Army Excesses in Pakistan’s Tribal Zone Could Wreck US War on Terror

The killing of 13 civilians in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan by Army personnel hunting the Taliban, has fuelled fears of a revolt in the fiercely independent region that could easily derail the war on terror.

There were conflicting accounts about the incident that occurred near Wana town in South Waziristan over the weekend. While the army claims it exchanged fire with militants in two vehicles, witnesses say the army hit the vehicles with rockets after they failed to stop at a checkpoint.

“Early Saturday, outside Wana, two or three vehicles came towards the Frontier Corps (FC) checkpoint and fired at it,” says army spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan. “The FC retaliated and the chances of some civilians having been killed cannot be ruled out.”

Not quite, says Malik Haji Behram Khan, a local tribesman. “The army opened fire on civilians without provocation,” he claims, and denies the presence of Taliban or Al Qaeda operatives in the area.

The chief of the right-wing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, slams the ongoing military operation in South Waziristan. “The military campaign is sheer state terrorism. We cannot support bombing of citizens by Pakistan forces in the name of operations against Al Qaeda,” he says.

A member of Pakistan’s federal Parliament from South Waziristan, Maulana Abdul Malik, says the killings will create resentment against the army. “They call it a mistake. I call it oppression,” he maintains. “All tribesmen will join hands against such oppressive acts.”

Though the government has ordered an inquiry into the incident and awarded compensation to the families of the victims, some tribal leaders fear outbreak of civil war in the area if the situation remains tense.

In the lawless zone, things can easily get out of hand. The tribesmen are fuming after the government added insult to injury and slapped the Collective Responsibility Act to punish them.

The political administration of South Waziristan Agency on Monday fined the tribesmen US $94,290 for alleged attacks and ambushes on army and paramilitary forces in the area, giving them a week to pay up or face punitive action.

FATA has a separate legal system, the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which recognizes the doctrine of collective responsibility, says human rights activist Rehman Rasheed.

“The Collective Responsibility Act is another black law which empowers authorities to detain fellow members of a fugitive’s tribe, or to blockade a fugitive’s village, pending his surrender or punishment by his own tribe in accordance with local tradition,” says Rasheed.

At least one tribe has declared an intent to revolt. Malik Behram Khan, the head of the Ahmedzai tribe, says his people will not pay the fine. “The government action may worsen the already volatile situation in the area,” he says.

Though deputy administrator Rehmatullah Wazir downplays fears of a revolt, the acting president of the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Qazi Hussain Ahmed, says an endless war would begin if the easily provoked tribesmen take up arms against the army.

The MMA has convened a meeting on March 5 to finalize its strategy for launching a protest campaign against the Wana operation and the detention of Pakistan’s nuclear scientists, allegedly at the behest of America.

Ahmed alleges what many Pakistanis suspect – that a US-backed international conspiracy is fanning the flames of anarchy in Pakistan. He says the US also wants the people of Pakistan take up arms against the Pakistan Army.

The killings have also led to some dangerous flirtations with tribal customs. The authorities in South Waziristan – where arms are treasured possessions and are shown off brazenly – have banned the display and carrying of all kinds of weapons in Wana and its suburbs.

Significantly, this is the first ever such ban in its history.

Political Agent Muhammad Azam Khan has warned tribesmen against carrying arms, saying violators would face severe punishment.

MMA deputy secretary-general Liaquat Baloch warns that pandering to US President George W. Bush will prove disastrous for Pakistan. Baloch, who is also deputy chief of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, says the operation in Wana in the name of war against terrorism is an election stunt undertaken by Musharraf to please Bush.

“President Pervez Musharraf has been serving his friendship to the US President in the latter’s election campaign that will harm the interests of Pakistan,” he thunders.

Other sections of society have also expressed their outrage over the army operation in FATA.

While supporting the campaign to curb terrorism, the spokesperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Asma Jahangir, deplored the arbitrary killing of civilians under a “clandestine operation.”

She fears the war against terrorism is being hijacked by dictators, who are under imperialistic pressures regardless of gross violations of human rights. She says the HRCP would mobilize its activists and send a fact-finding mission to FATA.

(One World)