North Waziristan, now a district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa is a wildly beautiful place. It had recently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A rugged place, this had come to be dominated by the Taliban. It took enormous resources of the state to wrest it back and restore its writ. I visited the area as part of a university research team to find out how the post rehabilitation was taking place on the ground.
We left Islamabad, one muggy August morning – a little late in leaving because of administrative snags. The journey was uneventful. From Bannu we were given a military escort and it was dusk, when we crossed Saidgai check post and it was nearly dark by the time we entered Mir Ali Cantonment. For me this place has special nostalgic value. I trained here for my ISSB physical test in 1974. An uncle of mine was commandant of the Tochi Scouts training centre located here. The training centre is still there. It is now part of Frontier Corps KP (South). The existing facility had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by the militants. An army brigade headquarter is now based in Mir Ali. We had a fruitful discussion with brigade commander on the dinner table of he views, about the situation and what tactics and strategies are being adopted to bring back normality. The next morning, we visited Golden Arrow Army Public School (GAAPS) in Mir Ali. This wonderful new building and a dedicated staff indicated Pakistan Army’s resolve to rebuild the lives of the people, particularly the younger generation.
From our early morning visit to the school, we moved to Boya to see the copper mines. En route we stopped at Gardai, where my unit was deployed on the eve of independence. An old fort is still there and commemorates the fact that Ayub Khan as a young officer served here. We also utilized the short break to visit a local government school and meet the teachers and students. The teachers were hospitable in the tribal tradition and the students knew their lessons. Boya, our destination has been a known site for copper exploration for a very long time. The locals had been extracting raw ore and selling it in the open market as far away as the Hatar industrial state. Now a copper plant has been established here under the supervision of Frontier Works Organization (FWO). A formula has been devised to plough back 50 per cent of the earning for the welfare of the local people. A team of competent engineers and workers are overseeing the entire project. The heavy transport and machinery has been borrowed from the locals thus fueling the local economy. At Boya fort one could see the hulks of vehicles destroyed in IED attacks. Beyond is Khar Qamar, scene of one of the worst ambush sites and scene of an unsavory demonstration. On our return we visited an orphanage in Mir Ali being run by Pakistan Sweet Homes. Orphans are a sad reality of this war ravaged area. But the spirit of the orphans was uplifting. They sang patriotic songs, celebrated the birthday of a young peer of theirs. After the celebrations we played an even more spirited game of football.
The next day, we visited Razmak, a hill town at the height of over 7000 feet. Razmak had been a British outpost to control restive tribes on both sides of the Shora Alqad. There is a beautiful scouts’ mess here and a cadet college in Razmak. The operations of the college were disrupted twice in the past but normal activity has resumed here for the past few years. The people of Razmak refused to be taken over by the insurgents. They had been the greatest beneficiary of the fruits of education through the cadet college, even though the war did effect it as well. The current GOC is an alumnus of Cadet College Razmak.
After over nighting in Razmak, our next step was Alexandra Fort on our way back. It was captured by 3 Gorkha Regiment (Princess Alexandra’s Own) in 1922. The piquet is named after Alexandra and provides a very nice panoramic view of the area. A PTV booster is also located here. There are plans in pipeline to install a chairlift for tourism.
Our next stop was Miranshah, another British outpost from the days of the imperial Great Game. Miranshah is a fort and the HQs of Tochi Scouts (established circa 1904). The British had deployed aircraft squadrons within the fort from 1922. In 1928, the famous spy TE Lawrence served here masquerading as Leading Aircraftman TE Shaw. The PAF maintained its presence here till 1961 for operations against Faqir of Ipi, who wanted Waziristan to join Afghanistan. The Faqir died in 1960 and with him ended a saga. A monument for the PAF squadrons deployed in Razmak Fort stands next to the runway. My late father served here in 1950.
Pakistan Army has done a wonderful job of reviving Miranshah. The bazars have been reconstructed and a modern state of the art hospital is fully operational. The Medical Superintendent gave us a detailed briefing. His worry was power outage that affects the operations of this facility. During our stay in Miranshah, we were also able to meet some former militants and obtain their views about the future. The Army is doing its best to engage all strata of the society, including the Maliks (the tribal elders), and the old as well as the young generation. The new civil administration, the judicial system and the police services (comprising the former khasadars and levies) are at the moment struggling to establish their presence.
Our last stop the next day was Ghulam Khan border-post. The commandant of Tochi Scouts gave us a thorough briefing from a vantage point and indicated the fencing activity and the series of forts on the crest line to guard and manage the border and a new border terminal to regulate the trade.
After a week long hectic and often intense study tour, we moved back to civilization. As we traveled under military escort and saw the reassuring sight of soldiers patrolling the roads and civilian traffic moving peacefully past check posts without any undue interference. Soon In Shaa Allah, the Army will go back and the civil administration will take over. On the way back what caught my attention were endless date orchards in Khajoori. It is quality date producing area and the fruit grown here is much sought after. Before we entered Bannu, we saw one last remnant of conflict – IDP camp in Baka Khel. Once these internally displaced people go back, true peace will return to Waziristan. I’m sure this day will be soon.
Long live Pakistan.