Guns have fallen silent in Mirali — a bustling town 35km to the east of North Waziristan’s regional headquarters of Miramshah, but now with rows of burnt down and bombed shops and houses.
The sudden flare-up and military’s fierce response to a suicide bombing at one of its main camps in Khajori on Dec 18 have shown that the situation in North Waziristan remains volatile, dangerously close to a full-blown conflict.
That the peace process would be illusive was known to all but what many people fail to understand is just how complex it would be, given the large number of militant groups with different agendas and goals.
A ceasefire has now been in effect. But the question is for how long. The military is edgy. For far too long, they say, they sat out there, taking casualties.
Since September, they say, a total of 67 improvised explosives devices were planted to harm them; 40 were neutralized, 27 exploded, resulting in deaths and injuries to about a hundred of their men.
Since 2009, compared with other tribal regions, the casualty rate the military has suffered is the highest in North Waziristan and eleven times the casualties they have taken in South Waziristan. Patience has worn out.
“The question is for how long,” asked one military officer. “It’s better to go out and die fighting them than take casualties sitting inside our camps.”
In Mirali the fighting has stopped but the situation remains fluid. The military, despite its furious response, says it is committed to the political leadership’s plan to initiate peace dialogue with militants in Waziristan.
Commitment notwithstanding, no-one in the know is willing to put his bottom dollar on the success of the yet-to-start peace process. Such is the complexity of the situation. There are so many groups and with so varied objectives that no matter whom the government speaks to sue peace, any of the groups not happy with the process can light a match to burn down the entire process. Consider what happened on December 18. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) posted an English translation of its statement on the Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum on Tuesday (Dec 24), saying that the military responded with air and ground attack after a group of “frustrated fighters” had bombed a military convoy.
In the event, it said, fighters from the IMU, the TTP and Ansarul Mujahideen hit back to ‘defend civilians’.
Two IMU fighters were killed and 22 foreign “refugees” wounded. It put the civilian casualty figures at 70. The military, the IMU said, had suffered more than 300 casualties.
The military rubbishes the claim and insists that not a single soldier was killed or injured in the follow-up action which, it says, left more than 30 foreign militants dead, most of them Uzbeks.
This is what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his pointman for the peace process in North Waziristan, Chaudhry Nisar, will have to grapple with: a plethora of militant groups ever keen to attack security forces and an increasingly edgy military. And they may not have much time at hand.
No-one seems to be in control in North Waziristan. Together with the military and the paramilitary, the political administration is confined to the fort in Miranshah. With curfew clamped, the military moves only on what is called the Road Opening Days, suffering roadside bombings and ambushes.
As for the militant groups, they are many. Government officials put the total number of local militant groups operating in North Waziristan, including the Haqqani network, at 43. Dattakhel-based Hafiz Gul Bahadar has the highest number of groups affiliated with him — 15, followed by 10 independent groups. There are six TTP-affiliated groups. The Punjabi Taliban have four groups.
In addition, there are 12 foreign militant groups, including Al Qaeda.
With a combined strength of roughly 11,000 fighting men, the Pakistani and foreign militant groups represent a formidable challenge, officials acknowledge.
Given the enormity and complexity of the problem, the lack of trust between the militants and the state and prevalent skepticism within the civil-military establishment regarding success and sustainability of the proposed peace process, the path to peace, if and when taken, would not be easy.
This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English daily.