Sudden rise in tension in North Waziristan Agency has serious implications for peace process initiated by federal government. On Wednesday December 18, 2013 a suicide bomber hit an explosive laden truck with an Army check post and destroyed the check post and adjacent Masjid killing 5 soldiers and injuring many. Militants also attacked soldiers who were busy in rescue operation after the attack. The security forces retaliated by pounding suspected militant hideouts with artillery, mortars and gunship helicopters. The response was indiscriminate and disproportionate which resulted huge collateral damage to civilian property and losses of many civilian deaths. According to Daily Mashriq, an Urdu newspaper published from Peshawar, shells fired from helicopters and artillery hit Mir Ali main market and destroyed many shops. A private hospital was also raised to the ground. Moski tribe became the most affected one with losses of 14 lives including ten women and a child. Seven members of a schoolteacher Sanaullah’s family were killed in a village. The paper claimed due to continues curfew people were not allowed to shift the injured to hospitals which caused rise in the death toll. It was reported in Pakistan’s mainstream media that foreign militants from Uzbek origin were killed in the ongoing operation however, Daily Mashriq claims that 48 were Pakistanis including 22 from Laki Marwat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and rest of them from different local tribes. The paper also acknowledged that many foreigners are also reported to be killed in Mir Ali Market.
Pakistan’s defense minister Khawaja Asif has said that the security forces came under attack and they have right to retaliate. Security forces have claimed that at least 33 militants have been killed in three days long operation.
It seems that civilian population of Mir Ali and adjacent areas has become hostage between militants and security forces. In North Waziristan writ of civilian government is just on papers. Day to-day life is governed by Shoora Muraqba lead by Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahader who has a ‘peace’ deal with Pakistani military that the militants will not attack security forces in area under his influence. However, when Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was kicked out of South Waziristan in a military operation in 2009, its leadership took refuge in North Waziristan. TTP gradually expanded its influence in the area and caused consistent challenge for Hafiz Gul Bahader to keep his control of the area. At a number of occasions, Gul Bahader issued warnings to TTP militants not to attack security forces but his warnings were usually met with more violence in the area. During last one and half-year TTP’s influence in North Waziristan with the help of Al-Qaeda considerably increased. Now it is no more an area of ‘Good Taliban’ only.
According to intelligence inputs, roots of most of the attacks in mainland Pakistan are traced back to North Waziristan. A military operation in North Waziristan was on the cards however, civilian government has decided to deal with the issue with peace talks. The Conflict Monitoring Center has observed a visible pause in security forces actions after the All Parties Conference (APC) in September this year which had decided to pursue peace talks instead of military operation to deal with TTP. Nevertheless, the militants killed Maj. General Sanaullah in Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and showed their intentions and response to the peace initiative. A blast in a Church and Qissa Khawani market of Peshawar made the possibility of success of peace talks further bleak. Pakistani government and military came under huge pressure from different quarters to shun the idea of talks and go for a military operation against the militants in North Waziristan where TTP’s leadership was hiding.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was seemed committed to the peace initiative and Pakistani military supported him and showed unprecedented restraint against the urge for a tit for tat response to the killing of its senior officer.
In the meanwhile, Pakistani government established contacts with TTP leadership through mediators, including but not limited to Haqqani Network. These efforts resulted in decrease in violence in FATA. Then came the sudden drone strike against Hakeemullah Meshud and his killing changed the complexion of the peace initiative. Some days later, a key commander of Haqqani Network Dr. Naseer Haqqani, supposedly playing a role in mediation between government and TTP, was killed mysteriously in Islamabad. This was another blow to the peace talks. In addition, TTP’s shoora opted to appoint Molvi Fazlullah as Amir. This meant TTP’s leadership automatically shifted out of North Waziristan. The shift in leadership and its base resulted in some tension within the militant group. Molvi Fazlullah needed to show his ability to strike big blows to Pakistani targets but he was unable to launch any spectacular attack due to a number of reasons. Al-Qaeda camp to help him out of the situation, and planned, and executed a successful suicide attack on a military outpost near Mir Ali on Wednesday.
Al-Qaeda knows well that any success in peace talks with government will directly affect its safe heavens in the area. It has done well by carrying out the suicide attack and then another attack on soldiers who took part in rescue operation after Khajori post suicide bombing. Disproportionate and indiscriminate response from military not only triggered civilian protest in adjacent districts of KP province but has also provoked local militants to step up fighting against the military targets. It can be said that Al-Qaeda has drawn the military into its trap. Huge collateral damage and mounting civilian casualty will backfire and public support for a possible full-scale military operation in case of failure of peace talks will diminish. Further escalation in violence in North Waziristan may also result in misunderstanding between civilian government and Army. The government is religiously pursuing peace talks with the militants while such kind of hostile situation in North Waziristan may put a question mark on military’s commitment to the peace initiative. In either case the ultimate beneficiary will be Al-Qaeda which cannot survive in the area without a hostile atmosphere against Pakistan and its military.