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Tribal Elders in Pakistan: Soft targets

Given the past record of both the Army and the Government, however, it will be a major challenge for to retain the support of the Tribal Elders.

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Taj Ali Khan, front, one of elders of Jani Khel tribe near Peshawar. [ Photo: B.K. Bangash / AP]

On March 2, 2024, two Tribal elders of the Bugti tribe, identified as Dost Mahammad Notani and Bahar Khan Notani, sustained injuries when they were targeted in a bomb attack in the Dera Bugti District of Balochistan. Both the elders were close aides of Chief Minister of Balochistan, Sarfaraz Bugti, who was newly sworn in on March 2.

On February 26, 2024, Tribal Elder Haji Majeed was shot dead by unidentified assailants during night prayers in a mosque in the Bara area of Khyber District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

On February 24, 2024, a Tribal Elder was shot dead by unidentified assailants in the Ferozekhel area of Orakzai District in KP.

Earlier the same day, hand-written letters, threatening locals and particularly Tribal Elders in the Mattani area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP, had been distributed. The letters bore the insignia of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and warned against reporting the movement of the militants.

On January 24, 2024, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) went off near the residence of Tribal Elder Malik Hazrat Noor in the Speen area of South Waziristan District in KP. However, no loss of life was reported, though there was some material damage to the residence.

On January 16, 2024, Tribal Elder Malik Raz Muhammad was injured along with his son and brother, in an IED attack on his car in the Azam Warsak area of South Waziristan District in KP.

On January 10, 2024, Tribal Elder Kaleemullah Khan, an independent candidate contesting for the National Assembly – 104 seat, was killed along with two of his bodyguards in the Tappi area of North Waziristan in KP. North Waziristan District Police Officer Rohan Zeb disclosed that Kaleemullah was on his way back home from Miranshah, when his convoy was attacked by unknown assailants.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), during the first 60 days of the current year (2024), at least three Tribal Elders have been killed and three injured in six separate incidents across Pakistan’s tribal areas. During the corresponding period of 2023, no attack on tribal elders was reported. However, the remaining period of 2023 recorded seven such attacks, in which seven Tribal Elders were killed.

The militants started targeting Tribal Elders and their families because of their (Tribal Elders) support to the Government and Army in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, the Security Secretary of the erstwhile FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), Brigadier (Retd.) Mehmood Shah, had stated on May 11, 2017, that the Taliban began targeting Tribal Elders in 2005 after the elders voiced their support for the Government, Army and intelligence agencies. He had observed,

At the end of 2004, the tribal elders signed agreements with the political administration, [allowing] for the arrest of Taliban members in tribal areas. The agreements aimed to discourage the Taliban’s presence and power in the region, which previously the tribal community tolerated. That enraged the militants and they started killing elders.

SATP’s partial data, based on erratic reporting in the Pakistani media, confirms the killing of at least 194 tribal elders since 2005, in 143 incidents. The first such incident in SATP records took place on May 29, 2005, when former Federal Minister and Senator, Malik Faridullah Khan Wazir, was assassinated, along with two other Tribal Elders, reportedly by four Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, in the Jandola area of the South Waziristan Agency in erstwhile FATA.

During the peak of the TTP-led militancy in Pakistan, in the eight years between 2008 and 2015, at least 127 Tribal Elders were killed in the tribal areas, accounting for 65.46 per cent of the total of 194 such killings recorded by SATP in nearly 20 years.

Attacks on Tribal Elders and resultant casualties fell thereafter, only to start rising again with the resurgence of TTP’s prowess across Pakistan, in particular in the tribal areas. Violence has been increasing again since 2020. Overall terrorist-linked fatalities, which were at 365 in 2019, increased to 506 in 2020, 664 in 2021, 971 in 2022, and 1,502 in 2023. 2024 has already recorded 311 fatalities (data till March 3).

Significantly, when peace-talks were ongoing between the Government and TTP between May and November 2022, there was no attack on Tribal Elders, as a 50-member Jirga (Council) of notable tribal leaders was flown to Kabul for substantive talks. The Jirga consisted of tribal elders from South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand, and Bajaur, as well as the Malakand Division. Public representatives, including former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Engineer Shaukatullah Khan, Senator Dost Mohammad Khan Mehsud, Senator Hilal Mohmand, GG Jamal, etc., were also present. With the collapse of ‘official’ talks between the Government and TTP on November 28, 2022, the attacks on Tribal Elders commenced again. While no Tribal Elder was killed during the peace-talks phase, at least 13 Tribal Elders have since been killed.

Meanwhile, with the surge in violence, the Army and government again needs the support of Tribal Elders. Accordingly, on February 28, 2024, the Corps Commander, Peshawar, Lieutenant General Sardar Hasan Azhar Hayat met Utmanzai tribal elders from North Waziristan and thanked them for fighting alongside the Army in the ‘war against terror’. On the occasion, Hayat stated,

The Pakistan Army is using all its resources for the welfare of the people in the tribal areas. It is taking concrete steps along with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to ensure the representation of the youth in minerals and other sectors, including better provision of education, besides the gradual return of other tribes to their respective areas.

Earlier, on January 28, 2024, a 60-member delegation of Baizai Hassan Khel’s elders, under the leadership of Amanullah Mohmand from the Mohmand District of KP, met Governor Haji Ghulam Ali to demand the provision of basic facilities to the tribal people. Governor Ali assured them that the tribal areas would be brought on par with other developed areas of the province ‘very soon’.

Given the past record of both the Army and the Government, however, it will be a major challenge for to retain the support of the Tribal Elders. Despite their tribal linkages to different militant groups, the Elders supported the Government in its ‘war against terrorism’. Yet, they and their families have suffered immensely at the hands of the militants as a result of the abject failure of the state to provide adequate security. Confronted with an uncertain and insecure future, people and the leaders in the tribal areas may again be forced to come to a modus vivendi with the terrorists, or may come to be trampled upon by both sides in this confrontation between the two elephants in the region, the Army and the TTP.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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