Operation Zarb-e-Azb, or Sharp and Cutting Strike, is meant to clear Taliban, al-Qaeda, and foreign militants out of North Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Militant groups have been based there for more than a decade, launching attacks inside Pakistan and across the border against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The military says the operation it launched in June last year is in its final phase after killing more than 2,700 militants. Residents have been promised they can begin returning to their homes – but only if they first sign the North Waziristan Security Agreement.
The eight-page document requires them to “not be part of any activity which is against the peace and security of Pakistan,” and to “stop the enemies of Pakistan, its constitution and its institutions.”
Tribal elders say the agreement puts them in an impossible bind: they must fight Pakistan’s enemies but are denied the right to keep weapons to use against militant groups. At the same time, it holds them responsible for any attacks on the army from their territory.
“Everyone from Waziristan – Wazir and Dawar (tribes) – we made a unanimous decision not to sign this paper we were given,” Malik Atta Muhammad, a Wazir elder, told IRIN.
Gul Saleh Jan, a Dawar elder, pointed to the army’s heavy presence in North Waziristan and said soldiers should be responsible for maintaining security, not the civilian population.
“How can we take responsibility for guarding the guard?” he asked.
Zaheeruddin Babar, the assistant political agent for North Waziristan, said the security agreement was built on a British colonial era law that governs FATA and has remained largely unchanged since Pakistan’s independence in 1947.
After decades of being unable to subdue tribesmen, the British enacted a 1901 law called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The FCR gave tribes freedom to govern themselves, but imposed collective retribution for crimes committed by individual members. Penalties included the burning of villages, exile of tribesmen and economic blockade.
“In the tribal territory the tribesmen owning that land are responsible for the local security,” said Babar.
“We just wanted them to own their lands and reminded them that now – after a successful operation when the area has been denotified as a conflict zone and now there is complete peace – it is their responsibility according to the law of the land to keep peace.”
Punishments for failing to uphold the North Waziristan Security Agreement are similar to those imposed during the colonial-era. Residents may be barred from government jobs and have passports and other official documents revoked. Their homes and businesses may also be seized or destroyed.
Harsh as those punishments are, retribution from the militants could be worse, as residents discovered when the Taliban controlled the area.
A decade ago, the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged in North Waziristan, fleeing military operations in other parts of FATA. Tens of thousands of government troops were based in North Waziristan but confined largely to barracks and checkpoints, while the military made alliances with some factions of the Taliban.
Tribesmen found themselves unable to confront the militants, and had no government authority to call on for help.
“If you said something, like asking why the Taliban were doing wrong things, then your head was cut off,” said Muhammad. “Eventually there was no one left to question them.”
Babar, the assistant political agent, denied that residents were refusing to go home because of the requirement that they sign the security agreement. But a senior official helping to oversee the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) said it was true.
“The IDPs are returning at a slow pace because the military is not opening areas until tribal elders sign the security agreement,” the official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
The numbers provided by the FATA Disaster Management Authority show just how off-putting the stipulation is: of the 103,508 families displaced, only 400 have returned home.