Described by many as the “most dangerous place on earth,” the North Waziristan tribal agency was once a hub for Al Qaeda-linked militants from Pakistan and abroad. That all changed in 2014. Under then-Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, the armed forces launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to cleanse the territory of the extremism that had taken root following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The following five years have seen an additional 13 military operations—large and small—to restore calm to the restive region. With the fighting now largely done, the military is undertaking a new project: making sure they stay out.
Last week, the Pakistan Army arranged a rare visit of North Waziristan for local journalists to highlight how its efforts had paid off. “We have cleared the area of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants,” claims Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces. “People are happy—95% of the internally displaced have returned to their home,” he added. A major reason for this peace, he tells Newsweek, was the military’s construction of a 2,600km fence along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. On track to be completed by the end of this year or early 2020, the Rs. 70 billion project has been instrumental in preventing physical attacks on Pakistani soldiers, he said, adding that the TTP maintains sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they continue to stage gunfire attacks on Pakistani forces.
A key reason for the border fence is Pakistan’s desire to shift deployment of over 200,000 soldiers from its west to the eastern borders with India, says Lt. Gen. Shaheen Mazhar, the Peshawar Corps Commander. “Fortunately we are a nuclear country. Otherwise, one can expect anything from Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister,” he told journalists, adding that securing peace for North Waziristan had come at a heavy cost: over 4,500 soldiers ‘martyred’ and over 16,000 others injured.
Mazhar said collateral damage was an unfortunate reality of internal war, but added that the state is trying to address all the persistent challenges and grievances. “The Army has no plan to stay longer in this zone. We want to hand the region back to the civilian administration as soon as possible because we don’t want a repeat of the situation that occurred following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s,” he told the gathered journalists.
The military’s desire to exit North Waziristan is echoed by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, a nationwide campaign that has called for the clearance of mines, an end to security checkpoints, and an impartial probe into missing persons cases and extrajudicial killings. “Some of their demands are genuine,” admits Mazhar. “These people have lived in a warzone… war didn’t just start here after 9/11. The entire region has been in turmoil since the 70s,” he said. “However,” he continued, “it is unfortunate that some foreign hands are instigating the situation because they do not want the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] to be merged into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Through the PTM they are chanting slogans of ‘Greater Pashtunistan’ and ‘Lar aw Bar Pukhtana’ (Pashtuns are one on both sides of the border).”
Mazhar alleged that “foreign forces” were pulling the PTM’s strings, adding: “PTM and TTP are two sides of the same coin. One is spreading violence through religious extremism in Pashtuns and the other group instigates Pashtuns on the ethnic card.”
PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, however, insists the movement has no desire to instigate unrest in Pakistan. He says the group’s demands are genuine and do not violate Pakistan’s Constitution. “There could be some individuals who may have chanted about ‘freedom’ or ‘Greater Pashtunistan’ but the larger movement does not subscribe to this,” he told Newsweek.
But while the question over the future of North Waziristan lingers, there is no denying that Miranshah, the headquarters of the tribal agency, is far safer today than it has been in years. Markets are open and businesses are slowly returning. Infrastructure destroyed during the operations has been repaired and new roads have been built. In addition to roads and markets, the military has constructed clinics and sports grounds for the locals. Lack of education, however, remains a major issue with only 1.5 percent literacy rate among women; reflecting the region’s largely patriarchal customs.
Farhad Khan is a resident of South Waziristan and operates a jewelry shop in Miranshah bazaar. “We thank the military for the restoration of peace in the area. We have seen a terrible time both in South and North Waziristan. We hope that the Taliban would never come back again,” he told Newsweek. Another shopkeeper, Khursheed Ullah, a 27-year-old from North Waziristan’s Hamzoni area, sells 10 suits a day and says business is slowly returning. Locals used to live in constant fear before the military operations, he says. Pointing to the clear blue sky: “Now you see, there are no more drones.”
Across the border in Afghanistan, war has entered its 18th year. The U.S. and Taliban held productive talks in Doha recently with U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad boasting of ‘significant’ progress during the six days talks for peace.
Pakistan is watching the process with keen interest. “We wish for the reconciliation process to succeed. If the Afghan Taliban reach an agreement with the U.S. and Kabul and share the power structure, then their focus would shift to eradicating forces such as TTP and Daesh,” says military spokesman Ghafoor. “We want peace to prevail in the region.”
Even though the residents of Miranshah bazaar are happy to see an end to conflict, many still await compensation for the losses they have incurred. “A lot has changed following the military operation,” says Nek Zali Khan, 76. Once a business hub for the whole country, many homes and businesses in Miranshah were reduced to rubble following the military operation. Rebuilding and repair efforts have made up for much of the destruction, but Khan notes the trauma still lingers. The end of terrorism, he says, is an uncontested positive. However, the loss of business and trade has had a significant economic impact.
“We used to deliver local stuff from here and import foreign items from Afghanistan,” says Khan. With the border fence, however, that free movement of goods has come to a halt. Like many locals, Khan also complains that the fence has made it difficult for him to visit relatives based in Afghanistan due to visa and passport requirements.
Gen. Ghafoor says this is a small sacrifice and there is no country in the world that allows travel across borders without either a passport or visa. The fence has been a vital part of boosting Pakistan’s security, he says. “We are not trying to divide the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he says, adding that villages straddling the border are being facilitated. To stop terrorists from taking advantage of free movement across the border, it was essential to build the fence, he adds. “The fence is basically against terrorists who want to destabilize both countries and not against general masses. The writ of the state has been established. Now, there are no ‘no-go areas’ [in North Waziristan].”