NORTH WAZIRISTAN/WASHINGTON - It has been six years since the Pakistani military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan to eliminate Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but the mountainous region of northwest Pakistan is still in ruins, according to local residents.
Frustration toward the Pakistan government and military, which seems to have abandoned North Waziristan residents after liberating them from the TTP and its foreign affiliates like al-Qaida in June 2014, is only growing.
“We are living on completely demolished land,” lamented Talibdeen, a local resident from the district’s Machas village.
“My children are crying because they want their home. We don't have access to clean water or facilities such as schools, hospitals and medical dispensaries. When we were returning, they gave us two tents," he told VOA. "We used our own cloth and wood poles to create a wall around the area where our house once stood, but when the weather is bad, the cloth tears apart, and our women struggle to stitch it together again.”
The village near North Waziristan’s district capital, Miranshah, is just 11 miles from Afghanistan’s southeastern border. Residents told VOA that despite being near the district center, they have no access to basic necessities such as potable water and electricity. Locals have been waiting for the government to rebuild the area and compensate them for their homes.
A half-million displaced
According to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHCR), some 500,000 people fled their homes during the Pakistani military operations in the area.
Some residents told VOA that structural damage caused by operations, in conjunction with drone strikes against militant groups, have left many of their homes uninhabitable.
Under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani government in 2014 announced compensation for those displaced by the fighting. Each returnee household was granted a stipend of 25,000 Pakistani Rupees ($250 USD), a 10,000 ($100 USD) transportation allowance, and up to 400,000 ($4,000 USD) in reconstruction aid based on the level of damage to their homes.
In March, the Pakistani government also approved repatriation for some 750 internally displaced families from Machas.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), a federal government entity designated to handle natural and man-made disasters, told VOA that there are still 15,222 internally displaced families that are scheduled to return to their villages in North Waziristan.
PDMA spokesperson Ihsan Dawar said existing internally displaced persons (IDPs) receive 12,000 rupees per family each month. Those returning to their village are provided with a return grant, transportation allowance, basic necessities and a food ration for up to six months until the Pakistani government conducts its damage-assessment survey for final compensation.
“The PDMA is only responsible for disaster management," Dawar told VOA. "Conducting surveys to assess damages caused to properties is the responsibility of the local administration. The PDMA can only issue compensation to individuals authorized by the local administration through their survey reports.”
Many residents say they have been waiting desperately for months with no sign that the local government will evaluate their damaged homes anytime soon. The slow pace of reconstruction and lack of services means they must depend on their own limited resources for months to come as winter approaches.
“The government promised us that officials would carry out a survey to assess our needs within a week of our return. It's been almost six months, and not one government official has come to survey the area,” said Noor Adam Khan, an IDP Committee Member and resident of Machas.
“We have no water or schools in place for our children. They are completely illiterate!" Khan told VOA. "We have no electricity, and it is hot. We have no medical dispensaries—if our children get sick, they are at the mercy of God. The government promised us these things but has not fulfilled its promises.”
Local officials, however, say surveys are almost complete, with Machas being an exception due the spread of coronavirus.
“Most of the areas have been surveyed. Survey for Machas village could not take place due to closing of survey due to COVID-19 in March 2020,” the office of the deputy commissioner of North Waziristan told VOA, adding that surveying will resume “shortly."
Some Pakistan observers say rebuilding the area in the past has been impeded by corruption and the misappropriation of funds by some local authorities.
Shuja Nawaz, a South Asian political analyst and former director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told VOA that any future success in reconstructing in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is contingent upon local authorities delivering sources to recipients without “leakage."
“From 2002 till 2018, Pakistan received $8.3 billion in security assistance from the United States and an additional $14.6 billion for moving their military and carrying out operations in FATA,” Nawaz said, adding that Pakistan claims that the cost of fighting terrorism in the district was far more than they had estimated in the past.
In 2018, North Waziristan became a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province with the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The FATA Research Center, a nonpartisan Pakistani group, reported that North Waziristan between 2018 and 2019 alone had a total of 102 terrorism-related incidents resulting in 110 deaths.
Local media in the region have reported a rise in targeted killings of civilians this year, including instances of beheadings and assaults on security forces by “unidentified attackers.”
Some experts warn that increased militant activity and the government's continued failure to provide basic services could leave more residents vulnerable to recruitment by insurgency groups.
According to Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, North Waziristan in the past was “ground zero” for local as well as international terror groups.
While the Pakistani military’s 2014 counterterrorism operation succeeded in degrading some militant groups, other groups viewed as less of a threat to Islamabad continue to take refuge in the area, Kugelman said.
“It’s also important to keep in mind that in these operations, the Pakistanis mainly targeted groups like the [TPP] that attack the Pakistani state, and not those like the Haqqani network that are used as state assets to help pursue Pakistan’s interests and are based in Pakistan but stage attacks outside the country,” he said.