Only Visits won’t Do – Ayaz Wazir

The chief of army staff (COAS) made brief stopovers at Wana, Miramshan in south and north Waziristan soon after taking charge – a clear message to all that he attaches great importance to the two Waziristans. We have to wait and see till he settles down in his new position, but hats off to him for selecting that volatile region for his first visit after becoming the army chief.

The visit generated a lot of expectations among the locals, who are optimistic that the new man at the top will provide some relief from the difficulties they face on a daily basis since the armed forces were inducted in that area ten years ago. They hope that the visit will not be similar to that of his predecessor but will actually bring about some positive changes; changes that have been long awaited but never materialised. Unless the visit is followed by constructive action that has an impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, the optimism will be lost in the wilderness of Fata.

The difficulties faced by the people of the area – as articulated in many of my previous articles still persist and are as much evident on the ground today as they were years back. Those who are supposed to be familiar with and redress these problems don’t even bother to travel like commoners on those roads leave alone interacting with the locals to apprise themselves with the problems of the people there. They mostly travel by air in military helicopters but if they have to use the roads at all they do so in VIP fashion, escorted and all, with the roads cleared of all traffic for them.

They are totally oblivious to the problems and difficulties faced by the public. The concern of the functionaries on the ground is limited to putting on a good show for the chief when he desires a meeting with the locals. On such occasions they suddenly remember the people but invite only those stoolpigeons who speak their language and are masters of the art of praising them no end for monumental progress in development work that has not even been initiated.

The difficulties encountered by the people are not of strategic or tactical importance, which cannot be addressed or taken care of. It is simply a question of proper management for which a good administration would not require curfew to be imposed on roads or divert ordinary traffic to dirt tracks over ditches and unpaved roads. People are fed up with the daily checks and long queues for clearing short distances and above all from the humiliating behaviour of forces personnel at various check points which they have to endure on a daily basis.

Waziristan may have earned a bad name but it is certainly not that notorious that it cannot welcome political leaders and other senior members in the government if they really wanted to visit the area. It is certainly not as bad as Afghanistan from a security point of view. That country is frequently visited by leaders from the west to boost the morale of their troops.

Our capital is only a few kilometres away, more or less half an hour to any part of Fata but the leaders at the top are reluctant to visit that area. Not a single political leader of the previous or present governments has visited Fata since 2003 leave alone the president or prime minister undertaking a visit. The president, being the sole custodian of Fata and at the same time being the supreme commander of the armed forces, should have been the first to have visited the region because of the turmoil there but it seems that Fata is not considered a part of the country.

Whether any major change in policy is on the cards following the visit of the new army chief is an important issue which cannot be kept under wraps for too long. But what the local people immediately want is something totally different. They want a change in the attitude of those ruling and running the area. These people treat the locals as second class citizens who have no say whatsoever in the running of the administration nor are they consulted on any policy decisions that relate to the area.

Whenever any policy decision is taken for that area it is done solely by Islamabad/Rawalpindi. The locals have no rights whatsoever nor have they any government of their own, like in the other provinces, whereby they could themselves tackle the problems they face. They have neither a shoulder to cry on nor anyone to complain to.

Theoretically, the only person directly concerned or responsible for them is the president of Pakistan. But practically it is the army chief since his forces call the shots in Fata. The tribesmen are not asking for something big, being acutely aware what their fate has been for the last 66 years. Nothing has changed for them since then. They were put to one side and conveniently forgotten except for being lorded over by the political agent as in the time of the British.

During this period nobody was bothered about developing the area and making any effort to bring it at par with the rest of the country so that the tribesmen could earn a livelihood and have access to schools and hospitals. They are not asking for the establishment of big industrial estates but only for alleviation of the difficulties imposed upon them.

The infrastructure that one observes while travelling in Fata was initially laid by our colonial masters and later improved with donations by foreign countries. Left to Islamabad alone the people would still have been traversing long distances on foot. Countries like the US and the UAE have been major donors for widening or construction of roads in South Waziristan. The US no doubt is the biggest financial contributor to various projects in the country, including Fata, but its arrogant attitude towards solving problems of the region has tarnished its image. Instead of earning the goodwill of the people it has earned their wrath.

Exactly the same applies to our armed forces in the tribal areas. They are working, fighting and trying to steer the country out of its problems – but in their own way, not bothered in any manner either to involve the locals or even to afford them minimal courtesy, the right of any law-abiding citizen to not be treated like a ‘bloody civilian’.

This is the root of the problem. The armed forces must treat the locals as loyal citizens of the country like everybody else. What the people need is a change in attitude towards them and nothing else; they are waiting for that. A visit alone cannot and will not do any good if it is not followed by such positive change.