The Younus Khan stadium in Miranshah. (Photo: Sushant Singh)
If the Pakistan Army needs any evidence of an “Indian hand”, it should look inside the heavily fortified Operations Room at the headquarters of its Golden Arrow 7 Infantry Division in Miranshah in North Waziristan. That’s where Indian mobile phone networks come to life.
Barely 17 km from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, mobile phones catch signals from Afghan phone networks, making the phone of this reporter beep incessantly in the unlikeliest of places.
Known as “terror central”, Miranshah was, until a few years ago, a safe haven for some of the most dreaded terror groups in the region: the Haqqani Network, East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), besides others who could easily move between Afghanistan and Pakistan through the porous border.
An area where no one went except American drones, it was cleared by the Pakistan Army in a heavy-duty military operation, called Zarb-e-Azb after the Prophet’s sword, starting 2014.
Notwithstanding its questionable claims about eradicating terror from the area, the Pakistan Army, out to showcase its success in North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), has taken groups of foreign officials, analysts and journalists on guided tours of Miranshah — this reporter was part of a group of 21 South Asian journalists who were escorted to the town Monday.
Brigadier Jawad, the brigade commander, conducts the guided tour like a well-rehearsed professional, while the bus is escorted by heavily armed soldiers in vehicles with security check-posts, barriers and armed military guards along the way.
It is a curtailed visit because Pakistan Army helicopters fear bad weather during the return trip to Islamabad, and the streets of the town are unusually quiet — there are no children playing, there is no buzz in the markets and not a soul on the streets. Dotted with Pakistani flags, much of the town lies in ruin.
But that does not deter Pakistan Army from showcasing the new stadium, schools, orphanages, parks, a hospital and market with glistening coats of paint and freshly poured concrete. The Younus Khan sports complex boasts of a modern cricket stadium, a football field and a nine-hole golf course, but there is no one playing anything at 10 in the morning.
In Islamabad, an evening prior, ISPR DG Major General Asif Ghafoor rattled out other figures of “progress” in FATA: 1,700 km of new roads, seven new cadet colleges, water supply through solar power in every village, canals, hospitals, schools and nine new markets.
The main Miranshah market had around a thousand shops which were razed by the Pakistan Army during the fighting. It has constructed 1,340 modern shops which were handed over to local residents a week ago. But the swanky market complex, which seems to have been transplanted in this tribal area straight from the US, is deserted, barring soldiers with machine guns on guard — it is hard to not think of a Potemkin village.
Barely a few metres away, rubble and debris line newly paved roads, remnants of bombed-out plots of land that once housed markets, mosques and houses. Small black placards have been placed by the Pakistan Army along the roads to keep a record of what existed before it went in with fighter jets and heavy weaponry to reduce them to rubble.
Brigadier Jawad points to an area of rubble with Gulpa Mosque written on the placard and claims that it was the media headquarters of the TTP. Another pile of rubble nearby was Madina market which, he says, had to be destroyed because it was a terrorists’ market.
According to the Pakistan Army, between 2001 and 2008, one-third of FATA, including all of North Waziristan, was under terrorist control. While other areas of FATA were cleared between 2007 and 2014, North Waziristan, “the last bastion of terrorists”, as Brigadier Jawad calls it, was cleared under Operation Zarb-e-Azb in three phases: “the core was cleared from June to November 2014, a perimeter of security created from March to September 2015 and the whole area was cleared between March and June 2016”.
The Pakistan Army claims to have captured 187,670 small arms, 8,746 heavy weapons and 18.9 million pieces of ammunition from terrorists in FATA. But its Peshawar-based 11 Corps lost 4,495 soldiers since 2001. It is difficult to verify the claims of the Pakistan Army that “thousands” of terrorists were killed in the operations in North Waziristan. It also seems strange that not one terrorist was taken alive and not one top terrorist was killed in the operations.
These operations, it is believed, targeted select terrorist groups that do not happen to be Pakistani proxies, while the friendly groups were nudged to relocate to Afghanistan before the operations began. The Haqqani Network, seen to be friendly to Pakistan, continues to operate from Afghanistan bodering the Kurram Agency.
Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced people from North Waziristan crossed 900,000 during the operations. Brigadier Jawad claims that 96 per cent of them have since returned and have been rehabilitated. But this claim is belied by the massive ongoing protests by Pashtuns across Pakistan over this issue.
Major General Ghafoor claims that while intelligence-based operations are still on under Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, “there are no organised terror sanctuaries in Pakistan any more”. While he acknowledges that there may be scattered presence of terrorists inside Pakistan, he blames them on the Afghan refugees: “even if 1 per cent of the 2.7 million Afghan refugees are fodder for terrorists, how can we control”. He argues that “once all the Afghan refugees are gone, then we can take blame for the terror attacks”.
Brigadier Jawad says there are still 25,000-30,000 soldiers inside North Waziristan. Major General Ghafoor maintains that of the more than 200,000 soldiers on Pakistan’s western border, “half of them can be moved out today conveniently and even all can come back, if there are no terrorists coming from Afghanistan”.
The Pakistan Army is already constructing a fence on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A total of 2,611 km of the border is to be fenced by December 2019, out of which 350 km of “highest priority” has already been completed. This includes 180 km of the border that North Waziristan shares with Afghanistan.
To show the border fence, the group of visiting journalists were taken to Ghulam Khan Kilay, a border post between North Waziristan and Afghanistan manned by Tochi Scouts. This is the third trade point on the Durand Line between the two countries — it was inaugurated by Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi last month. The freshly paved roads, new buildings and Pakistani flags painted all over stand out in the harsh and barren terrain.
But the monitoring of the trade point is also done centrally at the operations room in the Division Headquarters at Miranshah. It is one of six locations in North Waziristan which provide live feed to big screens in the operations room, a technological marvel in this rugged area.
Technology, however, is at play in different ways too. Minutes before the Pakistan Army Mi17 helicopter swerves close to Ghulam Khan Kilay, Indian mobile phones spring to life, as Afghan telecom networks come into play. A reminder of the tenuous Indian connection with “Af-Pak”.