Last weekend, the Pakistani military began implementing the most important phase of its anti-Taliban operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA): the return of internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homes in the South Waziristan tribal agency. The tribesmen's long-delayed return is significant because their successful resettlement will do far more to re-establish stability and deny the Taliban a safe haven in the agency than any number of military operations could. The delay in IDP repatriation has been a contributing factor to the difficulty the Pakistani military has faced in bringing about a lasting peace in South Waziristan since it launched a major operation to clear the region of Taliban militants in October 2009.
A small number of families began the journey home to South Waziristan on Saturday. According to an Associated Press report, 140 people from 16 different families were the first civilians to make their return. Brigadier Shahzad Raza, the senior Pakistani officer in charge of repatriation efforts, said "families from six villages had been selected to return, as their areas had been cleared of militants and secured by the military." The same report quoted him as saying "it was disappointing that so few decided to make the trip." While the IDPs' return is symbolically significant, they represent far fewer than the 200 families the army intended to initially repatriate and are only a small fraction of the estimated 364,000 people displaced by military operations late last year. Nevertheless, the army plans to institute a phased repatriation campaign and expects to have returned 8,000 families (approximately 64,000 people) to their homes by year's end.
On October 17, 2009, three divisions of the Pakistani military surged into the Mehsud tribal areas of South Waziristan from multiple directions. The objective was to cut-off, contain, and eventually defeat the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and evict it from its traditional strongholds in the region. Since December 2007, the TTP under its leader, Beitullah Mehsud, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, held complete sway over much of South Waziristan. The TTP inflicted a campaign of violence upon the rest of the country from its stronghold, and was responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan's history. The army announced its intentions to launch an operation well in advance of hostilities, allowing civilians (as well as militants) a chance to flee. A number of TTP fighters, including the movement's top leadership, escaped in the exodus and found shelter in the mountains of South Waziristan and in neighboring tribal agencies, from where they have continued to stage attacks inside Pakistan and globally.
The operation was successful in quickly clearing out the TTP but the pace of the non-military phases of the operation has been much more sluggish. The Pakistani government's failure to come to agreement with the Mehsud tribe's elders over the conditions of their return delayed plans to begin IDP repatriation in early spring of 2010. The major haggling point was security: after living for nearly two traumatic years under the TTP's oppressive yoke, the elders remained unconvinced of the permanence of the security situation. They were also unwilling to submit to the army's condition that they be responsible, upon return, for preventing the TTP's re-infiltration into their areas.
By contrast, the army achieved conditions of success much more quickly in the Swat Valley, a scenic tourist destination, also in Pakistan's northwest. More than 2.5 million people fled when the army launched a comprehensive assault to retake the valley in April 2009 from the TTP. By July of the same year, over 90 percent of those IDPs had returned home. The army coordinated closely with locals and village councils, expanded the local police force on an emergency basis, and established an intelligence sharing and informant network that successfully allowed it to prevent any attempt by Taliban militants to return. Swat locals had confidence in the new security environment and enthusiastically contributed to law-enforcement efforts; the population became a force-multiplier that allowed the military to maintain security in an area much larger than it could police by itself.
The situation is still lamentably different in South Waziristan. As one FATA administration official put it to the author earlier this year, "all that's left in South Waziristan is the army and dogs." The army is responsible for ensuring security over an area that is likely beyond its capacity to police without local allies. A White House assessment, published by the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, criticized the Pakistan army's progress in South Waziristan, saying that the army was unable to protect much more than the roads it patrolled and was not engaging TTP fighters that were now re-infiltrating the region.
This increase in militant activity in South Waziristan has unsettled many IDPs. There were two ambushes on soldiers in October and another ambush and a suicide bombing targeting a local peace committee in the agency's Shakai valley in November. The TTP has circulated pamphlets in IDP camps intimidating locals and warning them against returning. The government has promised to give returnees a cash stipend, living essentials, and assistance for rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed in the fighting, but the lethargic pace of compensation and reconstruction in Swat will not give Mehsud tribesmen much confidence in those claims.
All things considered, the start of repatriation for South Waziristan's IDPs is a positive step forward, long overdue, and could be the first concrete move towards making peace permanent in the region. Pakistan's government and army will need to go out of their way to make the repatriation a successful one, and to follow the example they set for post-conflict operations in the Swat valley. The army will need to maintain a strong physical presence and respond rapidly to calls for help; locals will not inform on the Taliban if they do not think anyone will come to their assistance. The army will also need to be much more discriminate in the use of force when responding to Taliban attacks with civilians returning.
Displaced Mehsuds will be watching this process very carefully: how the military handles and protects the first returnees will likely decide whether other people choose to join their kinsmen now at home. The majority of Mehsud IDPs recently polled by the UN High Commission on Refugees is eager to return home, but will not do so recklessly. If the government and the army are able to prove to the Mehsuds that security forces can protect them as they return, more are likely to go back, and more are likely to start taking part in the provision of that security, either by forming village defense committees or by informing on militants seeking return.
The Pakistani government and the army have the opportunity to cultivate local allies in the population of South Waziristan and to deny terrorist groups sanctuary in a critical region-if they can create the right conditions. Repatriation is a critical step in making permanent military gains in Pakistan's counterinsurgency campaign. That campaign's success or failure will have significant implications for security in South Asia and beyond. It cannot afford any more delays.
Reza Nasim Jan is the Pakistan Team Lead at the American EnterpriseInstitute’s Critical Threats Project.