The growing influence of the Taliban and continued fighting in various parts of the Khyber Agency, and in particular the Bara district, was described by The Washington Post Thursday as the alleged result of a long-standing “double-game” in which the Pakistani military establishment sought to protect certain Taliban groups to ensure their influence and sway in a future Afghan government following the US withdrawal.
According to the report, at least 61,000 refugees currently occupied the UNHCR’s Jalozai camp, and as a result of continued instability in the Khyber Agency, more than 3,50,000 people from the Bara district — a long-time commercial hub — had been forced to flee to Peshawar, the closest relatively safe metropolis. In Bara, where fighting had levelled homes, shuttered hospitals and businesses and impoverished those who remained, the Pakistani Taliban’s influence was said to be growing, according to some residents. This was particularly worrisome because convoys carrying Nato supplies to Afghanistan travelled slowly through the surrounding areas, vulnerable to attack. Gunmen on Tuesday killed a truck driver in the first such attack since Pakistan ended its Nato-routes blockade three weeks ago; the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.
Hard-core militant ranks are believed to number about 500. Estimates of troop strength on the Pakistani side — mainly the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) commanded by Pakistani army officers — top 5,000, but neither figure has been independently confirmed.
“Not a single village has been cleared by security forces,” said Abdul Wahid Afridi, a leader in the secular Awami National Party (ANP). “The militancy could be collapsed. All the people are asking why can’t the army eliminate them? Why not, after three years?”
To Haseebullah Khan, 37, a refugee from Bara, the answer is simple. “They don’t want to do it,” he said. “This is beyond our thinking.”
Pakistani military officials did not respond to e-mailed questions. Foreign journalists are barred from the Khyber Agency and Pakistan’s seven other semiautonomous tribal areas, so it was not possible to corroborate the refugees’ statements.
“It cannot burn bridges,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a columnist and author of a book on the Pakistani military. “From Washington this looks like a double-game. From Islamabad’s perspective, this looks like a desire to build a constructive shield around itself when the US draws down and Pakistan will deal with the consequences.”
Ejaz Haider, another writer and analyst, said that military operations in Bara have been small-bore and less effective than the major offensives elsewhere.
He explained that the security situation was also complicated by a terrain that favoured militants who could shift quickly from one area to another. Haider, however, disputed the notion that the military — which has lost nearly 3,500 troops fighting against the Pakistani Taliban — would back its enemies.
“I don’t believe there is any official policy at any level that is supporting groups that are killing soldiers,” he said.
At Jalozai, the largest of the three UNHCR camps left in Pakistan, the Bara refugee influx hit an alarming high of 10,000 a day in mid-March. It has since ebbed, but Save the Children, Unicef, and the UN’s World Food Program have put out urgent appeals for donations.
military and government officials deny the persistent US argument that Pakistan tolerates and even promotes attacks by militants to ensure a proxy role in the Afghanistan endgame. “Let me assure you that Pakistan does not support any terrorists,” the country’s newly installed Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, told reporters during a visit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul last week. “It is not in our interest and we cannot afford it.”
Islamabad has pointed out that Pakistan has sacrificed considerable blood and treasure, including 25,000 civilian deaths. It cites the displacement of 3.5 million citizens as part of the cost of carrying out military operations as well.