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September 25, 2016

Waziristan: is anyone listening ?


September 25, 2016

In a recently held press conference the military spokesman enumerated success stories of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, claiming that Fata has been cleansed of all militants and that the second phase of the operation – consolidation, rehabilitation and reconstruction – has begun. Furthermore, that the IDPs will return to their places of permanent abode by the end of 2016.

It was against this background that I embarked on a trip to the area in the last week of August to see for myself the changes that have taken place. After the spokesman’s briefing I expected a general improvement in the situation of Waziristan. And more particularly I expected an improvement in the attitude of our security personnel towards civilian travellers now that the area stands cleared of terrorists and the soldiers there are no longer under any tension or pressure which would result in high-handedness towards the local civilian population. My hopes of seeing any positive change in behaviour were dashed to the ground at the very first check-post we encountered.

At Gardowai, which happens to be the first entry point from the settled area of Tank to South Waziristan, the guards on duty asked everyone including serving and retired civil servants to get off the main road for about twenty yards and then get back onto it for the onward journey. There was no apparent reason for this – such as the existence of any government building, property or other official structure nearby – which could have necessitated diversion of traffic for security reasons for twenty yards only.

When asked for any logical reason of doing so, the guard said “These are the orders of the new commander”. It was obvious that the object was only to humiliate civilian travellers and make them understand that from then onwards they were to obey everything without question.

At another check- point near Wana on the road to Angoor Ada we were told to get off the road and use a dirt track instead (an uneven diversion full of stones and ditches) for more than two kilometres before climbing back to the main road. There appeared to be no justification nor was any given for not permitting us to travel on that section of the road even after checking our identities and knowing full well that we were serving/retired civil servants posing no threat to anybody.

When we enquired whether we could speak to an officer the soldier became angry and instead of replying pointed his gun at our car leaving us with no choice but to obey his ‘orders’.

While driving on the road between Tank and Wana-Angoor Ada, a distance of about 200 kilometres, with more than a dozen check posts in between, the harsh and unfriendly attitude of those manning the posts made me feel as though I was not a Pakistani but a potential enemy or hostile alien from some enemy country.

Invariably these check posts were manned by young soldiers from faraway places in Punjab like Mandi Bahaudin, Bahawalnagar, Rahim Yar Khan etc with crude and brazen attitudes. They neither spoke or understood a word of Pashto nor showed any respect for Pakhtun culture or its traditions while dealing with even elderly respectable people of the area.

Nobody has any objection to people from Punjab performing duties there but they should have been taught at least some basic words of the local language and a modicum of courtesy for dealing with fellow civilian countrymen rather than simply issuing orders and treating everybody as citizens of a newly conquered territory. After all, Fata is also as much a part of Pakistan as Punjab. Isn’t it ?

On my return to Islamabad I narrated the story of my travails to a friend and told him that I was going to seek a meeting with the corps commander in Peshawar to apprise him of what was happening in Waziristan where very friendly people were thus being made unfriendly, if not hostile. He laughed and shared his own story with me of having made a similar mistake a few months back.

He was assured of a quick response but instead of that a stream of never-ending telephone calls ensued from Islamabad, Peshawar and the place of his permanent abode by personnel of an intelligence agency asking him again and again for details of his educational qualifications, service record and so on which he would provide without fail to each caller. Every person who called would assure him of a quick response. But months have passed and the meeting is yet to materialise.

After hearing his story I decided to give up on the idea but then who should be informed of this as the situation is creating a wedge between the local people and the security personnel? At risk are the sacrifices of our civil and military personnel, which they made to bring the situation under control. If quick remedial action is not taken there is every likelihood of the enemy taking advantage.

Let us not shy away from the realities on the ground and the new alliances that are in the making. If we fail to take note of a simple matter like this it will provide an opportunity to the enemy to manipulate things and turn our western border into a difficult one for us. Turning a blind eye to this would amount to providing space to the enemy to stab us in the back like it did in the eastern wing some 45 years back.

Without wasting further time the security forces should consider detailing Pashto-speaking persons for duties at the checkposts as well as other public dealing places to make interaction with local people smooth and free of any tension. The problem with soldiers from Punjab is that they do not speak or understand Pashto and most of the locals do not understand Urdu so they cannot communicate properly with each other and that widens the communication gap with each passing day.

This is nothing more than a classic case of mismanagement leading to turning friendly people into unfriendly ones which could easily have been managed with just a little thinking and effort. If it is done even now that will earn a good name for the soldiers and make life easy for the locals as well.

It will be in everybody’s interest if the situation is reviewed afresh, on a priority basis, and in consultation with the locals so that necessary remedial measures are taken forthwith to prevent the situation from going further downhill. The people there have rendered unmatched sacrifices for the country and if that is not appreciated and instead they are daily insulted as a matter of routine in their own area that will not just annoy them but make them lose respect for any government functionary, civil or military.

This will also end up making them easy targets for the enemy. So let us stop treating them like aliens and not push them over the edge to a point where they can be manipulated by others. That will be too dangerous a thing for all.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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