Exclusive for the Daily Outlook Afghanistan
In the last week of May, eight security personnel and civilians fell victim to four hundred armed Taliban who attacked Shaltalo check post in Dir, a frontier District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, located few kilometers away from Afghan border. Allegedly these were Afghan Taliban who invaded Pakistani territory and attacked Pakistani subjects. In these days, violation of sovereignty is most debated political issue in Pakistan. Pakistani foreign office has also registered protest with Afghanistan over this blatant violation of sovereignty.
However, spokesman of Afghan Taliban Zabiullah Mujahid denied involvement in any such attacks in Dir region and claimed "Not [even]a single Afghan Talib took part in the Dir attacks. These are false and baseless allegations leveled against us. What happened in Dir is a local problem and not related to us." Ground realities and past history corroborate the claims of non-involvement of Afghan Taliban. However neither such attacks nor such allegations are rare. Apparently, it seems an attack by some absconder battalions of Tehreek Nafaz-e-Sharia Mohammadi (TNSM) who are rumored to be back in the region.
In fact, Pakistani army launched a military operation in April 2009 in this area against Tehreek Nafaz-e-Sharia Mohammadi a militant outfit led by Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Molvi Fazalullah. Once this region was stronghold of TNSM. Sufi Muhammad was arrested during operation by forces whereas Molvi Fazalullah was said to have fled to Kunar or Nuristan province of Afghanistan with his key aides. It appears that these elements are resurfacing. The way they engaged security forces for a week manifests their awareness with extremely violent and tough terrain of the region.
Dir is north most district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and it is sandwiched between Chitral district and Bajaur agency. It also shares approximately 60 km boundary with Taliban infested Afghan province, Kunar, which has long been believed to host Osama Bin Laden. Official statistics suggest that from 2006 to 2010, 65% of total insurgent activities in Afghanistan took place in this province. Therefore, Upper Dir insurgent attacks are a matter of serious concern for Pakistani security establishment.
According to the local narrative, when TNSM Taliban attacked Shaltalo check post at Afghan border, it had insufficient security measures. Few dozens of levies and police personnel were guarding the post that is already known to be Taliban entry point into Kunar province. Moreover, the strategy adopted by Taliban proved to be effective. They blew up few bridges in the area and cut the supply and communication line to the bordering post and attacked the post at an early morning.
The army was informed timely, however, in the meanwhile, four hundred armed Taliban have played havoc in the region by killing dozens of people and destroying government infrastructure. Army used gunship helicopters and infantry contingent to repulse the militants from the region, yet unabated firing over security forces continues in the densely vegetated region of Upper Dir.
Two months back the militants attacked security forces in Lower Dir and killed more than a dozen of army recruits. This pattern of militant operations suggests that there is a well established network of TNSM militants across Lower Dir and Upper Dir. Their apparent entry from Kunar side may be misleading. Kunar may be temporary rear base but their original strength is indigenous in nature.
TNSM is a local movement of Malakand division and majority of its recruits belong to that area. Although, they have been linked with Waziristan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), however, the connection between these two groups is of symbolic nature. They have mutual recognition of each other's pursuits but hardly provide operational support to each other. However, TNSM relations with Afghan Taliban might have undergone metamorphosis since the whole fleet of TNSM took refuge in Afghanistan after military operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009.
The situation is quite confusing for the general masses who cannot distinguish between various groups of Taliban. The Taliban militancy is still wrapped in mysteries. Even the word Taliban is misleading as each militant faction claiming to be so. After a year's relief, local population again feels threatened by a possible revival of TNSM militants. Though, this time there is considerable presence of security forces across the region, but possibilities of sporadic onslaughts cannot be set aside.
Earlier wave of Talibanization in Dir and Swat regions basically got great strength from the local population. There were numerous sympathizers of militants within ordinary citizenry. Still there is thin support for militants from clerics, religious seminaries and members of other Islamic organizations i.e Jammat-e-Islam and Jamiat-e-Ullema-e-Islam. However, the general masses have seen the brutal era of TNSM rule in Swat and Dir and now chances of broader and open support for militants are scanty.
Contrary to this, local masses also do not like Pakistan army patrolling their roads and stopping them at different checkpoints, but fear of TNSM revival make them go along Pak army. There is rampant suspicion among the locals about Pakistan's policy towards Malakand-based TNSM. Many of them believe that Pak army introduced a worst type of Taliban model in Swat in order to generate hate against growing extremism particularly among more gullible people of Malakand division. Though may be a wrong perception but it depicts an underlying resentment against armed forces in the region.
Recently, the local elders also expressed their grief in a Jirga held in Upper Dir over government's delayed response. They have been demanding timely support in the wake of terrorist incidents in the region. The Jirga held government responsible for the recent loss in the area as timely response could have evaded the killing of too many people.
To conclude, the situation in Dir is precarious on multiple fronts. First, the security agencies have been unable to ascertain the actual identity of militants. Second, the death of too many security personnel in a direct fight is alarming. Third, the NATO forces have strong presence and surveillance system in Kunar province, then how a brigade of four armed Taliban managed to slip into Pakistani territory and engage security forces for days eventually causing considerable loss. Fourth, why the local population still views the government efforts with suspicion. Finally, this new front of Taliban insurgency is a source of great concern for Pakistan which is already experiencing tumultuous times as the wave of terrorism and extremism is on full swing engulfing dozen of lives each day.