ISLAMABAD // Thousands of refugees have returned to their homes in Pakistan's militancy-plagued tribal territory, after the government announced it was calling off a military operation against Taliban insurgents there for the month of Ramadan.
An estimated 300,000 people had fled their homes in Bajaur, in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan, since the military launched an operation last month to flush militants from the area. For Washington and others calling for robust action against Taliban and al Qa'eda in the tribal territory, the fierce fighting was a positive sign that Pakistan was at last taking on the extremists.
Additionally, reports said locals in Bajaur were raising their own traditional tribal armies - known as lashkar - to take on the militants. According to reports, a lashkar of up to 4,000 volunteers had been assembled by the Salarzai tribe to demolish compounds used by the Taliban. But, the government over the weekend made the surprise announcement that hostilities in Bajaur would be halted for Ramadan. This came at a point when, according to the army, the militants were "on the run".
Following the ceasefire announcement by Rehman Malik, the interior ministry chief, refugees from Bajaur, who were living in squalid conditions in makeshift camps in neighbouring North West Frontier Province, quickly tried to make it home. Jamil Amjad, the relief commissioner for NWFP, said that in the Lower Dir area, 50,000 displaced people left between Saturday and Sunday night, and that only 20,000 remained.
"The reports we're getting is that most of the people have indeed gone home," said Mr Amjad. "Nothing could be a substitute for their own home, no matter how poor and how small it may be." But for some people, the return may be bittersweet. The Bajaur military operation was carried out mostly by aerial bombardment reducing some homes and communities to rubble, with the militants still a menace. But people clearly wanted to be in familiar surroundings for Ramadan, in the hills of Bajaur, out of the heat of the camps and in homes where purdah can more easily be observed by the women.
Major Gen Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the army, said the ceasefire was not the military's decision and warned that it was contingent on the behaviour of the Taliban. He emphasised that it was a suspension, not a cessation, of operations. "It all depends on the offensive action of the other side. If they attack, the response will be harsh," Major Gen Abbas said. Some critics question why the government called the ceasefire, which applies to the entire tribal territory. Previous ceasefires have allowed the extremists to regroup and rearm.
A similar suspension of hostilities is expected in Swat, a valley in NWFP that the Taliban have attempted to take over. The militants in Bajaur had called for a ceasefire last week, apparently hurt by the military assault. In the past, there had been criticism that the Pakistani security forces were holding back against the militants, but the Bajaur operation had seemed to be a genuine effort. "No one can be blamed for characterising the suspension of military operations in the tribal areas as a weak-kneed response to the challenge of internationalised terror," thundered an editorial yesterday in Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper. "The right thing to do is to carry on the noble deed of rescuing the people of Pakistan during Ramadan and to think of resting only after the job is accomplished."
Politics may be the real reason for the truce. There is a presidential election on Sept 6 and members of parliament from the tribal area, as well as the Islamist parties, were against the operation in the FATA. Asif Ali Zardari, whose Pakistan People's Party leads the coalition government, is set to secure the position, but the margin of victory will be important to his future credibility as president.
The tribal territory, which runs along the Afghan border, is a vital refuge for insurgents fighting Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. While the Pakistani army operation did not extend to the epicentre of militancy, South Waziristan, Bajaur was an important base for the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The impact of the government's decision to stop fighting there is likely to be felt across the border and all the way to Washington.
"The suspension announced by Malik means relief to the Taliban and al Qa'eda from fear of air strikes, which were hampering their cross-border terrorism into Afghanistan," said Bahukutumbi Raman, an analyst who was formerly head of India's RAW intelligence agency. "This could result in an escalation of their attacks on the US and other Nato forces in Afghan territory during the period of Ramadan, when jihadi terrorists tend to step up their attacks."