Migration and Militancy Along the Pakistani Border


Migration and Militancy Along the Pakistani Border

Assunta Nicolini

27 Apr 2015

Ongoing counter-insurgency efforts by the Pakistani military are leaving thousands displaced. Meanwhile, militants freely use established migration routes to conduct their operations, argues Assunta Nicolini.

Pakistan's decade-long fight against militancy has been intertwined with issues of forced migration. As a result of major military operations carried out between 2007 and 2009, and most recently 'Operation Zarb-e-Azb,' which began in June 2014, millions of civilians have fled their homes. This outflow of people displaced by military action has included militants among the civilian migrants, and the relocation of these militants across the region appears to be governed by a series of push factors and pull factors that mirror the decision-making of civilian migrants and refugees.

Pakistan's counter-insurgency policy emerges as a key factor and is central to an understanding of the migration of militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan's stated determination to root out militants from its frontier regions, military operations have targeted such groups selectively, with certain implications for the migration dynamics of militants and militant sympathisers. While militant outfits regarded as threats – for example, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan, TTP) and its allies – have been consistently pursued and targeted, the presence of other groups, which focus their military efforts against troops within Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani Network, have been largely tolerated.

Both types of militant groups have consistently faced forced migrations between 2008 and the present day, but in accordance with very different patterns. The Haqqani Network and its affiliates, aligned with Islamabad – or at least with powerful elements within the security establishment – have been directed towards appointed safe havens (mainly within certain parts of the tribal agencies, such as Kurram). On the other hand, those militants who opposed the Pakistani state could only hope to attempt to disappear among fleeing civilians. The military operations in Swat (2007) and South Waziristan (2009), aimed at rooting out the TTP and other anti-state militant groups, provide a good example of militants' migration trajectories.

Elements within the security establishment still distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' Taliban.

The phenomenon of the 'Talibanisation' of Karachi is a direct outcome of this outflow of militants, fleeing by migrating to the metropolis. The choice of destination was influenced by a number of 'pull' factors: a large Pashtun population, great potential in terms of fundraising, and the openness with which criminal networks (many of them politically aligned) operate. Further, and vital for the militant leadership, drones and military air power cannot operate in a densely populated urban environment.

The most recent major military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan (June 2014), had varying effects on the movement of militants. While militants belonging to the TTP and other anti-government factions attempted to reach safer areas by hiding among the huge flow of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Haqqanis and allied groups were allowed to migrate to safer areas before the operation started. Regional analysts agree that most Haqqani members simply relocated to areas within Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber agencies.

Zarb-e-Azb replicated the migration dynamics of previous counter-insurgency offensives, but with an added transnational dimension: along with approximately 250,000 IDPs from North Waziristan unable to access relief assistance in Pakistan, militants found refuge across the border in Afghanistan. According to reports, hundreds of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and al-Qaeda fighters, with their families, migrated to Helmand, Ghazni, Zabul and Farah. For them, an important pull factor was the protection and assistance provided by the Afghan Taliban, who in many areas exert territorial control, maintain their own judiciary, and dictate basic educational policy. In this context, migratory flows and the dynamics of the regional insurgency coincide and reinforce each other. Militants become migrants, pushed and pulled by a set of factors affecting their livelihoods and the lifestyle of their families, rather than by political ideology or by the imperatives of the insurgency itself.

Despite Pakistan's determination to assert that Zarb-e-Azb was indeed effective in rooting out extremists, militants responded with indiscriminate displays of spectacular violence. The attack on the Army Public School in December 2014 in Peshawar, which killed over 150 civilians, most of them schoolchildren, led the government to draw up an ambitious and controversial counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP).

Migration is a key factor in Pakistan's counter-terrorism policy.

Migration has re-emerged as a key factor in Pakistan's counter-terrorism policy. The revised NAP made the en masse repatriation of Afghan refugees, often long-term residents in northwest Pakistan, a top priority. In the immediate aftermath of the Peshawar attack, the implication seemed to be that Afghan refugees had somehow borne some responsibility for the massacre, even though the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. There is nothing novel in this approach; Afghan migrants have often served as scapegoats in the 'law and order' initiatives of Pakistani politicians.

For most of the approximately 2.5 million Afghans still living in Pakistan – registered or undocumented – this has meant unprecedented pressure in the form of arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and expropriation of property. In the aftermath of the school attack, almost 4,000 Afghans were arrested in Peshawar in the first quarter of 2015 (16 for alleged terrorism-related offences), while over 50,000 were involuntarily repatriated to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, as military operations in North Waziristan wound down towards Spring 2015, Pakistan appeared eager to accelerate the return of IDPs. Returnees, however, seem reluctant to go back to their homes, where infrastructure has been severely damaged by conflict and they will receive minimal support to rebuild their livelihoods. But even more controversial are the draconian conditions imposed through a "social agreement" ("Contract of the State of Pakistan with People of North Waziristan"), requiring returnees to guarantee law and order in their home areas. The terms state that tribesmen have both an individual and collective responsibility to keep militants out, to which end they are encouraged to set up militias, like the 'peace lashkars' previously seen in other parts of the tribal agencies.

Pakistan has thus ultimately shifted a part of its security responsibilities onto the affected population. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that those elements within the security establishment which continue to distinguish between their strategic proxies, the 'good Taliban,' and anti-Pakistan 'bad Taliban," have changed their stance. Zarb-e-Azb therefore led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and their exposure to the precariousness of life as internally displaced persons, while many of the very militants who were the ostensible targets of the military action were able to rely on relatively secure migration mechanisms.


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