On Monday, BBC News cited the United National High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which stated that 20,000 people have fled Pakistan’s tribal area of Bajaur for Afghanistan “amid fighting between troops and militants in recent months.” The BBC added, “The UN’s refugee agency says almost 4,000 families have crossed north-west into Afghanistan’s Kunar province.”
UNHCR spokesman Nadir Farhad said the organization would look out for the refugees’ welfare if they are unable to return home as “winter sets in.” He was quoted saying, “It’s very difficult to predict the security situation on the other side of the border but what we hope is that the security gets better and people will be able to go back.” Although many of the families have found accommodation with friends or family, UNHCR reported “that some 200 families are already living without shelter.” BBC added, “The UNHCR says around 70% of the families are from Pakistan but the rest are Afghans who have been living in Pakistan.” [Image from BBC News]
Dawn also reported on the evacuation of Bajaur residents amid the intensifying conflict. The news agency reported,
Military authorities issued a warning to civilians in Taliban-dominated areas in Bajaur to move to safe places…Pamphlets were dropped from helicopters in Khar, asking people to vacate areas where militants were hiding and not to travel after sunset and warning that they could be attacked if the instructions were not followed.
In August, the Pakistani military launched this offensive against militants in Bajaur, the smallest of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, which are “semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal regions,” reported Reuters. According to the BBC’s Barbara Plett, “Bajaur is a crucial hub for insurgents. It has access routes to Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan and the Taliban knows its worth.” On Monday, a Dawn piece assessed whether this operation, dubbed Operation ‘Sher-dil’ [“Operation Lionheart”] has been successful. The news agency cited military sources who said in a media briefing on Monday, “It is a continual operation. It is not going to end in 2008 and it is not going to end in 2009. Don’t be optimistic, as far as the timeframe is concerned. It is a different ground and it will take some time.”
In Bajaur, noted Dawn, militants were putting a more stiff resistance than the military’s offensive in Swat, using “better tactics and communication system, reinforcements and heavy weapons from across the border.” A military official told news sources:
Those who have been telling us to do more, we turn around and ask them to do more. Stop the reverse flow into Bajaur. It’s coming. Heavy weapons are coming. The militants are coming…The militants are coming and their travel starts from Central Asia; they cover the entire track of Afghanistan. You are not stopping them and they are coming into our country…
Reuters also cited this senior military source in their coverage. They quoted the official stating, “The Pakistani-Afghan border is porous and is now causing trouble for us in Bajaur…Now movement is taking place to Pakistan from Afghanistan.” Although the officials did not blame the Afghan government for the movement of militants across the border, they did call on Kabul and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan forces to help halt their flow.
Although the U.S. supports the Bajaur operation, they are also demanding “a widespread crackdown on militant bases… throughout the tribal belt, and especially those used for launching attacks on international and Afghan troops in Afghanistan,” reported the BBC. However, Pakistani generals say they don’t have the resources for an all-out war. Army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the news agency, “One has to prioritize the bigger threat…Is it a compound in [the tribal areas of] North or South Waziristan, or is it Bajaur, which has become a huge stronghold of all the militants?” Although cross-border infiltration is a concern, Pakistan must primarily focus on combating a local insurgency that threatens its people and its overarching state.
Aside from the military offensive in Bajaur, the Pakistani Army is undertaking other tactics to overturn this militant stronghold. Media outlets have reported that the Pakistani Army is also encouraging local villagers to take up arms against the Taliban. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The Pakistani army is backing tribal militias that are rising to battle pro-Taliban groups, a development that the government hopes will turn the tide against insurgents here in the embattled northwest.” According to the Guardian, “The Pakistani movement relies on tribal customs and widespread ownership of guns to raise traditional private armies, known as lashkars, each with hundreds or several thousand volunteers.” The news agency quoted Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of the Awami National Party [the secular political party which heads the NWFP provincial government], who said, “There’s going to be a civil war…It will be the people versus the Taliban.” [Image from Reuters]
The lashkars have reportedly been organized in Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, Swat, Dir, Buner, and Lakki Marwat, and “have had some success in driving the Taliban from local areas by conducting patrols and burning down the homes of Taliban fighters and their supporters,” noted the Long War Journal. Already news outlets are hailing the militias’ formation and likening them to Iraq’s Sunni Awakening movement in Anbar province. However, the tribal dynamics in the northwest region of Pakistan are markedly different and constitute a more complex terrain. The LWJ reported,
The Pakistani government has to coordinate different strategies for each individual tribe, making the task of tribal engagement difficult. “The dynamics [with each tribe] are very different, as is the strategic situation of each tribe,” the source stated. “The biggest single hurdle is that there is no overarching body to coordinate tribal resistance In contrast to the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan].”
Although the lashkars operate as distinct, local units, the Pakistani Taliban can coordinate support for their activities across northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The LWJ noted that this is complicated further by the tribes’ unwillingness to cooperate with the government and the military. Some tribes also claim to be equally opposed to the Taliban and U.S./NATO troops, [see this video by BBC News]. While the tribes’ resistance to the Taliban should be seen as a positive, the complexities of their allegiance should still act as a reality check for those already hailing it “Pakistan’s answer to the Anbar Awakening.”