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PESHAWAR, Jun 6 2011 (IPS) - Fear and anxiety have spread among residents of North Waziristan in northwest Pakistan after U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the Pakistani government would launch a major offensive in the area.
The announcement, however, has also divided Pakistanis – some say it would harm civilians, while others think that a military operation in North Waziristan, said to be the base of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, is the only way to wipe out militants and restore peace in Pakistan.
“About one million people from the Federally Administered Tribal Area are still displaced due to military operations; the impending action in North Waziristan will further add to their problems, rather than doing any good,” said Wakil Shah, a teacher from South Waziristan.
People like Shah still remember 2004, when the Pakistani army launched its first-ever military operation in South Waziristan Agency to flush out militants. The operation caused a mass exodus, with some 300,000 displaced people migrating to the adjacent districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan in the nearby province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“We fear the operation could trigger a mass exodus and we want the government to avoid military action because thousands would face starvation and diseases in camps,” Shaukatullah, a resident of Datta Khel, a tehsil (county) of North Waziristan, told IPS over the phone.
Reports about military operations in Waziristan have sent a chill down the spine of the tribal population, he said. A majority of the residents are opposed to terrorism and are ready to cooperate with the government in ending insurgency, but believe that a military operation will not solve the problem.
South and North Waziristan are two of the seven tribal units or “agencies” that constitute Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), the region that lies between Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest. The FATA is spread over 47,000 sq kms with a population of five million.
It has been plagued by militancy since 2001 when U.S. and allied offensives toppled the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are said to have crossed over the 24-km porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to take refuge in the FATA.
Manzoor Shah, project officer of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IPS the new operations in North Waziristan would be no different from the early operations in the FATA, when civilians were driven away but the militants stayed. “Some 80,000 people from South Waziristan still live in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. There is no hope of their repatriation,” he said.
Some of those refugees were displaced in 2009 when the army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) to flush out militants. South Waziristan residents also suffered from the army’s earlier Operation Zalzala (Earthquake) in January 2008.
“The operation in Bajaur Agency in August 2009 also failed, as the Taliban still operate there, while about 100,000 people have been displaced,” retired army major Humayun Khan told IPS.
Khan said that for the past two years, the Pakistan army has been busy with operations in Kurrum, Khyber, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur and South Waziristan Agencies, but has been unable to rid these places of militants. “At the receiving end is the poor population, who are living in camps, braving hunger, diseases and the scorching sun,” he lamented.
The U.S. has long been demanding a full-scale operation in North Waziristan Agency, but Pakistan had yet to accede to the demand.
“Lately, the assassination of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad had left Pakistan in an awkward position and the government now seems to toe the U.S. line,” Khan said.
“It’s a very important fight and a very important operation,” said Mullen on television May 31, on the need for the Pakistani army to attack North Waziristan.
“We are not taking dictation from anyone. We’ll see whether such an operation is required,” said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on his monthly television programme “Prime Minister Online” last week.
On May 31, a tribal jirga or grand council in North Waziristan appealed to the government to desist from army action, saying that peace had returned to the area and that a military operation would make the situation tense.
“We are strictly opposed to military action in the FATA because these operations have not done any good to the people. Education, health and social services have been destroyed due to the military presence in the FATA,” said Gul Wali Khan, a shopkeeper from Mohmand Agency.
Khan, who has been living in Jalozai camp in the Nowshera district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the past 18 months, says the operation in North Waziristan will hit the people hard while militants will remain unharmed.
Jalozai camp is home to 95,000 people from the different FATA agencies who are facing acute shortages of food, water and medicine. The North Waziristan operation will be the last nail in the coffin of the tribal population, shopkeeper Khan said.
But the Awami National Party, which rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, argues that a military offensive is the only option to establish peace in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
“The militants run training schools for bomb-making and prepare the youth for suicide attacks in North Waziristan. They are then sent to any part of the country for sabotage activities,” says Bushra Gohar, a lawmaker of the Awami National Party. Gohar describes North Waziristan as the international headquarters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
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