JANI KHEL, Pakistan -- In a desperate attempt to force authorities to take action against the Taliban, members of a Pashtun clan in western Pakistan are refusing to bury their dead and threatening to march on Islamabad.
The primary demand of the Jani Khel, a 60,000-member clan of the larger Wazir Pashtun tribe, is for the government to completely rid the area of militants. But while the government had agreed to this in writing, members of the clan say this demand is far from being met.
Their homeland, Jani Khel, a rural town near the western city of Bannu, is named after the clan. The region borders North Waziristan in close proximity to Afghanistan and is rife with rival Taliban groups years after Islamabad claimed victory in its domestic war on terrorism.
Activists and opposition politicians view the Jani Khel protest as a litmus test for whether Islamabad is ready to move against Taliban factions, both pro- and anti-government. Called good and bad Taliban in local parlance, politicians and rights campaigners blame Islamabad’s murky dealings with such groups for its failure to rout militants out of Pashtun communities. Many of these insurgents exclusively fight for the Afghan Taliban or help Islamabad keep the ultra-radical fugitive Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) at bay. With increasing attacks, the TTP appears to be making a comeback.
Pakistani officials, however, say it’s complicated. They point to the reluctance of clan members to allow an all-out offensive, which officials say could be the only way to get rid of militants. Past counterterrorism operations in the region caused mass displacement and ruined local businesses and properties.
“We will dig up the graves of the four teenagers [whom we buried in March] along with the corpse of Malik Naseeb Khan and march toward Islamabad,” Gul Alam, a Wazir tribal leader, told protesters who are refusing to bury Khan two weeks after he was killed by unidentified gunmen on May 30.
Khan, a Jani Khel tribal leader, was a leading member of the committee that had successfully negotiated an agreement with the government in March following a weeklong protest in which the Jani Khel refused to bury the bodies of four teenagers who were found after having disappeared weeks earlier.
“We will march toward Islamabad with these five corpses,” Alam told a Jani Khel crowd last week. “We will keep on marching even if they shoot us or arrest us all.”
‘Working For Peace’
Khan’s son Rafi Ullah says his family has not joined in the blood feuds endemic in Jani Khel and other neighboring Pashtun regions.
“My father was working for peace since 2009. He was repeatedly attacked by militants who ultimately killed him on May 30,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We have now handed over his corpse to the tribe. Now they will decide when to bury him,” he added. Muslim traditions require a swift burial, usually within a day of death, but the protesters have refused to bury Khan for more than two weeks.
Latif Waziri, a local political activist, says that in a bid to jumpstart negotiations, the government freed six protesters arrested on May 31. He told Radio Mashaal that despite this goodwill gesture, there’s been no progress in talks through tribal intermediaries. “The negotiations are ongoing, but there hasn’t been a breakthrough,” he noted on June 12.
Jani Khel residents want the government to uphold its promises to rout out militants, investigate murders, pay compensation to victims of terrorism, and invest in regional development. But many Jani Khal residents and local leaders are skeptical of the government’s willingness to take concrete action. Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker from neighboring North Waziristan, says the Jani Khel don’t trust Islamabad because terrorist violence continued even after they were displaced and lost their businesses and properties in a military operation in 2009.
“People here are convinced that the state is not interested in ending terrorism,” Dawar told protesters. “It just keeps giving weapons to these groups and lets them fight it out,” he added. “We evacuated Waziristan and Jani Khel, but it didn’t end the Taliban sanctuaries. If the government is serious about going after the Taliban, it should begin with going after those sheltering in Bannu’s suburbs.”
Dawar is also a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement that accuses the Pakistani military of clandestine support for various Taliban factions while oppressing civilians in its counterinsurgency operations. The Pakistani military denies the accusations and in turn accuses the PTM of campaigning on behalf of the Afghan government. Kabul and PTM leaders have repeatedly denied such claims.
Dawar is mindful of local divisions. He wants the Taliban factions to rethink their actions, which have only brought suffering to their communities. “I want to ask the good and bad Taliban: What have your brought to our people apart from dishonor, insult, injury, and destruction?” he said.
Despite repeated efforts, it was not immediately possible to reach the various Taliban factions for comment. But locals named Commander Ishaq as the major figure in the pro-government Taliban, many members of which were previously associated with the TTP and other groups fighting the government. Sadar Hayat and Akhtar Muhammad are believed to be leading figures in the anti-government Taliban. Hayat is seen to be close to Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a renegade militant commander in North Waziristan, while Muhammad is a local TTP leader.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker and politician, is one of the few political leaders who visited the protest last week after circumventing government restrictions that included a road blockade of shipping containers. He says that instead of listening to their demands, authorities blocked the roads to Jani Khel to muzzle the voice of protesters.
“Malik Naseeb was the third victim of targeted assassinations in the region after the government had pledged to investigate past murders under the agreement in March,” he told Radio Mashaal. “How can anyone blame the locals for protesting after the government failed to keep its word?”
Khattak says Islamabad’s response shows that it’s not ready to give up Taliban sanctuaries. During the past two decades, Islamabad has mostly denied hosting the Afghan Taliban or supporting local militants. But senior Pakistani officials have acknowledged hosting the Taliban and have claimed credit for facilitating the group’s talks with the United States.
“The real issue is that Pakistani authorities insist on using these people as cannon fodder in their wars,” he said. “But the people are now aware of this and are resisting strongly through peaceful means.”
The government, however, counters allegations of neglect or colluding with the militants.
Zubair Ahmad Niazi, a deputy commissioner or senior civilian administration official in Bannu, told Radio Mashaal they have been in contact with the protesters through tribal intermediaries and are committed to implementing the agreement concluded with locals in March. He says they prevented some leaders from reaching the protest site because of possible security threats.
Requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, a senior security official told Radio Mashaal that an all-out offensive would be a last resort. “If such protests continue, our only option will be to launch a final offensive against the militants,” he said. “But we are waiting for an opportune time,” he added, alluding to the intense summer heat when daytime temperature frequently surpass 45 degrees Celsius.
Jani Khel residents and political activists, however, want to avoid a military operation. Ishaq, an academic from the region who goes by one name only, says that in unlike other Pashtun regions, the residents of Jani Khel received no compensation or aid after the government’s 2009 military operation. Activists in the region point to North Waziristan and South Waziristan, where some militants continue to operate years after a major military operation displaced more than 1.5 million civilians for years. The region’s residents now hope their activism will prompt Islamabad to turn its back on all militants and establish the rule of law.
“We are begging for peace,” Eid Rehman, an organizer of the protest, told Radio Mashaal. “We just want the government to be true to its word and implement the agreement that it signed.”
Trust is in short supply. On June 14, a government effort to broker an agreement with the Jani Khel protesters through a 50-member delegation of tribal intermediaries and officials failed to reach a conclusion.