Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bleeding Borderlands of Pakistan

Every morning, as I rush through the morning news papers, I secretly hope in my mind that at least today, there would be no news item about a bomb attack or a suicide bomber blowing himself anywhere in South Asia. Unfortunately such days are very rare and reading about the agony and the misery of the victims of such bomb attacks has almost become a routine affair. Most people simply avoid reading such news, perhaps to isolate themselves from such horrific news coming to them every day of the week. Almost 80 to 90% of such bombings are being reported from the western border areas of Pakistan, adjoining Afghanistan. Just to emphasize, what I am saying, here is a list of such incidences that happened in these Pakistani border lands during last week ( 6th to 10th of December 2010).
On Monday, two bombers killed more than 40 people as they attacked anti-Taliban militia talks in Mohmand, in the north-western tribal belt on the border. On Tuesday, a suicide attacker failed in an attempt to assassinate the chief minister of Pakistan’s south-western province of Baluchistan. On Wednesday, a bomber blew himself up near a minibus in the town of Kohat, not far from Hangu, killing at least 16 people. Another 16 people were injured by the blast at the Shia Muslim-run facility in Hangu district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The explosion follows the start of the Islamic holy month of Muharram, which is especially important for Shia Muslims. Actually, I must admit frankly that the names of these places do not mean anything to me as I have never heard about them before. What hurts me is the loss of innocent lives happening there almost everyday.
This border appears to be the most disturbed international border today. The real irony here is that there are no invasions or border incursions by any foreign soldiers here. All the violence is being generated locally in a civil war like situation. A search on the internet leads me to even more disturbing facts. Besides bombings, which I mentioned above, people are being killed here in cross fires between Pakistan army and various terrorist groups. People are being killed here by bomb attacks carried out by small pilot-less planes called “Drones”. Just yesterday, (10th December 2010) a US drone plane killed four people in the neighbouring tribal belt in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The situation is just horrific.
What are these border lands? Why is a civil war going on there, when there is no foreign invasion? Why there are bombings by the Drones? Many questions come to my mind. The answer obviously is not simple. It involves the history and geography of the region and also the political instability and anarchical conditions in this region as well as in neighbouring Afghanistan.

This international border was demarcated as a result of an agreement in 1893 between Sir Mortimer Durand , a representative of the Government of British India and Amir Abdur Rehman (1880-1901) of Afghanistan and is popularly known as Durand Line. This line is actually 2540 KM long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan(then part of British India). Even though Government of India and Amir of Afghanistan agreed to demarcation of the border, in the true sense, it was never an international border except for the south-west portion, separating Baluchistan region from Afghanistan. In the north-west part, actual border was never approachable from the Indian side (Prior to 1947), for the Indians, as it was completely under control of Pashtun tribes, who administered the region as per their traditional systems. The New Delhi administration paid substantial sums to these tribesmen to keep the trade route such as Khyber pass open for the trade. Only such routes were guarded by the then Indian Army. Except for these, British Indian administration, never interfered with the tribesmen all along the entire north-west part of the border.
Pakistan inherited this border from the British in 1947 without ever realizing the extremely dangerous and delicate nature of the power balance in these lands all along the north-west. Successive military rulers of Pakistan continued the old British system of Non interference in these Pashtun lands and managed to maintain peace in the region. In fact, Pakistani rulers managed to use these tribesmen as a facade against India on two occasions. In 1947, under the name of these tribesmen, Pakistani army soldiers were deployed in Kashmir valley invasion. The trick was repeated in 1999 when Pakistani Northern Light Infantry soldiers were deployed as tribesmen to invade Indian territory near Kargil in Kashmir.
This north-west portion of the border is today administered by the Pakistan government in a very unique fashion. It consists of two political entities with lower region being called “ Federally administered Tribal Area or FATA”. It is a collection of seven semi autonomous agencies and six frontier regions. Central Pakistan government exercises little control over FATA. This region is administered through appointed government officials and with draconian colonial time regulations and laws known as FCR. The government official is known as agent and has wide powers. Aptly, he is known as “Malik”. The FATA inhabitants do not enjoy full citizen rights and the entire area is underdeveloped and even basic facilities lack. The upper north-west region is known as Khyber Pakhtun Khwa Region or KPK ( earlier known as NWFA). This is one of the four official provinces of Pakistan. This region, even though the level of development is low, could be considered as an integral part of Pakistan with elections being held and civil administration in place. Both these regions have Pashtuns in majority.

Even though, the Durand line has been the de-facto international border between Pakistan (British India) and Afghanistan since 1893, the successive Afghanistan rulers including Taliban rulers even, never accepted or agreed to it as international boundary. In fact in 1946, when British announced their decision to quit India, Afghanistan was quick to claim territory east of Durand line as part of Afghanistan. In 1949 Afghan Parliament canceled all previous treaties made with the British and made claims for large areas east of Durand line as part of Afghanistan. However, on the ground, peace was maintained along the Durand line, except for some minor skirmishes.
Pashtunistan or the land of Pashtuns, has long been a contentious flash point between the two countries, and brought them to the brink of war on three occasions. Diplomatic relations were severed in 1955 and 1962, as Kabul advocated a Greater Pashtunistan, supported by left wing groups in Pakistan.
Things changed dramatically with Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. American aid poured in Pakistan. Mujahidin freedom fighters were created by Pakistan with help of Islamic fundamentalists and American money. Mujahidin were successful in driving Russians out of Afghanistan leading to a condition of total anarchy. A new brand of religious fundamentalists called Taliban rose in Pakistan North-West and soon succeeded in establishing their rule in Afghanistan. The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were very friendly towards Pakistan and all claims about Pashtunistan, just vapourized during Taliban days. With friendly Taliban firmly in power in Kabul, military rulers of Pakistan started thinking of Afghanistan as some kind of satellite state of Pakistan and talked even of Afghanistan providing strategic depth to their country. Unfortunately, the military rulers of Pakistan never even seriously realized the dangerous scenario that was evolving on their border lands in the west, with rise of Al-Qaida under leadership of Osama -bin Laden, as they concentrated on their India centric policies and reveries..
On Eleventh of September 1901, Al-Qaida struck. Destruction of world trade center in New York brought about major change in the perception and thinking of United states, leading to a war in Afghanistan. Within next few months Taliban fled Kabul and eventually all major Afghan towns.
The border lands of Pakistan was a natural heaven for them, which already was a strong hold of religious fundamentalism. The uncivilized and primaeval conditions of the region was a boon for them to hide and renew their clandestine activities.
Since 2002, with the dramatically changed political situation, the Pashtunistan issues came up again to the forefront with the celebration of Pashtunistan Day in Afghanistan and wide circulation of maps showing Pashtunistan boundaries up to the Indus River and well inside Pakistan. This made the border lands of Pakistan a cauldron of religious fundamentalism, Pashtun chauvinism and anti Americanism. As Afghanistan unifies and becomes stronger, pressure to realign borders with Pakistan are bound to increase. Pakistan government would need to deal with the situation firmly.
From 2001 onwards, militant groups started organizing and expanding in the region leading to their territorial control in the region. Militants regularly intimated and made government officials and tribal leaders targets of assassinations. Civilian property were targeted and open warfare began with the Pakistan Government. By 2007 militants started controlling almost all of FATA and some areas of KPK including Swat. They imposed a harsh version of Islamic law on the region.
The Pakistan Army eventually launched major counter offensives to regain control first on Bajaur Agency and then Swat. For last three years, militants have fought back with increased acts of terrorism across entire Pakistan, bringing unimaginable misery to thousands of ordinary and innocent people. Meanwhile, Pakistan Government signed a peace agreement with a militant group Tehrik-e-Nafaj-e-Shariya-e-Mohammed effectively ceding control over large area, which actually was outside the tribal border regions. This agreement broke down in 2009 with militants advancing within 100 KM of Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Large scale military operations saved the situation. However 3 million civilians were displaced. Military operation continue in many other regions of FATA bringing about displacement and misery to the tribals.
As Pakistani border lands were increasingly being used by Taliban and Al-Qaida, American and Nato forces in Afghanistan started using Drones to bomb the militant hideouts in the region. This has further increased the misery of the people. As per published Pakistan Government figures,10000 civilians have lost their life in 2009 alone as a result of military or terrorist attacks. Pakistani media claim that American Drone bombings have killed more that 900 civilians in 2009 alone. Besides this, scores of people have lost their limbs or have been injured. From Pakistani estimates more than 25000 thousand persons have lost their life in the period 2003-2009 due to terrorist activities. In last three years, 2600 persons have died due to just suicide attacks. Taliban have started improving their influence in Baluchistan region with Pakistani government slowly loosing control over FATA and KPK.
The Indus river flows parallel to these borderlands on the east. Last year entire Indus river basin was devastated with unprecedented floods. Militant groups appear to have taken tremendous advantage of the situation by giving timely help to the needy, whereas Pakistan government failed to provide help in time. This has created sympathy for the terrorist organizations in the minds of flood victims.
The situation appears to be extremely grave and dangerous. It is obvious that Pakistani Government needs to launch a major drive to safeguard its western border.
What are the implications for India? Stability of democratic Pakistan is extremely crucial for India. If Taliban achieves any major successes in Pakistan, Indian states on the border with Pakistan could increasingly come under refugee pressures from across the border. Strife and instability in the neighbouring country would be a matter of greatest concern for the people and the Government of India. Unfortunately options for India are very limited. No direct or indirect involvement is possible given the psyche of the people. Even today, you can read Pakistani blogs and news reports putting the blame on India for the troubles on Durand line.
A very depressing scenario is slowly emerging. Americans and NATO forces would probably succeed in preventing Taliban takeover of Afghanistan at least in near future. However, about Pakistan one can not be sure at all unless Pakistan Government launches a major offensive in the west.
12 December 2010

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