Tragedy struck the Mir Ali area in the volatile North Waziristan Agency on December 19 when first a suicide bomber attacked a roadside checkpoint of the security forces at Khajuri and then the troops retaliated to avenge the death of two soldiers and injuries to many more.
However, almost all those killed and wounded in the retaliatory shelling by the Pakistan Army’s gunship helicopters and artillery were civilians. Though the military spokesman claimed that 35 militants, including 10 Uzbeks, were killed in the assault, there was no evidence that any militant was slain. The exact death toll was unclear as varying figures were mentioned. Independent sources and local journalists reported that 37 people, all civilians, including women and children, were killed.
However, the JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose party has a strong presence in North Waziristan, claimed that the death toll was 65. The Maulana had phoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from India where he had gone on a visit to demand an immediate end to the military action in North Waziristan.
Among those killed were seven members of the family of retired schoolteacher Sanaullah in Mosaki village. Mortar shells hit his house causing human and material losses. The dead included his sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and daughter, and four children. Three men were killed when shells landed in the Haji Guloon mosque in Mir Ali town.
The highest number of people was killed at the Shireen Mahal Hotel and Shireen Gas Station, owned by one person, in Mir Ali. Among the dead were six construction labourers who had come from Lakki Marwat for work in North Waziristan, another six were working at the petrol pump and some of the hotel employees.
The deaths caused anger in North Waziristan and contributed to uncertainty as there has been frequent talk of an imminent military operation in this tribal region. The incident also triggered protests, mostly in Peshawar where tribal elders, students and civil society activists staged rallies for several days outside the Peshawar Press Club to condemn the civilian casualties and demand an end to the military operation in Mir Ali.
Mohammad Nazir, elected on the lone National Assembly seat from North Waziristan, raised the issue on the floor of the house along with Maulana Jamaluddin, the MNA from neighbouring South Waziristan. They alleged that civilians had been killed in the shelling and strafing by the security forces in Mir Ali town and the nearby villages of Mosaki, Haiderkhel and IPI. They also complained that round-the-clock curfew enforced by the political administration in the area had made it difficult for the people to bury the dead, shift the wounded to hospitals and stock on food and other items of common use.
The ill-equipped local hospital in Mir Ali was unable to cope with the situation as most doctors couldn’t attend duty due to the curfew and many critically injured were in need of specialised treatment available in faraway hospitals in Bannu and Peshawar.
Leading politicians also took note of the incident and began issuing statements keeping in view their political line and their understanding of the situation in North Waziristan. Many condemned the suicide attack on the security forces’ checkpoint and called for an end to the military action. After initially giving credence to the military’s claim about killing 35 foreign and local militants, the media gradually reported the other side of the story also by pointing out that the local people in North Waziristan were complaining how civilians had been killed and injured at their homes and in the Mir Ali bazaar.
The PML-N’s federal government watched quietly as the situation unfolded because the incident in Mir Ali could destroy whatever little hopes were left for holding peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The only exception was Defence Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif, who in keeping with the demands of his job backed the army’s offensive in North Waziristan and said it had the right to retaliate because it had come under attack.
It was a matter of utmost concern for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party as the high number of civilian deaths would make it even more difficult to convince the militants that his government was serious in pursuing the peace talks and that the army too was on board. His peace initiative had made no headway as the militants refused to enter into peace talks with the government, more so after the death of the TTP head Hakimullah Mahsud in a US drone strike in North Waziristan on November 1.
However, contrary to the media hype it wasn’t the beginning of the much-talked about military operation against the militants, mostly linked to al-Qaeda and the TTP, in North Waziristan. It was a limited military action undertaken in the heat of the moment to ostensibly punish those who had attacked the security forces’ checkpoint and subsequently an army convoy reportedly sent to retrieve the dead and the injured. It is another matter that excessive force was used and the retaliatory fire by the army’s artillery and gunship helicopters killed more civilians than the militants, who were supposedly the intended target.
For the new Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, the incident presented the first challenge linked to the long drawn-out fight against militancy and terrorism soon after taking over the job from General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani on November 29. His statement in which he warned the militants that the military would hit back in case it was attacked, was interpreted as a tougher line than General Kayani’s.
The fact that he gave the statement after the North Waziristan incident while laying floral wreaths at the Yadgar-i-Shuhada (the martyrs monument) at the compound housing the offices of the Corps Commander Peshawar was deemed significant because troops from this corps are deployed in Fata and in Malakand division. However, General Raheel Sharif on the same occasion reiterated the army’s support for the government’s peace initiative. Obviously, it was a tightrope walk for the army chief as he has to back the government policies and at the same time keep the morale of his troops high in the face of terrorist attacks.
However, it wasn’t the first time that the army retaliated after coming under attack from the militants. On every occasion in the past, the army has swiftly taken retaliatory action whether there was a rocket attack against its positions in the conflict areas or a suicide bombing and explosion caused by an improvised explosive device (IED). The only difference was that such a major retaliatory strike by the army took place after a while in North Waziristan and many more people were killed in it than the past.
The TTP tried to exploit the situation by quickly sending images of the burnt buildings and shops hit by artillery shells to media organisations. It alleged that the army had carried out the attack and killed civilians. The Amn Jirga, which has been mediating between the government and the militants in North Waziristan, intervened again and began working for a ceasefire. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led Taliban belonging to North Waziristan, who aren’t part of the TTP and appear helpless to stop it from operating in their native area, was angered by the army action, but it stopped short of ending its peace agreement with the government.
For now, the situation is tense but calm and a sort of ceasefire is holding. However, things could get out of hand if the militants start attacking the security forces in revenge strikes and the villagers who lost family members in the military action join their ranks.
Following General Raheel Sharif’s warning that an attack against his men won’t go unpunished, it won’t be unrealistic to expect that one strike could lead to another and force the army’s hand to plan the long-awaited military operation in North Waziristan. However, the final decision to this effect would be taken by the prime minister and one has the feeling that he won’t order a military operation until all other options for ending the conflict have been exhausted.