A murder foretold

Arif Wazir’s short life was eventful as he lost his father, two brothers, two uncles and two cousins in targeted killings, survived assassination attempts and spent time in prison

Mohammad Arif Wazir .

Mohammad Arif Wazir was critically wounded on May 1 when unidentified gunmen shot at him in Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan tribal district.

He succumbed to his injuries the next day at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad. This was the third hospital where he was rushed by his family and well-wishers in a bid to save his life. He was first taken to the local hospital in Wana, then to the District Headquarters Hospital in Dera Ismail Khan and finally to PIMS in Islamabad, located 500km away from Wana.

Tragically, he had been released from prison only four days ago and was enjoying a family reunion after one of his regular stints in jail. He was returning home in his vehicle from the Wana town bazaar to his nearby village, Ghwakhwa, when gunmen in another vehicle fired at him. He was reportedly shot thrice in the head, neck and arm. The shooting happened just before iftar and the joy of breaking the fast with family members soon turned into a tragedy.

Arif Wazir belonged to a prominent family of tribal elders from Ahmadzai Wazir tribe. The family had been part of the Pakhtun nationalist movement and was associated mostly with Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP). More recently, the family was aligned with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which is backed by the PkMAP. Ali Wazir, the MNA from South Waziristan who earlier had leftist leanings and was also an activist of the Awami National Party (ANP)-linked Pakhtun Students Federation in his college days, and his cousin Arif Wazir, had in recent years become the top PTM leaders.

For his part, Arif Wazir, was earlier a member of the PkMAP and its president for South Waziristan. He also headed the South Waziristan chapter of the FATA Political Alliance, which campaigned for the rights of the people of the tribal areas. On March 23, 2018, Arif Wazir announced his support to the PTM in a public rally in Wana and led a march to Makin, also located in South Waziristan, to the home of Naqeebullah Mehsud to show solidarity with the family of the young aspiring model who had been shot dead in Karachi in a fake police encounter on the orders of senior police officer, Rao Anwar. The murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud had sparked protests and served as the trigger for the emergence of PTM.

On March 24, a day after the Wana rally, Arif Wazir was arrested under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) by the authorities in South Waziristan for organising the protest. His arrest, along with that of other PTM activists, led to protests all over the country organised outside the press clubs.

Of the last 28 months of his life, his supporters claimed, about 13 months were spent in government custody after getting arrested six times.

The most tumultuous period of Arif Wazir’s political life began when he joined the PTM. His commitment to the PTM cause became stronger and his tone like other leaders of the nationalist, secular rights movement became tougher and more aggressive. Of the last 28 last months of his life, his supporters claimed, about 13 months were spent in government custody after getting arrested six times. He spent 10 days in prison when he was arrested the last time on April 17 on the charges of making an anti-Pakistan speech during his visit to Afghanistan in March. He had travelled to Kabul along with the PTM leaders Manzoor Pashteen, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar on the invitation of the Afghan government to attend Ashraf Ghani’s oath-taking as president after a contentious election disputed by his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

In July 2019, Arif Wazir contested election for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly constituency, PK-114 South Waziristan, as an independent candidate backed by the PTM. He bagged 10,272 votes and lost by 842 votes to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s Naseerullah Wazir who secured 11,114. Arif Wazir’s supporters alleged that the result was rigged in favour of the PTI candidate.

Arif Wazir died aged 38. His short life was eventful as he lost his father, two brothers, two uncles and two cousins in targeted killings, survived assassination attempts and spent time in prison. His father, Saadullah Jan, and brother, Ibrahim, were among the five family members, including his uncle Malik Mirzalam and his son Tariq, and another uncle Feroz Khan who were killed in a deadly attack in Wana earlier. Ishaq Wazir, another brother of Arif Wazir, and Farooq Wazir, the elder brother of Ali Wazir, MNA, were shot dead in other isolated target-killings.

With Arif Wazir’s killing, the number of family members assassinated to date has reached eight, a figure corroborated by members of the media in Wana. However, the PTM activists and supporters, including former Senator Afrasiab Khattak, claimed that 18 members of the family have been target-killed. Whatever the numbers, the family has suffered heavily by losing its elders and adult male members.

Arif Wazir’s tribe, Ahmadzai Wazir, had passed through a difficult time as the Wana area began suffering from militancy and military operations ahead of all other parts of FATA in 2003. The first known Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Mohammad Wazir, belonged to this tribe. He fought against the US-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan and the Pakistani state in South Waziristan before making truce with the military in return for amnesty at Shakai in April 2004. Two months later, he was killed in a US drone strike when a house in a village near Wana was attacked when Nek Mohammad Wazir was having dinner. This was the first US drone attack in Pakistan following a secret deal with military ruler General Pervez Musharraf.

The first major operation by Pakistan’s security forces against, including those aligned with Al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), in erstwhile FATA was also carried out in the Ahmadzai Wazir-populated Wana area in March 2004. The tribe later in March 2007 under the leadership of militant commander Maulvi Nazir staged an uprising with support of the security forces to expel the well-entrenched Uzbeks militants, notorious for their brutality, from Wana.

The government has remained silent on the incident in which Arif Wazir was killed. No government official has yet offered condolences to his family. The police in Wana have registered a case against unknown assailants, but identifying and apprehending the killers would remain an uphill task. The past killings of Arif Wazir’s family members weren’t investigated and no arrests were made.

The PTM has blamed the ‘good Taliban’ for Arif Wazir’s murder. Demands have been voiced for a judicial probe. Mohsin Dawar said PTM’s struggle against the masters of the ‘good’ terrorists would continue. PTM activists openly accused state institutions of supporting the so-called ‘good Taliban’. At Arif Wazir’s hugely attended funeral, emotional speeches were made and provocative anti-army slogans were chanted. The PTM leaders described Arif Wazir as a martyr and pledged to continue his mission.

It is obvious that Arif Wazir’s family earned the enmity of the militants due to its political affiliation and anti-Taliban stance. In fact, the family had earlier backed the military action against local Taliban led by Nek Mohammad Wazir. In the Wana context, the ‘good Taliban’ was the group led by Maulvi Nazir, who was replaced by his brother, Sattar Khan, after his death in a US drone strike in Angoor Adda near Wana in January 2013. Its members were called ‘good Taliban’ as Maulvi Nazir signed a peace agreement with the government and didn’t fight the state. The group later transformed itself into a ‘peace committee’ while retaining its rather diminished power.

In the present state of affairs, the unfortunate truth is that such killings may not end any time soon. Wana and other parts of South Waziristan would remain restless until the target-killings are stopped.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Arif Wazir: A murder foretold