The Pakistan Army has become adept at manufacturing ‘victories’ against ‘terrorism’ in theatre after theatre, though each year has seen increasing terrorism-related fatalities in the country. In this bold history of triumph, on June 1, 2010, the Army had declared another victory over ‘terrorism’ in its Operation Khwakh Ba De Sham (I Will See You) in the Orakzai Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), adding that military operations in the area had been ‘completed’ and civilians could expect to return home soon. Describing a visit to Orakzai and the neighbouring Kurram tribal regions by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a short press release recorded: "Kayani’s visit to Orakzai Agency marks the successful conclusion of operations in the Agency. He appreciated the professional conduct of the operation which has cleared the Agency of terrorists." The statement also noted that civilians who fled Orakzai could expect to return home soon. More than 200,000 people are believed to have poured out of the area since the end of 2009, out of a total population of about 450,000 in the Agency.
Following the brutal Operation Rah-i-Nijat (Path to Salvation, June 19-December 12, 2009) in South Waziristan, a number of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants had escaped into Orakzai. This eventually led to a ground-cum-air offensive against pockets of militancy in parts of this Agency, commencing March 24, 2010, in what was originally planned as a two-week end-stage operation. The Army evidently miscalculated the militants’ strength, and the Operation has dragged on beyond four months, with higher-than-expected casualties. Official sources disclosed, on June 2, that the total number of people killed in Orakzai, just since May 1, in operations against the TTP was estimated at 719. No reliable index of fatalities has been available for any of the successive military campaigns in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly, North West Frontier Province), though displacement figures suggest largely indiscriminate air and artillery operations. During the Swat campaign, an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million civilians were forced out of the province in a campaign that eventually claimed to have killed just 1,800 ‘terrorists’.
However, rebuffing Army claims, various local and official sources claimed, on June 2, that more than half the Orakzai Agency was yet to be cleared of the TTP. According to reports citing local sources, "The military has cleared only Lower Orakzai, while the situation in upper and central Orakzai has not changed much, as the Army is yet to evict the TTP from these areas. The battle is far from over." In the adjacent Hangu district, residents and officials were reported as claiming that, "In Upper Orakzai, Security Forces (SFs) took control of Dabori, while Mamozai, Ghaljo and Shahoo areas are still in Taliban control." Local sources also alleged that Uzbek and other terrorists belonging to the "Lal Masjid group" and the TTP from Swat, Bajaur and Waziristan were putting up "stiff resistance" in Upper Orakzai.
Data on fatalities bears out these claims of a confrontation that is far from over. In the 70 days between the commencement of the Operation on March 24 and its "successful termination" on June 1, South Asia Terrorism Portal database recorded a total of 1,705 fatalities including 1,669 militants and 36 SF personnel. In 51 days, between June 2, and July 21, after the Operations had ‘ended’, 522 persons, including 505 militants and 17 SFs have been killed. There is no separate account of civilians killed. Apparently, everyone killed by the SFs is a ‘militant’. The ratio of fatalities between the ‘militants’ and the SFs also indicates that virtually the entire campaign has relied on long range artillery and air attacks, with ground engagements between troops and TTP cadre the exception.
Significantly, data on fatalities is principally based on statements released by Inter Services Public Relations, the Forces’ own mouthpiece, unambiguously confirming the fact that the Army is still struggling to keep hold of the area, as more and more militants emerge to carry the battle forward. Some of the major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) contradicting the Army’s June 1 declaration include:
July 21: SFs killed 40 militants and injured 30 others in a clash in Upper Orakzai Agency. Three SF personnel were also killed in the clash, while six SF personnel were injured.
July 19: Pakistan Air Force (PAF) planes and helicopter gunships pounded suspected militant hideouts in the Orakzai and Central Kurram Agency, killing 42 militants and injuring 27.
July 18: At least 25 militants were killed and 23 were injured when PAF fighter jets and helicopter gunships bombed various parts of Upper Orakzai Agency.
July 14: 24 TTP militants were killed and 34 were injured when PAF fighter jets pounded militant hideouts in Kasha, Srigaray, Khorhi, Mamoonzai and Shakartangi areas of Orakzai Agency.
July 13: At least 100 TTP militants were killed and one soldier was injured in a clash with SFs in Dabori area of Orakzai Agency in FATA.
July 11: At least 22 TTP militants were killed and 10 were injured when PAF fighter jets and helicopter gunships bombed various areas of Upper Orakzai Agency.
June 27: At least 66 TTP militants were killed and another 30 were injured in air strikes and clashes with the SFs in Orakzai Agency.
June 22: 43 TTP militants were killed in clashes with SFs in the Orakzai Agency.
June 21: Militants attacked a Frontier Corps vehicle with three rockets in the Andkhel area of the Agency, killing three Soldiers and injuring another five.
June 8: Six soldiers were killed and eight were injured when TTP militants stormed a checkpoint in Orakzai Agency. A retaliatory strike by the Army left 35 TTP militants dead and another 17 injured.
June 6: The SFs killed 44 TTP militants and injured another 11 in various areas of Upper Orakzai.
June 5: 25 TTP militants were killed and another 22 were injured when SFs, backed by helicopter gunships, pounded militants hideouts in Orakzai Agency.
June 2: At least 33 TTP militants were killed during clashes with SFs in different parts of Orakzai Agency.
Evidently, the militants still posses the wherewithal to take the SFs on.
Although the area of operation in Orakzai is smaller compared to the 2009 Operation Rah-e-Rast (Path to Truth) in Swat (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan (FATA), the fighting has been bloodier and more intense. 1,200 militants and 90 SFs were killed in Operation Rah-e-Rast; and 589 militants and 79 SFs were killed in Operation Rah-e-Nijat. The military has established a cordon around many of Orakzai’s entry and exit points and the militants, finding their escape cut off, are, in many cases, choosing to fight back with significant assaults on military positions. The military has been retaliating by bombarding purported TTP locations relentlessly, reportedly inflicting heavy casualties on the militants. The Army claims that many of the dead are foreign fighters, including Arabs and Uzbeks.
When Pakistan, on May 31, announced it had defeated militants in Dabori, one of their major extremist bases, some 60 kilometres from Orakzai's main town of Kalaya, it was a far cry from the reality of the volatile Orakzai region. Even at that time, Pakistani military analysts declared that the announcement was based on "miscalculations", as officers thought militants would flee the region after many of their bases were captured. There was a widespread assessment that the announcement itself was no more than an attempt to boost the morale of a public suffering from years of attacks, nearly constant military campaigns and few demonstrable results. Retired General Talat Masood, a military and security analyst, thus noted, "The announcement looks good to the Pakistani public. The public thinks it's an endless thing, especially in Orakzai. So they probably wanted to give the people some relief." Corroborating this assessment, Rahimullah Yusufzai, senior editor and Peshawar Bureau chief of The News observed, "The military operation is not yet over in Orakzai. I think they (the Army) made the announcement of victory in haste."
Meanwhile, despite the Army’s claims, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have not been willing to return to the Agency, fearing continued danger. A large number of IDPs remain sheltered at the Mohammad Khwaja Relief Camp in Orakzai in precarious conditions, without basic human amenities, while others have dispersed wherever they have been able to secure shelter. The devastation is greater for those who dare to return to their homes, as the whole tribal area presents the spectacle of a war zone, with houses blown up, villages decimated and infrastructure destroyed. Many returning IDPs could not determine where their villages had once stood, to say nothing of their homes. Not surprisingly, most have had to make return journeys to their camps and refuges.
Despite the Army’s boastful claims, the conflict in Orakzai is far from over. The militants may have been pushed out of their urban and peri-urban strongholds into the more remote valleys, but these ‘successes’ may prove fleeting. The rebels have, in the past, repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to regroup and regain lost ground, or simply to shift their fight elsewhere.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal