End of Khyber-II
ON the first anniversary of the ongoing Operation Zarb-i-Azb on June 15, the military wrapped up Operation Khyber-II in the Tirah region.
Launched in March, after the military cleared much of the Bara plain in Operation Khyber-I, this follow-on operation in Khyber Agency was meant to clear the fierce Tirah terrain consisting of deep valleys and high mountains.
The principal threat in the Tirah region came from the TTP; the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-i-Islam; a breakaway TTP faction, the Jamaatul Ahrar; and sundry foreign militants.
That the military, with its superior power, would eventually prevail over the militants in terms of reclaiming the Tirah region was always clear.
However, there has been a high cost, not least in terms of the more than 50 dead soldiers and over 100 injured.
Yet, with the army chief in North Waziristan yesterday and the military preparing for what is expected to be one of the toughest fights there in the Shawal region, loss of life in military operations is the high price the country sadly must pay for the state to once again reassert its control in the militancy-hit regions.
It should be noted that Operation Khyber-II has not resulted in actual physical control by the military of all three passes from Tirah into Afghanistan — though the unreclaimed valleys of one of the three passes can, according to the military, be controlled by aerial firepower because the military now occupies the peaks over them.
This means two things. One, Operation Khyber-II may require another phase for the total recapture of Tirah. Two, the military may apparently be forced into the continued use of air strikes in the Rajgal and Kachkol valleys to prevent the movement of militants until winter.
At that point, with the onset of the cold season, a new challenge will emerge if the valleys have not been taken over by the military by then — ensuring a military presence in tough and inhospitable terrain while simultaneously guarding against hardened militants slipping in under the cover of extreme temperatures.
Vital as it has been to reclaim the Tirah region, it was clearly left to the last because of the challenge it posed, unlike the Bara plains which were relatively easier to secure in Khyber-I.
From this point onwards, the post-operation challenge is a familiar one: the military can hold and secure terrain, but it will only ever return to some semblance of long-term normality if the civil administration is allowed to function — and if the civilians show some ownership of the project.
Administrative control of the Tirah tehsil has traditionally been done from Bara, a situation that must change if Tirah is to be stabilised.
Perhaps a road-building project into Tirah would also go a long way in creating long-term stability in a region that has been dominated by kidnap gangs, drug traffickers and, of course, militant groups.
Bridges to Nowhere
THE collapse of Chanawan bridge near Gujranwala, which resulted in the loss of 17 lives when the engine and three carriages of a train passing over it fell into the canal below, is a tragedy whose cause might take a while to determine. What is regrettable to note is the early blame game that has led to tensions between those officials responsible for law enforcement and those responsible for maintenance of the bridge. The former said it was unlikely to be an act of sabotage, whereas the latter said the bridge, which is more than a century old, was in working condition as trains passed over it regularly. This exchange began even as rescue efforts were still under way, and was sparked when unnamed military officials gave informal statements to the media saying they suspected sabotage since the train was carrying troops to participate in a military exercise. Speculations about the causes of such tragedies should wait at least until rescue efforts have beencompleted.
What is worth bearing in mind, though, is that this is not the first bridge collapse in recent years, although it is the first one involving a railway bridge. Only last month, the collapse of the Old Bara bridge in Peshawar killed three individuals, and in April more than 50 people were injured when a makeshift bridge in an Islamabad slum collapsed as people gathered on it for a funeral service. Then in September last year, another bridge in Attock collapsed while the river below was in high flood, killing three people in a car as they were crossing it. In July 2012, two people died when a pedestrian bridge collapsed in Lahore. Then, of course, the famous Shershah bridge collapse in Karachi, that sparked an epic blame game of its own in 2007, killed five people. There are many other examples of bridges poorly maintained or makeshift bridges built for pedestrians in rural areas or urban slums collapsing. The death toll in the present tragedy is higher than in any of the other incidents mentioned here, but taken together they all highlight the casual manner in which bridges are treated in our society. Building and using bridges is easier than ensuring they remain safe from wear and tear as well as sabotage. Thus far, our track record in ensuring the upkeep and protection of our infrastructure has inspired little confidence.
HAD it not been for timely action by the police, the horror that was Kot Radha Kishan could have been replayed all over again on Tuesday in Makki, another village in Punjab. The circumstances were similar — a poor Christian couple, a blasphemy allegation, hate-mongering clerics inciting a mob to violence, and a possible underlying motive that had nothing at all to do with religion. The utter lack of reason was, of course, a given: the victims, who were illiterate, had found an old panaflex advertisement for various colleges which they were using to sleep on. Some Arabic inscription, allegedly from the Quran, was part of the text which led two clerics and a barber — who, it is said, coveted the couple’s home — to accuse them of committing blasphemy. According to a senior officer of the district police, a mob had dragged the couple out of their home and was beating them to death when the police intervened and rescued them. One of the clerics who incited the mob has been arrested while the other two instigators are still at large.
It is, unfortunately, rare that law enforcement comes down so assertively on the side of marginalised groups, particularly when faced by mobs baying for blood. Perhaps the Kot Radha Kishan incident last year, in which a young Christian couple was lynched upon being accused of committing blasphemy and burnt in the brick kiln where they worked, was a watershed of sorts. The court has been insistent upon a thorough police investigation into that case, and recently indicted over 100 suspects, including the three clerics who had allegedly incited the mob. In the current instance as well, all those involved must be brought to book, and the victims enabled to return to their home in dignity. While the actions of the police were no more than what their job demands, they must be commended — for such a stand on their part sends a powerful message to those seeking power or pelf by exploiting religion.
DAWN Editorials – 4th July 2015.