The Road to Bannu

Sep 2014

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HASHIM_1  Issue 7

Bannu city police station | Photo credit: Asad Hashim

Zarb-e-Azb is the seventh major military operation that Pakistan has carried out against armed groups operating on its soil—all, other than two in Swat, were targeting fighters in the Tribal Areas. So far, air strikes and a preliminary ground operation have killed more than 570 people, according to the military’s figures. At least 36 Pakistanis soldiers have also been killed, the military says. Tanqeed cannot independently verify these figures, as access to the area is restricted. Notably, the military has only so far named one “terrorist” – a “Commander Umer” in Miranshah – of those killed during the operation.

As with previous military assaults, the first effect of the military taking action has been the creation of massive numbers of refugees or what humanitarian organizations call, “internally displaced people” or IDPs — more than 573,000, according to the Federal Disaster Management Authority (FDMA). Following days of travel (often by foot), making their way through bombs, curfews and closed routes, the majority of those have found their way to Bannu.

Accompanying the influx, the city has seen government officials, military, aid workers and journalists descend upon it. It is, once again, the result of events in its more volatile neighbor, North Waziristan, rather than Bannu’s own needs. It is a long-running cycle, and it is here, in Bannu, more than anywhere else, that one can see the truth of the old, clichéd adage: the more things change, the more they remain the same. Indeed, conversations with military, police and civil administration officials create a somewhat disquieting impression that the empire never left these parts of Pakistan – both in terms of how the areas are administered, but also in how the state conceives of its people.

The most evident example of this is the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), British-era laws that the Pakistani state has maintained with few revisions. These laws subject tribes to collective punishment under the FCR’s Collective Responsibility clause. The state continues to administer the district not through representative democracy (as in the rest of the country), but through an all-powerful political agent. These laws effectively set-up the Tribal Areas as a place where overwhelming forms of violence is possible such as indiscriminate bombing when the state feels it ought to re-establish its tenuous writ. Moreover, the state has co-opted those armed commanders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who have been amenable to restricting their activities to not targeting the army.


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With such laws in place, the tactics employed by Pakistan now are markedly similar to British colonial forces in the 19th and early 20th centuries, except that now Pakistan has traded in the British Westland Wapiti’s, Hawker Hart’s and Hawker Audax’s airplanes for high-tech F-16 and JF-17 jet fighters, and Cobra gunship helicopters. But, much of the ideological basis for the bombing remains. In 1924, the British Royal Air Chief, Hugh Trenchard, explained that basis in a secret directive on bombing the Tribal Areas. “The problem of controlling the tribal territory […],” wrote Trenchard, “has always needed special treatment by reason of the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

The “special treatment” Trenchard spoke of essentially meant swift and massive violence, as he made clear: “Hesitation or delay in dealing with uncivilized enemies are invariably interpreted as signs of weakness.” That these ideas are still in play is evident in the immediacy and disproportionate level of violence meted out Waziristan in response to militant attacks. The air raids carried out by the military as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and in the precedings months (notably in December 2013 and January and May 2014), have been remarkably similar. Both occurred in response to major attacks against civilian or army targets elsewhere in Pakistan, and in both cases, the military merely gave prior warning to residents by distributing leaflets demanding that anti-state fighters be handed over or that the villages face the consequences. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, for example, was launched days after the TTP claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on Karachi’s international airport, which killed 30 people.

It is Bannu that has been dealing with the effects of these colonial practices. The town is central to how the state interacts with and exercises power upon North Waziristan. It is also a sort of halfway house – both for residents of North Waziristan, but also conceptually for the Pakistani state which regards it as almost tribal even if it is not technically under the jurisdiction of the FCR.

For this part of Pakistan, then, the Raj isn’t over.

*                                      *                                      *

Israr Gul, 40, cuts a resigned figure, as we speak in a small shop in Bannu’s main bazaar. He came to Bannu in January, from his home in Miranshah, with his family of 20, fleeing aerial bombardment by the Pakistani military. “[We left] when the bombs started exploding. All night there was firing between different checkposts, and the army and Taliban were fighting. So everyone was talking about how we had to get out of there. We did not want to get stuck there [in between the firing]. The children were crying. The schools had shut […] so we thought that we just had to get out.”

Not that the Taliban, he says, treated him any differently. “Even the Talibs consider us to be enemies,” he says.

Anyone who has not raised his weapons is considered an enemy. And the government also considers us to be enemies, that we are from Waziristan, so we are their enemies. The attitude of the government and the Taliban is the same with us. To both of them, we are […] considered to be enemies.
[The Taliban] say that I do not carry a gun, that I am not a mujahid, that I am not a Muslim,” he adds, angrily. “That ‘why are you not doing jihad?’ The Taliban hate those who even so much as smile.

While narrating the dangers of living in his hometown these days, Gul tells me about a harrowing incident. Following an IED explosion near Miranshah, the army set up a checkpoint, which gathered a crowd of people blocked there, as a result. Soon after, an army convoy sped by, and soldiers opened fire, sending bullets whizzing past villagers’ heads. All the while, he says, the soldiers were yelling and cursing: “Are we not Muslims, bhenchod!”

Gul appears still visibly shaken by the event, and remembering it seems to stir anger, but also confusion.

I don’t know how long this cruelty on the part of the Taliban and this cruelty on the part of the army will continue to happen. We do not know whether we will remain in this darkness for the next 10 years, or how long. I swear to god, when we leave the house in the morning, we cannot even imagine whether we will return again at night. We cannot even imagine it. We have not done anything.

This tone of sadness and bewilderment also inflects the speech of Salim Zahid, an ophthalmology technician from Aspalghai, a village near Miranshah, who fled to Bannu with 19 family members in January. Eleven of them have gone back to secure their belongings and land. Eight of them remain, most of them young children, as they try to decide whether it is safe enough to return home. “Whenever you leave your home, you feel like your janaza [funeral procession] is happening,” he says, of leaving Aspalghai. “Because in your home, whatever possessions you leave, or the animals you leave, even they look at you with this look, like they are saying goodbye to you, because they stay there, and you come here. Our problem is…the possessions that we have left they are everything that we own in our lives.”

Zahid, who is a poet of local repute, also speaks of how he feels trapped between the Taliban and the Pakistani army. “This worry is there all the time, and there is uncertainty all the time. Every person is afraid,” he says. “When we go to the markets, there are traffic problems everywhere, because there are checkposts. And, along the way, there have been so many incidents where you have been fired upon, and you do not know who has fired upon you. We don’t know who the enemy is, and what crime you might have committed.” Read on >>

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11 Responses to The Road to Bannu

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