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PAKISTAN: Reviving Terror in Bajaur Agency

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By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

The Pakistan Army on September 19, 2012, killed 29 Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in the Batwar village of Salarzai tehsil (revenue unit) in the Bajaur Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Soon after, security officials announced the end of ‘targeted operations’ that were launched in the region on August 25, 2012.

Security Forces (SFs), with the help of the Salarzai Peace Militia, launched operations, using heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, after around 400 militants crossed over from the Kunar Province in Afghanistan into Pakistan to capture strategic hill tops in the region, and to take locals as hostage, on August 25, 2012. On that date, TTP 'spokesperson' Ehsanullah Ehsan also confirmed the death of Mullah Dadullah, the group’s 'chief' for Bajaur Agency, in US drone strike in the Sultan Marra Warra area of Kunar Province, during the night of August 24. Mullah Dadullah was killed along with 12 comrades, including his deputy, Mullah Abdul Rehman Ghalib. Ehsan declared, “Mullah Dadullah’s death will not dampen our morale and we will avenge his killing… Maulvi Abu Bakar has been appointed acting chief of the Bajaur chapter of TTP.” Mullah Dadullah, who had fled the 2008 military operation in Bajaur and had been living in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province since, had planned and personally led several cross-border attacks on Pakistani SF check posts.

Security officials claim that some 120 of the 400 militants who had sneaked into the region were killed during the operation, which lasted for 27 days, while the rest of the militants fled back to their sanctuaries in Afghanistan, leaving behind the bodies of several slain fighters. 25 soldiers were also killed in the operation. At least 12 soldiers were abducted and beheaded by the TTP. In confirmation, TTP released a video on August 31, 2012, stating, “Praise be to God that the Mujahedeen in Bajaur agency have managed to kill the infidel soldiers of Pakistan. Many of them were killed by bullets, 12 of them as you see have been beheaded. You see 12 heads here, and more heads are on the way.”

On September 9, 2012, security officials claimed they had cleared the area and pushed the militants back into Afghanistan. Jehangir Azam Wazir, the top political official in the area, stated that at least 118 people, including at least 80 militants, 18 civilians, 12 anti-Taliban militiamen and eight soldiers had been killed at that stage, after 17 days of fighting.

Official sources have, of course, claimed to have ‘cleared’ the Bajaur Agency on several occasions in the past, but militant activities have quickly resumed. What SF pressure has ordinarily achieved is a strategic withdrawal by the terrorists. Earlier, on July 12, 2012, dozens of militants had attacked the village of Kitkot in the Mamond tehsil of Bajaur Agency taking dozens of villagers as hostage. All the people who were taken hostage by the militants were subsequently freed in an operation in which SFs and local militiamen killed 17 militants and forced the rest across the border into Afghanistan. The entire area was declared ‘clear’ on the morning of July 13. However, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the ‘deputy chief’ of TTP, based in Kunar, had then announced, “Our fighters have now withdrawn to their bases. We have held one soldier hostage”. No further report is available about the abducted soldier.

The Bajaur Agency, which borders the Kunar Province in Afghanistan to the West, the Malkand District of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the East, the Mohmand Agency of FATA in the South and the Lower Dir District of KP to the North, has been a centre of terrorist activities because of its strategic location. The hills of Bajaur overlook the plains of Kunar Province which has long been a centre of insurgency. It served as al Qaeda's main command and control hub for operations in Northeast Afghanistan, including the Kunar Province.

According to the partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the Agency has so far witnessed 3,007 militancy related deaths since January 25, 2008 (data till September 23, 2012). The database records no militancy-related fatalities in the Agency prior to this. The fatalities include 390 civilians, 101 SFs and 2,516 ‘terrorists’ (No authoritative confirmation of categorization is available. Most individuals killed in SF shelling, air operations or firing, are declared ‘terrorists’ by official sources). The overall fatalities in FATA stand at 18,821, including 3,159 civilians, 1,314 SFs and 14,348 militants, over this period.  

Fatalities in Bajaur Agency: 2008-2012

Years

Civilians

SFs

Militants

Total

2008

144

35

1482

1661

2009

25

26

576

627

2010

95

13

246

354

2011

42

1

7

50

2012*

84

26

205

315

Total

390

101

2516

3007

Source: SATP, *Data till September 23, 2012

Bajaur was under the direct command of TTP’s ‘deputy Chief’ Maulvi Faqir Muhammed since early 2007. As there was no challenge to the TTP’s authority, either from the SFs or the locals, at that stage, there were no killings in 2007. The first reported fatality occurred on January 25, 2008, when unidentified militants shot dead a former Policeman, Mamoor Khan, who was on his way home from the Khar Market in Khar, the Bajaur Agency headquarters. On the same day, suspected TTP terrorists exploded a remote-controlled bomb, killing a person identified as Maulana Mursalin. The fatalities escalated dramatically once the SFs launched Operation Sherdil (Lion Heart) on August 7, 2008. The Operation, which was aimed at preventing the imminent fall of Khar, headquarters of Bajaur Agency, to the TTP, ended on February 28, 2009. Some 2,744 ‘terrorists’, including 321 foreigners, were killed during the operation. The SFs also suffered 97 fatalities.

Fatalities declined dramatically thereafter, but are now registering an increase once again. The TTP militants, including its top leaders, such as Maulvi Faqir Muhammed and the recently killed Mullah Dadullah, crossed the border into Kunar, from where the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had withdrawn its troops. A deal with local militants in Afghanistan allowed them to regroup and strengthen their base. Pakistani officials claim that four to five hundred TTP militants had set up bases in Afghanistan in the areas facing the Bajaur Agency, while another six to seven hundred TTP militants had set up bases in the area facing the Mohmand Agency.

After regrouping, in the initial phase, the TTP terrorists resorted to missile attacks, firing continuously across the border into the Bajaur Agency, causing a number of causalities and destruction of property. Between July 2011 and September 2012, eight incidents of such missile attacks were recorded, resulting in at least six fatalities and 29 injuries, according to partial data compiled by SATP.

It was, however, on June 16, 2011, that TTP cadres from across the border ventured into the Bajaur Agency in strength, for the first time after their flight in 2008. More than 300 militants TTP militants from Kunar attacked Khar, resulting in death of 15 persons. The dead included nine militants, three lashkar (tribal militia) volunteers, a soldier and two women. On July 6, 2011, Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, claiming responsibility for the June 16 attack declared, “Our fighters carried out these two attacks from Afghanistan, and we will launch more such attacks inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan.” Over the Voice of Sharia radio he said, “Don’t dare stand in the way of those who are following the path of God. We will return and enforce the golden system of Islam.”

Again, on July 8, 2011, two militants were killed and eight others received injuries as SFs and the Mamond Qaumi lashkar repulsed a cross-border attack in the Kagga area of Bajaur Agency. Between July 9, 2011 and July 12, 2012, militants resorted to a number of missile attacks, though there was no border crossing by any armed group.

Despite these operations, it is evident that the TTP has suffered significant reverses in the area. Haji Shafqat Gul, a member of the Bajaur Peace Committee noted, "At least 3,000 militants have laid down arms and expressed repentance over their association with Taliban in Bajaur Agency."

Meanwhile, the elders of the Mamond tribe on July 25, 2012, threatened to take action against TTP terrorists inside Afghanistan if cross-border attacks recurred. A statement by the elders declared, “The Afghan government should redress the issue on priority basis and take steps to stop cross-border attacks otherwise tribesmen will use their own techniques to counter the attacks. The Mamond tribesmen will target their enemies inside Afghanistan if any attack takes place in the border areas of the region in future.” Significantly, since the beginning of the militancy in the Bajaur Agency, two tribes – Salarzai and Mamond – have given offered stiff resistance and have raised armed militia against the terrorists, as a result of which they have frequently been targeted by the TTP. A total of 118 tribal militia members have fallen prey to TTP violence since 2008.

Islamabad has had a history of betrayal of the tribal leadership across FATA and KP, and this includes the trajectory in Bajaur. There was an extended period of peace after the TTP was forced out of the Province, into Afghanistan, by operations in which local tribal leaders and militia played a crucial role. However, once a measure of ‘normalcy’ was restored, the Government simply abandoned the local militias, who they had earlier encouraged to stand against the extremists. Malik Anwerzeb Khan, an elder of the Salarzai lashkar in Bajaur Agency, had stated, on March 26, 2011, “We were forced into this fight. Initially, the Government supported us with men and money. Police and paramilitary troops used to patrol the village streets alongside our volunteers to stave off Taliban attacks. But now it has deserted us. We have been left alone for this mortal combat.”

The Salarzai lashkar, which successfully countered the militant threat in the Salarzai sub-division of the Bajaur Agency, lost close to 70 volunteers in their campaign against the TTP. In a recent incident, on July 26, 2012, TTP terrorists targeted Shahabuddin, a local Salarzai tribesmen, in which nine tribesmen were killed and another 24 were injured. Shahbuddin’s family had been receiving constant threats from the TTP “who were refused sanctuary for a training camp by the family”. The attack was part of continuous TTP violence against the Salarzai tribe for their support to Islamabad’s military operations in the Agency.

On September 4, 2012, leaders of the All Bajaur Political Parties Alliance (ABPA, Bajaur Siyasi Ittehad) urged the Government to take immediate steps to ensure fulfilment of basic needs of the tribesmen affected by the war on terror in the Salarzai tehsil. They also warned of huge protest demonstrations against the Government if serious and speedy measures were not taken to resolve the problems facing tribes displaced by extended conflict in the Province.

Islamabad has tended to respond only to immediate provocation by the TTP, and to lapse into indifference once there is some relief from violence. Such a cycle will only embolden the extremists and widen their constituencies, even as it alienates tribal communities that remain allied to the state and its agencies. As the situation destabilizes further in Afghanistan in the wake of the projected 2014 ‘withdrawal’ of the ISAF, such threats can be expected to become even greater.

[Source: SATP]

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