DID “WINNING THE HEARTS AND MINDS” BACKFIRED?

(The story is based on the time spent in Waziristan in 2005–06. It was written November 10, 2011)

It was a cool summer night, the gentle breeze blowing across the rugged valley — producing whimsical sounds, the argues-eyed sentries standing so vigilant in their trenches that a slightest shift of a straw in the wind catches their attention; the valley was fast asleep, I was sitting in the open air reading a book, enjoying the scenic valley covered in pitch dark night, listening to ‘RADIO APP KI DUNYA; reminiscing about the pleasant memories of the past and weaving plans for the days when I will be out of this valley. Suddenly the surroundings were tremored and the dreadful silence torn apart by a thunderclap. I jumped over with bated breath, grabbed my rifle and started returning the fire. Miscreants had attacked the camp. Heavy exchange of fire started, bullets’ sound reverberating against the dark mountains and tracer bullets were making wonderful waves in the dark. This exchange continued for about half an hour before the miscreants’ attack was repulsed. The valiant soldiers had made them pay for their mistake of attacking us and they fled with their tales inside their legs. Such were the twists and turns of the chequered life inWaziristan, that in just a fraction of a second, a peaceful night was turned into a violent thunderstorm. It was a lifetime experience and one realizes that inspite of how well one is trained, how brave one considers himself, still live fire falls very heavily on nerves.

The times were intense and we were at loggerheads with the bellicose miscreants inWaziristan. To keep the morale of sentries high at posts, all and sundry used to remain awake throughout the night and only sleep during daytime. At night our posts located on top of the ridge, under the command of finest JCOs, used to observe the area; thanks to the Sophie Night Sights which convert the pitch dark night into a bright day.

So much has been written about the subject that it has become talk of the town. But one aspect, which hitherto remained neglected — the purpose of our entering the lawless region ofWaziristan. During scribe’s stay there, this inquisitive question was often asked by troops, “what is the purpose of our coming here?” The regurgitated answer used to be, “Winning the Hearts & Minds of the people” as this was the so called aim of Operation Al — Mizan.

Aim or motive, as we all know, is the basis of any mission or operation; unless one does not have a clear aim in mind, there are all the likely chances that he will go astray. The biggest problem that we initially faced was the lack of aim since we were having no single aim of our presence there. To make the argument a bit clearer, a quick recap of the concatenation of events is given in the ensuing lines, since this scribe got the chance to be there at the start of operation Al-Mizan.

Army entered the region without having much knowledge of the area, their customs or the understanding of the psyche of Wazirs / Mehsuds — the inhabitants of this difficult mountainous abode. Army entered with the logo of compensating the injustices committed to this area since independence and for bringing a new way of life for these valiant people, who had become a victim of British era’s draconian laws. Army did not let the grass grow under their feet and worked on improving the lives of the local people. Building roads, eliminating ghost schools, establishing free medical camps, providing free medical facilities, sending the local children for free of cast education to the finest schools / colleges throughout the country was the hallmark of Army’s stay for the first few years. Sports competitions and other activities used to be held — where we used to distribute free sports kits to the locals and were partially successful in making them play cricket, volleyball and even some other games, which hitherto were alien activities for most of them. Frequent Medical Camps were established at different locations where costly medicines were distributed, albeit they used to sell these medicines to the local medical stores. Army was indeed working on long term motives but civil population was not patient enough to see these projects being carried out and bring them some happiness in the future.

Work on construction of roads and tracks was immediately started in which hundreds of kilometers of roads were constructed, tube wells bored to give them easy access to clean drinking water, which so far was a distant dream for most of them. These were some of the major projects for the poor and down trodden, which were in need of relief and who were pacific and abnegated violence. Soon Army found a special place in their hearts and people started praising Pakistan Army because they were deprived of their basic needs for centuries and Army tried to provide them some ray of hope. Army’s main focus was on the well-being of their younger generation, so that they may be able to compete with rest of the country and should guide their region towards the path of prosperity. Soon the locals intermingled with the Army.

At the same time we did few agreements with the militants, so that they should not hamper our efforts and moreover should not give refuge to the fleeing foreign militants, which were coming from Afghanistan in the wake of US attack. While Army was busy in trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population, the militants were having different plans. Our strategy was not that multidimensional vis-à-vis militants, who had a profound one against us. We played a waiting game, sew the seeds of winning over hearts and waited to let the coin spin in our favour, but as ill luck would have it, it went the other way.

Initially the Army enjoyed cordial relations with civil populace, but the militants adopted a strategy of isolating Army by threatening locals on interacting with us. Locals used to visit our camps for medical help and to get the high quality medicines (Special medicines are allotted for FATA). Once a sick septuagenarian man visited our camp for treatment. All his age and experience was inscribed in deeply etched lines mapping his face, as witness to the quirks of fate of this region. The poor man had to adopt a secret route to reach the camp; as Taliban, after his earlier visit, had warned him not to visit Army in future, otherwise he will have to carry out a suicide attack as repercussion for disobeying orders.

A principal of a local public school, the only proper functional school in Barwand area, was brutally murdered and his bullet ridden body that took more than hundred bullets was trampled by vehicles. The innocent man was brutally murdered for he was loyal to his area and to his country, whose sole aim was to give better education to the children of his area. They made him an example for the people and warned them of meeting the same fate for maintaining any kind of contact with the Army. Shopkeepers were frightened of dire consequences for selling anything to us and in the process we were slowly but surely being restricted to our camps and were unable to roam around or interact with the people. We had lost support of the people and they stopped visiting us because they were barred from maintaining any kind of contact with us. Locals realized that we will not be able to save them from these brutal terrorists as we were not the permanent ones and were to be replaced some day by our new colleagues.

It is pertinent to mention here that the dilemma of Pashtuns and specially of the bellicose people of FATA is that; power grows from the barrel of the gun, respect can only be earned if one is at power with them, hearts and minds can only be won, if one is offensive and powerful, they do not have firm belief in policies and politics. If for a moment one goes on the back-foot, they would not hesitate to inflict a big blow on him. People there only respect the powerful, the one who can compete with them or the one whom they think has the capacity to harm them. Unfortunately we could not understand this in time and hence could not nip the evil in the bud. Under the garb of a Peace Pact with Army, the now slain militant leader Baitullah Mehsud organized himself by recruiting new young militants, trained them in far flung areas, aided and abetted Foreign Militants and after realizing that he has enough power to muster his resources and compete with the Army, he backed away from his promise and emerged as the Supreme Commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

One of the biggest factor in a series of factors that helped him in recruiting a huge number of enthusiastic teenagers was joblessness in the area. The only easy and accessible jobs available for the ignoramus youth ofWaziristan were to recruit themselves as militants. This lucrative job was offering them the two biggest incentives needed by a human being to survive– Money to keep their body and soul together and Power to settle their personnel / family scores with rivals. The most easy and rewarding job without the least qualification.

TTP spread its influence like a jungle fire after almost capturing the entire FATA, they took over the scenicvalley ofSwat as well with the help of like minded criminals. When the militants were within an ace of capturing other settled areas of NWFP, luckily Army realized and streamlined our aim which hitherto was only “Winning the Hearts and Minds”. We changed our approach from defensive to offensive and corrected our aim of first crushing these militants and saving the innocent people from the clutches of these tyrants and then again start the welfare of people. Army rendered great sacrifices in shape of men and material, which gave civil populace a great surety and hope and the Army has won their support again.

To conclude, one can say that albeit the aim has not changed but it has been prioritized in the right direction and now inshallah Army will emerge victorious in this prolong and protracted battle.

May The Almighty save our country and Army from all kinds of intrigues and menaces, Ameen.


Originally published at kakhangandapur.blogspot.com on October 19, 2016.

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