Caught between drones and army raids, Pakistanis in ‘tribal areas’ feel betrayed

Refugees from the Pakistan government’s assault on the Khyber region of Waziristan. EPA

Shahzeb, a university student in Islamabad, who comes from the mountainous region of Waziristan in Pakistan, designated as a “tribal” area since colonial times, summed up the burden of harassment his fellow “tribals” carry in Pakistan, when he told us:

I used to tell people I am from Peshawar because I didn’t want to explain where Miranshah was … Now I tell people I am from Peshawar because they think they know too much about Miranshah!

The “tribal” Miranshah that everybody else seemed to know – of caves and men with guns where the war on terror is being played out – was not one that Shahzeb (not his real name) recognised. Shahzeb’s Miranshah was a city with one college for girls, four for boys as well as several government and private schools.

This is the city the Pakistani army decimated on June 15.

The tribal areas of Pakistan, at the border of Afghanistan, have been a focal point for the war on terror for the past decade – and are often represented as a region of wild, savage people who only understand the language of guns.

Since June this year, the Pakistani army has been carrying out a massive operation in these areas – an offensive that has received scant comment in the world media. Unlike the serious questions raised – rightly – against military operations carried out by the Sri Lankan or the Syrian states against their own citizens in recent years, these ongoing operations in Pakistan have not led to international condemnation.

For the past two years, as part of an ERC-funded project, we have been collecting oral histories from refugees and migrants in urban Pakistan. The distance between their representation in the media and their actual lives is shocking.

Operation Zarb-e-Azab

In the international media the tribal belt of Pakistan has been declared the “most dangerous place in the world”. Rugged mountains, inaccessible villages, rough men, docile women, extreme violence combined with extreme hospitality – the tribal areas have become impossible to imagine in any other way.

Apparently existing outside history, global flows of finance and migration, the people in Pakistan’s tribal areas are viewed as cavemen with access to modern weapons. For America and its allies this is a very useful construction for the purposes of their war in the region.

But even more worrying, such is the sense of distance from their lives that an influential section of Pakistani intelligentsia has followed American government’s reasoning to champion the use of drone attacks and military operations as the most efficient way of dealing with an intractable population.

In June 2014 the Pakistani military forces started an operation in Waziristan, ostensibly in response to a terrorist attack on the airport in Karachi. What was originally billed as a short operation to root out remnants of militants from South Waziristan (one of the seven tribal areas) soon spread to North Waziristan and, five months later in October, to Khyber.

Complete with air raids and tank excursions, the operation has led to the comprehensive demolition of some cities, as well as to the exodus of close to a million refugees. The collective punishment of the people in this area by the Pakistani state is a continuation of colonial policies – but it is felt so much more acutely because, at least putatively, they are now citizens and not subjects, and it is their own government attacking them rather than colonial rulers.

Many Pakistanis see the operation as a bid by their army to portray itself as the defender of the country in the context of allegations against its tacit – and sometimes active – support for militants, at the same time as co-operation with America in the war on terror agenda. Paradoxically, the very commentators who blame the Pakistani armed forces for the rise of militancy in Pakistan are the ones most vociferous in their support for military operations. One key reason why these commentators are happy to let the army unleash such violence without any public debate on gains from this strategy, is the entrenchment of an image of tribal people as people who cannot be reasoned with.

As a result of the way tribal people are lumped in with the Taliban by the mainstream media, refugees and migrants carry an immense burden of fear and harassment within Pakistan.

Constructing the ‘tribal’ identity

Even some of those who have opposed the use of drones and army operations have fallen victim to the romance of rugged warriors defending their ancient customs and traditional values. Tribal people emerge simultaneously as the victims and the perpetrators of extreme violence. All of this ignores the reality of profound sociological and economic changes in the region.

For the past 18 months, we have been collecting oral histories from FATA refugees and migrants about these changes – and our research raises serious questions about whether denizens of the tribal areas can legitimately be called “tribal” any more.

Within Pakistan, the tribal areas are often compared with “settled” areas. When the British colonial administration decided upon the label “tribal” there was little rationale for this. The tribes of Waziristan were not particularly different from the tribes of Peshawar valley, or even Punjab, which were considered “settled” areas.

Rather than any specific features of social organisation, cultural norms or political values, it was the difference in topography and direct competition with the Iranian, Afghan and Russian imperial states that led to different arrangements of control by the British. These arrangements were linked directly to the idea that “tribal areas” required modification in governance strategies.

This artificial creation of the tribals was rooted in the colonial era of the late 19th and early 20th century, then assumed a tenuous reality through the institutionalisation of an administrative structure over the 20th century. Successive governments in Pakistan found it expedient to keep the citizens of tribal areas out of elected assemblies.

Despite this forced political isolation from the rest of the country over the past 67 years, there has been increased social and economic integration leading to major transformations in the region. Migration to the Gulf and to major urban centres of Pakistan has helped finance education for a generation and has changed the social stratification of communities and introduced new patterns of consumption.

Migrants from some agencies dominate timber and transport businesses in Pakistan. Major cities in Kurram, Khyber and Waziristan agencies have a literacy rate higher than or at least comparable to cities of similar size in “settled” areas of Sindh. The “primitiveness” of the tribal areas thus emerges as a very modern creation.

Name the dead

Meanwhile, US drone attacks have started again after a brief hiatus of six months, killing 88 people. Ongoing army operations have led to the deaths of 1,100 “militants” and 100 soldiers. A striking feature of both US and Pakistani attacks over the last four months is that only two of those killed have been named. This is something that has been going on for a while – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s project Naming the Dead records that of 2,379 killed (the lowest estimate of the number of people killed by drones since 2004) only 4% have been identified as al-Qaeda affiliates.

Anger at this state of affairs is simmering just beneath the surface and a deep sense of exclusion pervades the lives of those we have interviewed. “How would you feel if you were told you had to leave your home within two hours (to escape the army operation)?” asked one of our interlocutors, before going on to ridicule the strategy:

If we can round up our children and women in those two hours, why can’t the so-called terrorists leave? Is the terrorist a tree that he will stay rooted where he is, waiting for the army?

Caught between drones and Pakistani army raids, people living in tribal areas feel betrayed. Noor Behram, a journalist from Waziristan – and one of the key investigators of drone attacks – sums it up:

Are we not citizens of Pakistan? We feel like our government has sold us to the Americans to play out their fantasies of war. And it has sold us so cheap that … really we feel ourselves worthless.