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Government Inaction Fans Dangerous Tribal Disputes In Waziristan

On November 19 activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement marched on the trenches of two rival clans in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, to force a brief cease-fire.

Residents of a remote region in western Pakistan say Islamabad’s failure to enforce a cease-fire between two clans threatens their security and encourages further violent clashes over conflicting land ownership claims.

Some residents of Mir Ali, a major town in the North Waziristan district bordering Afghanistan, protested this week to draw attention to clashes between the Khaddi and Machi Khel clans after activists forced a brief cease-fire by thronging their trenches. So far no one has been killed in the fighting, which erupted last month, but both sides have resorted to the use of heavy weapons -- leaving locals fearing a bloody outcome.

“Unfortunately, neither the local administration, provincial government nor military authorities intervened,” Adil Dawar, a local activist, told Radio Mashaal. “They waited and watched as young activists stepped in to impose a cease-fire.”

Officials, however, deny turning a blind eye and say they are working within the law to address the issue. But critics say disagreements and a lack of resources prevent officials from proactively resolving such disputes.

North Waziristan is one of the seven districts in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was merged into the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018. More than two and a half years later, residents now see clashes over land disputes clouding the future of the mountainous region, where tens of thousands were killed and millions displaced during more than a decade of Taliban control and military operations.

“We want the state machinery to do its job,” Dawar said. “We want to see the government’s authority and rule of law established.”

Hamza Dawar, another activist, is calling on tribal leaders to intervene. “We are begging them to mediate. The government is staying silent,” he said.

The activists who brokered the failed cease-fire last week blame the government for fomenting tribal disputes to establish control over a divided population.

“The security forces are present near the hilltops where the two clans have established trenches to target each other,” said Nadeem Askar, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement. He and fellow PTM leader Haji Abdul Samad led a group of volunteers to broker a cease-fire between Khaddi and Machi Khel members on November 19.

“Even 24 hours after we established a tenuous truce, the local administration had not intervened,” Askar said. The group named their initiative “Cheegha” or The Call -- an ancient custom sometimes mobilized in Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan to stop the actions of hostile members by storming their trenches in large numbers.

“I don’t blame the members of the Khaddi or Machi Khel. It is the government’s responsibility to prevent them from fighting,” Samad told a gathering of PTM supporters as gunshots rang out in the background.

“It is strange that carrying a gun for personal protection is not allowed here, and you can be arrested and punished for doing so,” he added. “But you can easily get machine guns, rockets, and mortars if you want to kill your brother in a feud,” he said, naming some of the weapons used in Mir Ali’s fierce tribal clashes.

Nadeem Askar (C) and Haji Abdul Samad (L) led a group of volunteers to broker a cease-fire between Khaddi and Machi Khel clans on November 19.
Nadeem Askar (C) and Haji Abdul Samad (L) led a group of volunteers to broker a cease-fire between Khaddi and Machi Khel clans on November 19.

But leaders of the Khaddi, a clan of the larger Dawar Pashtun tribe, and the Machi Khel, a branch of the Wazir tribe, speak of honor and legacy. They say they buy weapons by collecting donations from clan members who volunteer as fighters to defend more than 1,000 hectares of disputed land near Mir Ali. The dispute is nearly a century old.

Anwar Khan, a leader of the Machi Khel, says the land belongs to them and they won its ownership at various jirgas or tribal gatherings. “This was our grazing land for generations,” he told Radio Mashaal. “They have trespassed on our territory.”

But Malik Kamal Shah, a Khaddi tribal leader, refutes these claims. He says the Khaddi have legal ownership thanks to rulings dating back to the British administrators in 1926. “Even now, we will accept any decision by the courts that are presiding over these disputes,” he said.

But the courts barely function in North Waziristan and other parts of FATA. Across the region, the lack of land records and mounting competition among clans, local residents, and the government is fomenting new land disputes. The authorities have yet to come up with a comprehensive plan to resolve the current disputes and prevent future ones from occurring.

In North Waziristan, Shahid Ali, the deputy commissioner or most senior civilian bureaucrat, told Radio Mashaal they are using tribal intermediaries to stop the Khaddi and Machi Khel from fighting. “Both sides need to commit to the law and constitution in resolving this dispute,” he said. “If they won’t abandon violence, the law will take its course.”

Shafiullah Gandapur, the district police chief, issued a warning on November 22. “[Members of the two tribes] are prohibited from carrying arms, swords, spears, bludgeons, guns, knives, sticks, explosives, rocket launchers, missiles, and other articles, which can be used to cause harm to humans,” he wrote in a letter. In late October, Ali and Gandapur reportedly brokered a brief cease-fire between the two clans.

But another official in North Waziristan cited internal disagreements among the authorities. He requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media about internal government deliberations.

“The deputy commissioner has been telling the police to intervene in the fighting by deploying forces, but the police are reluctant to do so because the forces are small and ill-equipped,” he said. “The military, on the other hand, is also on the backfoot because of the PTM protests,” he added. “They want to stay out of such local disputes.”

Across North Waziristan, residents hope the authorities will be more proactive in preventing six large tribal disputes from spilling over into violence. Hundreds have been killed in clashes between various North Waziristan clashed during the past four decades as the ongoing war in nearby Afghanistan has made modern weapons more easily available.

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    Umar Daraz Wazir

    Umar Daraz Wazir is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in North Waziristan, Pakistan. His reporting focuses on militant violence and the challenges of rehabilitating the region after nearly two decades of insurgent violence.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.