Last summer the Pakistani Army ordered the evacuation of Miram Shah, a town in the heart of North Waziristan, and all the villages surrounding it. Nine-year-old Sarah had lived in North Waziristan her entire life, but she was happy to leave. Every time a Pakistani Army jet or a US drone flew too close, her family had to race to the bomb shelter, which her younger siblings had turned into a game. But Sarah hated being in the dark hole as much as the noise of the bombing. Her father tried to reassure her, telling her the attacks were meant for the militants—the Pakistani Taliban—not her.
Then, five days after the military launched a major offensive to root out militants from the region, Sarah and her family received the notice of evacuation. All residents surrounding the towns of Miram Shah, Mir Ali, Datta Khel, and others were given three days to leave, after which all roads leading out of North Waziristan would be closed. Anyone who stayed behind would be considered hostile to the state, said the evacuation notice.
For more than a decade, families like Sarah’s in this region bordering Afghanistan have been stuck between two terrifying forces: the Pakistani military and the militants, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), colloquially known as the Pakistani Taliban. During the Cold War, the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), convinced many of the tribesmen to join the war against Soviet forces then occupying Afghanistan. Then known as jihadis or mujahedeen, they were even celebrated as “freedom fighters” by President Ronald Reagan when he hosted some of their leaders in the Oval Office in 1985. But after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, the Americans also abandoned it, leaving behind a power vacuum. Civil war raged until the Taliban, a disciplined Islamist fighting force trained and armed by the Pakistani military and ISI, took over Kabul in 1996. The Afghan Taliban harbored Al Qaeda fighters from Central Asia, Africa, and Arab countries until, after the terror attacks against the United States in 2001, the Americans invaded Afghanistan and drove those fighters across the porous border into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which include North and South Waziristan.
The state-set historical precedent of jihad, the Taliban’s intimidation of the local population, and the lack of development and infrastructure in the tribal areas made it fairly simple for TTP fighters to take control of much of the region. Since 2004, the Pakistani Army has launched repeated operations against militants in the FATA. The United States has supported each offensive, because jihadi groups flourishing in the FATA have spread chaos in the region and pose a security threat to the West. Each time, it has been the civilians who paid the highest price.