Starting from 1979 when the PDPA communist government of Afghanistan launched a military operation in Afghanistan’s Kunar province which ended up displacing over 2/3 of its population into Bajaur, Bajaur’s porous border with Afghanistan has been an important point of infiltration into Afghanistan, first against the Afghan army, then against the Soviets and since 2002, against the NATO forces. The Taliban are fully aware of the strategic importance of Bajaur in the fight against NATO in Afghanistan. Their commander for Kunar, Nuristan and Bajaur, Qari Zia ur Rahman, said, in an interview with Syed Saleem Shehzad, that “whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Bajaur”.
Bajaur also shares a south eastern border with Malakand where Sufi Muhammad’s TNSM movement is located. The TTP leader in Bajaur Faqir Muhammad has links with the TNSM movement and accompanied Sufi Muhammad to Afghanistan in his jihad against the Northern Alliance and the US in 2001. The madrassah in Chenagai in Bajaur that was destroyed in the famous missile attack in November 2006 was a TNSM madrassah, and Faqir Muhammad gave an angry speech at the funeral of the 82 people who were killed in the attack. The interesting thing about the Chenagai madrassah missile attack was that it was cited as the cause of the increase in militant attacks within Bajaur as well as the cause given by Maulana Fazlullah for the resumption of his militant activities in Swat. (his brother was killed in the attack).
So it’s very difficult to support the recent claims made by many in the Pakistan religious right, the federal government and the NWFP provincial government that the issue of Swat is a local issue, given the many links between the militancy in Swat and Bajaur. Similarly, given the long history infiltration into Kunar by militants based in Bajaur, it’s difficult to separate the anti-NATO militancy in Afghanistan from the TTP campaign in FATA and NWFP. Apart from the TTP and TNSM, other militant groups operating out of Bajaur are Jaish-e-Islam (JI) of Qari Wali Rahman (a.k.a. Raihan) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), a Punjabi cadre of militants headed by Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
The US missile attack on the Chenagai madrassah came a day before the Pakistani government was getting ready to sign a peace deal with the Bajaur militants along a similar line to their widely criticized September 5 Waziristan Accord. A few days after the madrassah attack, the first suicide attack on a military garrison (at Dargai, in NWFP) occurred and this led to the postponement of the peace deal. The Chenagai madrassah strike and the Dargai suicide bombing were, even before the Lal Masjid siege, important turning points in defining the militants’ increasingly antagonistic relationship with the Pakistani army. It’s important to note that following the Chenagai madrassah strike the Jamaat-e-Islami MNA from Bajaur resigned in protest and the Jamaat began to be even more fiercely critical of the Musharraf regime’s military policies in the tribal areas.
By the beginning of 2007, the security situation in Bajaur had deteriorated horribly, .e.g the Taliban had launched a leaflet campaign warning barbers in Khar not to shave beards, marketplaces were deserted and the Taliban had declared Shariah in Bajaur. Despite this, the military and NWFP governor Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai went ahead and signed a peace deal in March 2007. The deal was said to have been made directly with the local TTP leader Faqir Muhammad. This deal was heavily criticized by the US as it, along with the Waziristan Accord had resulted in a reported 300% increase in cross border militant attacks into Afghanistan. A day after the deal was signed, an ISI official travelling through Bajaur was ambushed and killed. By June 2007, Governor Orakzai was warning the use of force “as a last resort” if the situation didn’t improve. By June 29, Faqir Muhammad had openly announced to journalists his plan to establish Shariah law in Bajaur, a bridge was blown up, tribal elders were ambushed and killed and in August tribal leaders were warned of a final round of talks with the militants after which the government would be forced to take strict action. Despite that, not much action was taken against the Bajaur militants in late 2007 as the army was busy in Swat driving the TNSM militants out of their stronghold in Imam Dehri (near Mingora) into the mountains and Musharraf was mired in political difficulties following his November 3rd emergency declaration. Also, in August 2007, contradicting the promises of harsh reprisal against militants in Bajaur, Musharraf had already announced that after January 2008 there would be no regular army in FATA:
“Paramilitary forces including Frontier Constabulary (FC), Levies and Khasadars will take over the charge of tribal areas from military, which would be withdrawn after January 2008,” the president told the FATA parliamentarians who called on him here at the camp office.
Following the February 2008 elections was a long period of political confusion during which the ANP-led provincial government conducted peace deals with the Swat militants while the military concurrently signed some peace deals with Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan together with the new NWFP governor Owais Ahmed Ghani who had replaced governor Aurakzai in January 2008. In keeping with Musharraf’s promise in August 2007, the army was being completely withdrawn from FATA and the US was not pleased. There were several US drone attacks into FATA during this time including one in May on Damadola which killed around a dozen people. Following this attack, journalist Rifatullah Orakzai visited Damadola and reported that:
Taleban militants appear to be in complete control of two Bajaur sub-districts, Mamund and Salarzai, and people seem to be reluctant to express their opinions freely.
Bajaur and Mohmand really came to attention again in June 2008 when Afghan forces clashed with militants on the Kunar border. The militants retreated into the Pakistani side of the border (into Mohmand agency) and US missiles ended up bombing a Frontier Corps outpost killing 25 including 12 Frontier Corps soldiers who were allegedly assisting the militants. Pakistan-US relation were extremely tense and at their lowest point since 2002.