The significance of the Khyber operation

A few days ago the Frontier Corp began a cleanup operation in the Bara sub division of Khyber agency. Many negative comments have appeared about the operation. Let us examine the importance of this operation from the objective of re-establishing the writ of the government.

            The main criticism emerging against the operation is the negative perception in the public mind that the operation is a charade and it was started to put to rest fears about the increasing law and order threat to Peshawar. Some ask why minor war lords like Mangal Bagh or Namdar have not been arrested. Others say that the action was meant to put to rest U.S fears that Pakistan’s new government was being soft on terrorist. The operation was to prove otherwise. Both the U.S and Afghanistan have commended the decision.

            Before reaching a conclusion about the value of this operation, let us examine the unique interaction between tribal areas and NWFP. This relationship between two separate administrative structures has resulted in the creation of a very elaborate watch and ward framework, which has grown since the past two hundred years and is part of this region’s history. If the system is not implemented then there is trouble.

            Britain defeated the Sikhs and occupied the Punjab districts in 1849. The future NWFP province lay to the west of the Indus and was a part of Punjab. Further east was the vastness of India. The security of India was always the pivot of Britain’s foreign policy whose aim was to protect it from Russia. A second range of threats more local in their nature arose out of the frequent raids conducted by the tribes on districts which now comprise the NWFP; Viceroy Curzon created the NWFP in 1901 by separating it from Punjab because of its special law and order problems.

            At the end of the 19th century, Britain initiated a wave of consolidation of her Indian dominion by encouraging internationalization of borders between Iran and Afghanistan to the east, Afghanistan and Russia to the north and north east, Afghanistan and India demarcated in to the west and between India and China to the east.

            A second defensive border was created between Afghanistan and India in the north-west starting from Chitral in the north to D.I.Khan in the south and where the tribes dwelled. It was converted into a tribal area, approximately the size of Belgium.

            One of the least acknowledged contribution of Britain towards state craft  and they were good at it  was to convert the geographical border land of the tribes into a shield by regulation! They kept the tribal areas underdeveloped and increased the efficiency of the British Indian army as well as the tribesmen by constant fighting. It was Britain’s best battle inoculation school!

Secondly, through this policy the tribal areas were converted into a prickly  hedge; no invader could expect to have a safe passage to India through this route. To keep the manpower of tribal areas from leaving they were kept under developed and made to believe that their system of local administration based on the Jirga was unique! If they became too educated it was feared that they would leave these territories! The British very cleverly crafted a draconian law to fix this system in time. It is called the Frontier Crimes Regulation. These reactionary devices were meant to ensure the freezing of tribesmen in an archaic social formation till perpetuity! 

            To absolve herself of the responsibility to develop and educate the tribesmen on a par with the Indians, the British created an amazing legal fiction. The tribal areas were to be considered a part India, but not a part of British India!

            Instead of rectifying this involved conceptual edifice constructed for imperial purposes by Britain, we mistakenly acknowledged that the tribal areas had an exclusive identity and included this exception in the Instruments of Accession in 1947 at the time of Partition. Latter, we protected this anomaly in the 1973 Constitution by retaining the separateness under Articles 246 – 247 of the Constitution.

            It was but natural that the tribal areas composed of a war like people, deprived of economic development and lying next to comparatively richer people would try to possess the same riches through raids and kidnappings. The income differences were huge.

            Throughout history tribal gangs have attacked the districts of NWFP for gaining wealth. To protect districts a four layered scheme was conceived by the British which was latter followed by Pakistan. The first defense was provided inside an agency by the Scouts and tribal levies called Khassadars.

            To prevent incursion of tribal gangs into districts the Frontier Constabulary was created. It is a semi military, and lightly armed force patrolling the ridge line on the district  tribal boundary.

            In the districts the police provided protection against incursions. Lying in reserve was the military. It was the force of last resort, which unlike the recent few years was rarely used. However, small units of artillery and light tanks were always provided to the Scouts to strengthen them.

            It was the routine in the NWFP districts and tribal areas till the mid 1990’s to do yearly clean up operations to clear the dens, hujras or bunkers created by the tribal gangs. Sporadic joint raids were conducted by the police and Scouts whenever the situation demanded.   

I think four things happened collectively leading to the decay in the frontier’s watch and ward system. First, the massive amount of weaponry which entered the tribal areas from 1980 to the present during the Afghan wars. The criminals became better armed than the law enforcing agencies, who avoided confrontation under such disadvantageous circumstances.

Secondly, the system of seasonal clean up operations was abandoned because the people at the helm of affair didn’t recognize the importance of the procedures; instead they became more involved in politics of survival. Thirdly, when the military entered the tribal areas in 2002, the political agents were marginalized and became dysfunctional. Lastly, an ambiguity developed in law enforcement when they played the guard and the supervisor during long martial law regimes  by doing so they compromised their procedures when transacting socially with the warlords. For example a Corp Commander visited Nek Muhammad in Wana in 2004 and anointed him with official approval. Or more recently the commandant of a scout unit attended a school function in the company of Namdar. No good has ever come out of collaborating with evil.

            The main reason for the operation is that a few months ago Mangal Bagh forced the political administration of Khyber to abandon Bara sub-division. This should have been challenged with massive force; it wasn’t. It encouraged tribal gangs to nibble away at Peshawar with kidnappings for ransom, murder and dacoities. What is worse is that these better armed gangs came from tribal areas after crossing Scout check posts; it demoralized the police who began to abandon their positions.

As a result of the operation Bara is back with the Khyber agency and the police have started arresting criminals in Peshawar. The writ of the state has been extended. These are positive results; let us not expect too much at this stage. The belated Khyber operation is thus a minor moment in frontier’s watch and ward but does point towards the huge capacity deficit that has arisen in the security field; we need to address it immediately. We must not permit any person to challenge the writ of the state irrespective of the fact, whether he is pious person struggling to implement his version of Shariat or he has some other trick up his sleeve. He must be dealt with sternly, if we are to avoid chaos.

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