tribal districts, has endured the lion’s share of suffering experienced by FATA residents.

Taliban suicide bombings and targeted assassinations, Pakistani artillery barrages and airstrikes, and U.S. drone strikes have killed tens of thousands of militants, soldiers, and civilians. For every combatant, at least five civilians have died.

Nearly half, or more than 3 million, FATA civilians have experienced displacement as a consequence of a war in which outside forces have often encouraged violence as part of competition for global and regional dominance. It is striking that none of the warring parties claimed to be fighting for the rights of FATA Pashtuns or to free them from oppression and underdevelopment.

Cheegha -- the Call
Cheegha -- the Call

A new book by a Waziristan native captures the gloom in his long-suffering homeland. Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur’s Cheegha – the Call is an invaluable contribution to understanding the conflict in Waziristan.

Daur, a Pakistani government bureaucrat, has delivered an emotional plea for understanding the grief and suffering of Waziristan. The direness of the situation in his homeland appears to have persuaded him to take this approach instead of a dry, fact-based analysis.

His storytelling transports readers to his picturesque mountain home where generosity, loyalty, and rectitude once ruled supreme. In Waziristan, Daur writes, his tribal chieftain father successfully prevailed over emotional youth and haughty officials to keep the peace and slowly steer a new generation toward modernity and prosperity through education.

Daur attempts to answer the question: Why did Pakistan let Waziristan be destroyed when its residents had done nothing to warrant the anguish they face?

“The security forces destroy whole villages during military operations without getting a militant,” he writes. “[But] the breeding of militants continues to this day. Some train them, others fund them and some others protect them. Who is doing all this – no one knows.”

Daur has been vocal about why he wrote the book and what he expects to achieve. “I have felt that the voice of the resident of the tribal areas is not being heard,” he told a Pakistani TV channel. “I want the elites in Islamabad and [the eastern prosperous province of] Punjab and international community to know about our pain and losses.”

Cheegha is informed by Daur's decades-long career as a senior security and administration official in FATA. He is not afraid to criticize the archaic governance regime Islamabad employs to keep FATA tormented as a backwater.

“Even the elected lawmakers from our area are barred from legislation for their homeland,” he said, noting a glaring anomaly in Pakistani supreme law that still keeps FATA outside the jurisdiction of the country’s courts and legislature.

Daur’s writing is also motivated by a desire to correct the narrative about Pashtuns, whose image in the West was shaped by British and Pakistani administrators often invoking the “noble savage” to understand their culture, history, and identity. “Now is a high time to tell our story from an indigenous perspective,” he said.

Ghulam Qadir Daur
Ghulam Qadir Daur

As the West reflects on the nearly 15-year war on terrorism, Cheegha should be required reading for policymakers, diplomats, aid workers, journalists, and analysts. The book is an antidote to the stereotypes and preconceived notions about one of the main theaters for the struggle against violent extremism.

Daur's prognosis of the main problem in Waziristan and the tribal areas also sounds a universal truth for tribal societies and ungoverned spaces across the Muslim world.

“The enemy is the lack of voice of the tribesmen; they have no provincial representation and no local government,” he writes. “All laws for the tribal areas are designed and promulgated by people in Islamabad, who have no clue.”