Thursday, March 23, 2023

Operation Zarb-e-Azb : A Nightmare for Pashtuns

By Hamid Pakteen

In 2014, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive targeting various militant groups in North Waziristan, an area in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This military operation was considered a success by the Pakistani establishment and was well received particularly in the military and political circles. However, on the ground over a million people, mostly Pashtuns, lost their homes amidst the carnage and were stranded as a result of the collateral damage caused in the fighting. 

In its posturing to address the attendant humanitarian crisis, the Pakistani government was emphatic in declaring that the rehabilitation of internally displaced persons (IDP) was a domestic matter. The Pakistani Foreign Office at the time stated that there were clear instructions not to seek any foreign assistance to address the socio economic upheavals caused by Zarb-e-Azb. Nonetheless, at least $50 million was eventually pledged by the USA and the United Arab Emirates. The Pakistan government announced that cash assistance would be provided to all displaced families and rations and transportation expenses where needed would also be provided. 

In total, approximately 80 million USD were pledged by the Pakistani government for the support of the IDPs. On the ground, however, the reality is that very little of that aid trickled down to the people who were affected most by the tragedy. Unfortunately, almost all public distribution schemes in Pakistan are plagued with corruption and misappropriation of funds. For example, much of the funding that was to supposed to have gone towards the construction of core infrastructure with Chinese cooperation and financing in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was found by Pakistani investigative committees to have been misappropriated. 

The absence of progress on the ground despite allocation of funds has led to the establishment requesting an additional 22 million USD for aid for IDPs. The present Government is reluctant to allocate further funds, and one anticipates that a blame-game will emerge where different wings of the Pakistani political mainstream blame each other for the fiasco. It is true that such corruption and misallocation is unfortunately prevalent, even in more developed nations, however for the long-suffering Pashtuns, this is another set of straws that may yet prove to break the camel’s back. 

The Pashtuns are a proud conglomeration of tribes with enormous internal solidarity and cohesion, who form the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, and the largest group in neighbouring Afghanistan. In Pakistan however, despite amounting to over 15% of the population, the Pashtuns find themselves lagging behind economically while the major institutions of Pakistan; the Army, the Civil Service and Government are dominated by Punjabis.

It has long been a concern for those in the more remote areas of Pakistan, that the powers that be in the Pakistani heartland ignore their welfare. These examples of enormous corruption, when it comes to displaced Pashtuns, have done much to damage relations, and have had the effect of souring Pashtuns on the Pakistani establishment. Relations have been plagued by the fact that Pashtuns are divided so evenly between Pakistan and Afghanistan in view of the always tense but increasingly frosty relationship shared by the bordering nations. Tensions have been exacerbated by the Pakistani policy of attempting to dominate Afghan affairs by hosting and supporting hardline Islamist groups.

The consequence of a tense relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been felt most keenly in the border regions which have been plagued by violence, insurgent movements and brutal fighting which has resulted in destruction of property and wealth, displacement and the lack of development. It is no surprise then, that within the remote areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, anti-government feeling runs very strongly.

One can only hope that the furore surrounding the misuse of funds may eventually result in additional grants, and the belated receipt of some measure of compensation for those who have been displaced by operation Zarb-e-Azb. However, until the Pakistani establishment begins to see it’s remote provinces such as KPK and Balochistan as being as integral and not peripheral to its interests as Punjab and Sindh, similar situations will continue to arise and the native populations in Pakistan’s remote regions will continue to grow increasingly disaffected with what they see as the targeted corruption and exploitation of the Pakistani state.

Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.

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