Drones Above, Knives Below

In the Pashtun regions of the northwest, writes Asad Hashim in Tanqeed, the Pakistani state rules like an occupying imperial force. Collective punishment, limited rights to legal defense, rule by appointed ‘political agent’: a system almost unchanged from colonial Britain’s 19th century Murderous Outrages Regulations. Life among the Pashtun in Bannu, Pakistan:

The history of Bannu, a sleepy little town of about a million inhabitants in the south of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and adjacent to the Tribal Areas, is long and littered with conquests, banditry and more than its fair share of violence. This town, which lies far off the historically more frequented trade caravan routes between Afghanistan and India, has been constantly ravaged by plundering raids through the ages, many carried out by some of history’s greatest figures: Mahmud of Ghazni invaded it in the 11th century; the Mongol Emperor Tamerlane likewise in 1398; Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, in 1505; the Persian Emperor Nader Shah and Ahmed Shah Durrani, the first Afghan Emir, did the same through the mid-1700s; and, later, Sikh Emperor Ranjit Singh briefly annexed it to his lands in 1838.

And, that’s to say nothing of the regular attacks throughout those years by the Wazir tribes of present-day North Waziristan, which neighbors Bannu. Those attacks continued until it was annexed by the British in 1846 after the first Anglo-Sikh War.

Bannu has also served a way station. It was a stop for Hsuan-Tsang, a Chinese monk, traveler and scholar of the Tang Dynasty, who set the tone for China’s relations with India in the 7th century after writing about his 17-year journey through the country in an epic travelogue, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

In its past, the town is said to have been visited by the Persian Simurgh, the fabled, mythical phoenix who protected Zal-e-Zar the legendary warrior mentioned in the epic Persian poem, Shahnameh. Some say the town’s name comes from that family. Zal’s son Rustom “the bravest of the brave” fathered Banu Goshasp, a warrior princess of great repute in Persian mythology. Bannu the town, is Banu Goshap’s namesake.

And yet, nothing of great significance has ever happened here. Bannu was never permanently occupied by any of the invading forces until the British, nor was it ever the site of a great battle, or a seat of power. The reason, perhaps, is because while it seems that everyone comes through Bannu, no one ever comes to Bannu.

That is, partly, why I went. Before the latest military assault had begun, I traveled to Bannu in March 2014 to speak to its residents about this way station caught in the no-man’s land between Chaman and Torkham on the Pak- Afghan trade routes — a dusty, congested, point of transit, far off the beaten path from Pakistan’s mainstream, but central to those in the adjacent so-called “tribal areas” of Waziristan. Months before the army began its operation, I learned from its residents about Bannu – and its centrality to its more volatile, ungoverned neighbor.

Khan Wazir fled his home in Mir Ali, a major town in troubled North Waziristan in 1998, at the age of just 19, due to an internal tribal dispute. A genial man, quick to smile and to make those around him laugh, he is also, apparently, unafraid of speaking his mind regarding what he calls the “true nature” of the conflict in his homeland, or, for that matter, anything else.

Over the last 16 years, he’s built a successful life for himself here in Bannu, working primarily as a property dealer, with deals taking him as far away as Dera Ismail Khan or Peshawar to the northeast.

“Before, we’d go to Waziristan one or two times a month and come back,” he told me at his modest, but spacious, home in the heart of Bannu’s old town, which remains enclosed within the walled city first established by Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the British colonial officer who first formally annexed Bannu in 1848 “We’d spend the summers there and the winters here. Now, the situation is such that I have not gone back to my home in Waziristan – where my brother, sister and relatives live – for five months.” He adds, “Even if I go, I go for rare reasons, and I go fearfully.”

For Wazir, as for many others, harassment in North Waziristan comes from both the army and local armed groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and its various factions, as well as, separately, [Pakistani militant leader] Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s fighters.

“There is a lot of tension on the route. On the one side, you have the army check posts, when we go there. We have to present ourselves completely. Second, in Mir Ali and Miranshah in Waziristan, we see such faces,” he pauses to laugh, “that a person is needlessly afraid.”

As such, living in North Waziristan is a constantly shifting, fine balance, between protecting oneself from insurgent groups, the Pakistan army and finally, American drones.

Wazir, and others, speak of the Pakistani army’s operations in the Tribal Areas of being “often indiscriminate” with entire villages shelled and widespread killing. This is how the Pakistani state has always dealt with this region, as the British did before them.

Collective punishment is, in fact, even codified into the laws that govern FATA, particularly under the Collective Responsibility clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a set of laws first promulgated by the British empire at the turn of the 20th century and continued by the Pakistani state after independence.

By contrast, Wazir prefers the U.S. drones. “If out of a hundred, they have killed five innocent people, then this is acceptable,” says Wazir.

“They have hit absolutely the right people 95 percent of the time,” he asserts. “The Pakistan army creates a big problem for the people. If there is a bomb blast [by an insurgent group], the army will kill a number of people, shell villages, kill old people and stop people from being able to get to medical facilities [due to curfews]. Drones are better.”

Nevertheless, it’s a hard life, in North Waziristan. Wazir quotes a phrase that has become popular there in recent days: “Oopar drone, neeche churri.”

Drones above, knives below.

In the last six months, it has been the knives below that residents have had to worry about the most. On June 15, the Pakistani military announced the commencement of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after the strike of the Prophet Muhammad’s sword, which the army claimed would provide a “final solution” to Pakistan’s militancy problem.

The military said it was taking on the complex web of armed groups present in North Waziristan, a web that includes the Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (and its various factions), the Haqqani network , and local armed commanders, as well as al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It made no mention, notably, of whether it would target the forces of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful, armed commander who is the true military force in North Waziristan and who has in the past signed accords with the Pakistani state. A Pakistani official recently described him to Tanqeed as “a loyal Pakistani.”

Zarb-e-Azb is the seventh major military operation that Pakistan has carried out against armed groups operating on its soil — all, other than two in Swat, were targeting fighters in the Tribal Areas. So far, air strikes and a preliminary ground operation have killed more than 570 people, according to the military’s figures. At least 36 Pakistanis soldiers have also been killed, the military says. Tanqeed cannot independently verify these figures, as access to the area is restricted. Notably, the military has only so far named one “terrorist” – a “Commander Umer” in Miranshah – of those killed during the operation.

As with previous military assaults, the first effect of the military taking action has been the creation of massive numbers of refugees or what humanitarian organizations call, “internally displaced people” or IDPs — more than 573,000, according to the Federal Disaster Management Authority (FDMA). Following days of travel (often by foot), making their way through bombs, curfews and closed routes, the majority of those have found their way to Bannu.

Accompanying the influx, the city has seen government officials, military, aid workers and journalists descend upon it. It is, once again, the result of events in its more volatile neighbor, North Waziristan, rather than Bannu’s own needs. It is a long-running cycle, and it is here, in Bannu, more than anywhere else, that one can see the truth of the old, clichéd adage: the more things change, the more they remain the same. Indeed, conversations with military, police and civil administration officials create a somewhat disquieting impression that the empire never left these parts of Pakistan – both in terms of how the areas are administered, but also in how the state conceives of its people.

The most evident example of this is the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), British-era laws that the Pakistani state has maintained with few revisions. These laws subject tribes to collective punishment under the FCR’s Collective Responsibility clause. The state continues to administer the district not through representative democracy (as in the rest of the country), but through an all powerful political agent. These laws effectively set-up the Tribal Areas as a place where overwhelming forms of violence is possible such as indiscriminate bombing when the state feels it ought to re-establish its tenuous writ. Moreover, the state has co-opted those armed commanders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who have been amenable to restricting their activities to not targeting the army.

With such laws in place, the tactics employed by Pakistan now are markedly similar to British colonial forces in the 19th and early 20th centuries, except that now Pakistan has traded in the British Westland Wapiti’s, Hawker Hart’s and Hawker Audax’s airplanes for high-tech F-16 and JF-17 jet fighters, and Cobra gunship helicopters. But, much of the ideological basis for the bombing remains. In 1924, the British Royal Air Chief, Hugh Trenchard, explained that basis in a secret directive on bombing the Tribal Areas. “The problem of controlling the tribal territory […],” wrote Trenchard, “has always needed special treatment by reason of the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

The “special treatment” Trenchard spoke of essentially meant swift and massive violence, as he made clear: “Hesitation or delay in dealing with uncivilized enemies are invariably interpreted as signs of weakness.” That these ideas are still in play is evident in the immediacy and disproportionate level of violence meted out Waziristan in response to militant attacks. The air raids carried out by the military as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and in the preceding months (notably in December 2013 and January and May 2014), have been remarkably similar. Both occurred in response to major attacks against civilian or army targets elsewhere in Pakistan, and in both cases, the military merely gave prior warning to residents by distributing leaflets demanding that anti-state fighters be handed over or that the villages face the consequences. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, for example, was launched days after the TTP claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on Karachi’s international airport, which killed 30 people.

It is Bannu that has been dealing with the effects of these colonial practices. The town is central to how the state interacts with and exercises power upon North Waziristan. It is also a sort of halfway house – both for residents of North Waziristan, but also conceptually for the Pakistani state which regards it as almost tribal (which is code for “backward”) even if it is not technically under the jurisdiction of the FCR.

For this part of Pakistan, then, the Raj isn’t over.

Israr Gul, 40, cuts a resigned figure, as we speak in a small shop in Bannu’s main bazaar. He came to Bannu in January, from his home in Miranshah, with his family of 20, fleeing aerial bombardment by the Pakistani military.

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Israr Gul. Photo Asad Hashim

“[We left] when the bombs started exploding. All night there was firing between different checkposts, and the army and Taliban were fighting. So everyone was talking about how we had to get out of there. We did not want to get stuck there [in between the firing]. The children were crying. The schools had shut […] so we thought that we just had to get out.” Not that the Taliban, he says, treated him any differently. “Even the Talibs consider us to be enemies,” he says.

“Anyone who has not raised his weapons is considered an enemy. And the government also considers us to be enemies, that we are from Waziristan, so we are their enemies. The attitude of the government and the Taliban is the same with us. To both of them, we are […] considered to be enemies. [The Taliban] say that I do not carry a gun, that I am not a mujahid, that I am not a Muslim.”

He continues angrily. “That ‘why are you not doing jihad? The Taliban hate those who even so much as smile.”

While narrating the dangers of living in his hometown these days, Gul tells me about a harrowing incident. Following an IED explosion near Miranshah, the army set up a checkpoint, which gathered a crowd of people blocked there, as a result. Soon after, an army convoy sped by, and soldiers opened fire, sending bullets whizzing past villagers’ heads. All the while, he says, the soldiers were yelling and cursing: “Are we not Muslims, bhenchod![you sister-fuckers]?” Gul appears still visibly shaken by the event, and remembering it seems to stir anger, but also confusion.

“I don’t know how long this cruelty on the part of the Taliban and this cruelty on the part of the army will continue to happen. We do not know whether we will remain in this darkness for the next 10 years, or how long. I swear to god, when we leave the house in the morning, we cannot even imagine whether we will return again at night. We cannot even imagine it. We have not done anything.”

This tone of sadness and bewilderment also inflects the speech of Salim Zahid, an ophthalmology technician from Aspalghai, a village near Miranshah, who fled to Bannu with 19 family members in January. Eleven of them have gone back to secure their belongings and land. Eight of them remain, most of them young children, as they try to decide whether it is safe enough to return home. “Whenever you leave your home, you feel like your janaza [funeral procession]is happening,” he says, of leaving Aspalghai. “Because in your home, whatever possessions you leave, or the animals you leave, even they look at you with this look, like they are saying goodbye to you, because they stay there, and you come here. Our problem is…the possessions that we have left they are everything that we own in our lives.”

Zahid, who is a poet of local repute, also speaks of how he feels trapped between the Taliban and the Pakistani army. “This worry is there all the time, and there is uncertainty all the time. Every person is afraid,” he says. “When we go to the markets, there are traffic problems everywhere, because there are checkposts. And, along the way, there have been so many incidents where you have been fired upon, and you do not know who has fired upon you. We don’t know who the enemy is, and what crime you might have committed.”

Zahid’s testimony, and that of many others I spoke with, speaks of a place where the only game in town, when it comes to access to power, is either the political agent or the TTP. Even more troubling for the locals is that the militants, who have taken over swathes of land and now administer it through jirgas or revenues in opposition to the state, are not easily identified only as foreigners. “The Taliban in our area, they are the people of the area,” says Zahid. “The same way that we meet other people, we will shake their hands also, as a part of our routine. Because they used to be our [friends], these days they are Taliban. Maybe in the future they will become one of us again.” Niaz Wazir, a 20-year-old native of Mir Ali, is an interesting case, an earnest young man who moved to Bannu in 2010 so that he could continue to pursue his bachelor’s degree in political science at Mir Ali’s Government Degree College, a state school. Because of the college level quota system, he is forced to remain with that institution — even though there have been no teachers and no lessons there for years. Yet, they do have exams, the only activity for which teachers are present. So, Niaz and hundreds of others like him come to Bannu and live in hostels while studying with private tutors. Then, they go back to their home institutions to take the exams.

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Niaz Wazir. Photo Asad Hashim

Niaz pays 5,000 rupees per month (approximately $50) to share a room with two other boys. He pays another 700 rupees (approximately 7 dollars) for tutoring per subject. All told, his expenses come to about 25,000 rupees per month. While it may be a small sum in dollars – a little less than $250 – in Waziristan, which is especially a deprived area, it is a king’s ransom. Still, Niaz wants to pursue a Ph.D., and use that education to teach other young people in North Waziristan.

In some ways, Niaz’s concerns about paying for his education make him just like any other Pakistani student. I mention this to him.

“Definitely,” he responds, instantly. But, after a brief, thoughtful pause, he elaborates. “All of Pakistan does not have a curfew, though. We have the army there, right? So if you go, you cannot cross the road [in front of them]. They will shoot you straight away. So how can I be said to be inside Pakistan?”

Many of Niaz’s contemporaries have either joined the Taliban, or used their education or connections to get visas to work in the United Arab Emirates, he tells me. Asked why he didn’t choose either option, he says: For myself, I thought that I’ll learn something, gain some wisdom. I will not get involved in this because the future of this militancy is not right. Our destruction is in this militancy. Destruction, yaara, because students cannot get an education, and no one can gain shaoor [wisdom]. If you get involved in this, you will either die in a drone strike, or a bomb blast, or some other way. It will all end. Death is clear, on this path.”

For those in North Waziristan, this sense of being far outside the Pakistani mainstream, is pervasive. It is also justified. FATA exists within its own laws and its own realities. Schools exist, but teachers do not; hospitals exist, but doctors ignore their posts. And, all roads lead to the political agent, rather than any sort of representative local governance or courts.

“It is clear that our lives do not have any similarity to those of people anywhere else in Pakistan – especially in Punjab,” Zahid explained to me. “This poverty, the lack of educational institutions, no system for health or education, like they have in Punjab. That kind of development work has become very little. All the roads are completely destroyed.

[…] We do not have electronic media there, we do not have mobile phone systems there.” Khan Wazir sums it up more pithily. “Look, to my knowledge, perhaps just in Faisalabad there are about 200-300 factories. Ok? Now go yourself on this road from Waziristan to Peshawar. If you find even 200-300 rehris [pushcarts], then fine, you can say that Waziristan is part of Pakistan.”

For Salim, the poet, Khan, the property dealer, Israr, the shopkeeper, and Niaz, the student, the only road out is Bannu. Located just 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Miranshah and 21 miles (35 kilometers) from Mir Ali, Bannu o!ers them, and thousands of others fleeing conflict, access to the kinds of facilities, and safety that their homes no longer provide.

But they’re not the only ones.

“Bannu lies in the way of the Taliban, and we are the first to face the brunt of the issue,” says Sajid Ali Khan, the District Inspector General for Bannu division, which includes neighboring Lakki Marwat district. “I think that Bannu is unique in the sense that it is the first settled area where the TTP was able to establish its foundation and organization, way back in 2005,” explains Khan. “The first settled area [where an]organized or synchronized attack also took place in Bannu. I am telling you of a time when the rest of the province did not receive the aftershock of terrorism, it had not fully spilled over into the settled districts.”

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Home on the outskirts of Bannu

Khan, who has been a police officer for more than 25 years, had been the DIG here for only six months, but seems to be more cognizant of the security challenges that the district faces than anyone else. Or, at least, he is willing to admit them. The junior police officers I spoke to don’t seem to have the power to change events. That’s why they conceptualize their law enforcement duties in intensely local ways. Civilian administrators, on the other hand, don’t think of security issues as a sphere, where they have any control, and, therefore, dismiss them.

The police, however, lie at the intersection. It is a civil force whose entire raison d’etre is security. People like Sajid Ali Khan will tell you the challenges they face, although liberally sprinkled with hyperbole when it comes to the role the police is playing.

Since 2005, Bannu has seen a relentless series of coordinated attacks against police stations, and state institutions, including schools, as well as a major jailbreak in 2012 in which more than 380 inmates freed. There have also been countless IED attacks on army convoys heading towards North Waziristan or elsewhere. The latest major attack was in January, when a bombing of an army convoy in the heavily fortified Bannu Cantonment killed 20 people and threatened to derail the government’s attempts to engage in dialogue with the TTP. As of late March, the district’s bomb disposal squad had already defused more than 100 explosive devices in 2014, police say. Parts of the district, meanwhile, remain entirely dominated by the Taliban and other armed groups.

Khan speaks at length about specific attacks on Bannu police stations and checkpoints at Miran, Huwaid, Bakka Khel, Basya Khel, Mamashkhel, and within the city center itself.

Muhammad Rukhsar, the station police chief for the central city station counted 20 police fatalities in the last year – some from his own sta!. Amin Marwat, an additional Station House Officer at the same station who survived a suicide bombing on his vehicle, recalled an attack on his police station in which he and a handful of police officers held o! two suicide bombers and a number of TTP gunmen who were attempting to raid the building back in 2012.

“Bannu is a gateway for them,” Rukhsar told me. “We are targets all the time, but we battle them.” We are in his police car while on patrol in the city center. “We are not their friends, and we don’t back down. We don’t show them any laxity.” Khan sums up what it’s like, to be a law enforcement officer in Bannu. “It is, more or less, a state of war.”

The civilian administration has a slightly different take on the situation with the Taliban and other armed groups. They think that Bannu provides a safe haven for the militants. “[They] come here to take refuge. Their own families come here to take refuge. So if they do [attacks]here, then it is obvious that there would be an e!ect [on their own people]. Because ultimately this is their pavilion, where they rest,” says Aurangzeb Haider, an assistant commissioner in the local government of the district. Haider ignores the fact that there have been several attacks on Bannu by insurgents.

Mohsin Shah, Haider’s boss and the district commissioner for Bannu, however, dismisses concerns about law and order. “As far as the administration is concerned,” Shah told me in March, “we are not concerned with the law and order now, because things have settled down to a great extent.”

Shah is a tall, heavy-set man. A 24-year veteran of the civil service, he is still quite young and seems to have boundless energy. He prides himself on his collection of Bannu related historical works, and speaks particularly enthusiastically about the imperial gazetteers, a compilation of data and descriptions of local cultures and peoples compiled by the British during their rule. Shah also expresses admiration for John Nicholson, Shah’s counterpart during the British era.

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Bannu. Photo Asad Hashim

Nicholson was British deputy commissioner of Bannu from 1852 to 1855, and his residence from that era is being restored behind Shah’s own office. “Bannu, if you look at history, this is a very old district, dating back to the 1848, when the first deputy commissioner came here. He lived in this house,” he says, pointing to the building behind him, proudly.

He goes on to discuss how Bannu residents are loyal to their rulers. “It’s an old house. John Nicholson was the first deputy commissioner here. In those days, [Bannu natives] used to pay rent. They used to pay land revenue [and]taxes. They paid water rate, the abyana, and the land revenue in that era. So this shows that people are very loyal to the government.”

In his assumptions that Bannu residents are characteristically loyal, Shah draws an essentialist portrait of the locals, one that is based on descriptions in the imperial gazetteer itself. It states, “On the whole [people of Bannu]are an inoffensive people; of little political importance; and however much we may be inclined to despise them as men, we should remember that they are excellent revenue-payers, and that to their prolificness and to the climate in which they live are to be ascribed most of their bad qualities, whether mental or physical.”

Shah implies that Bannu’s ‘loyalty’ in paying taxes and land revenue to the British translates into loyalty to the Pakistani state.

The possibility that Bannu residents, far from feeling loyalty to the state have only become accustomed to being ruled from afar seems to be lost on him. Shah’s attitude towards Bannu, a town where he had been the DCO for eight months when we spoke, is not limited to him. It extends to the state’s transaction-based financial relations with the district. How the state sees Bannu, how it conceives of the people who live here, is inextricably intertwined with colonial forms of knowledge and rule.

Sajid Khan, the DIG, for example, spoke at length about the tribal characteristics of his officers and those they serve. “If you run away here, then it is considered to be a very big dishonor,” he says, speaking glowingly of his officers.

They say that they would be taunted about it, if they run away. So by tradition, and otherwise, […] our people have weapon handling skills – they are born fighters. […] This is a traditional and conservative society as compared to the other developed districts of KPK[the state]. So you will find most of the traditions in a more pristine form here, and bravery you will also find more here.

The [Northwest Frontier Province] Imperial Gazetteer of 1908, speaks in an eerily similar fashion about the local Marwat tribe. “In person, they are tall and muscular; in bearing, frank and open. Almost every officer who has administered the district has left on record a favorable mention of them.”

Khan, perhaps, would not have been out of place as a colonial administrator. Asked what the major crime issue for Bannu was, he as well as others said personal disputes often flared up in the markets. Sometimes, they turned violent. Like the British officers before him, Khan also attributed it to a cultural, “tribal” trait.

“Either there is a blood feud from before, or on the spur of the moment if there is an altercation. [The] Wazirs are more cool, calculated people. They think before they act. And they think 100 times. Very shrewd people, Wazirs. Very shrewd. Don’t look at whether or not they have gone to school – they will be able to keep a Ph.D. fooled for a year! They are that shrewd.”

“But Bannuchis, they are very jazbati [passionate]. This is my personal opinion. At the spur of the moment, they will [act]. And most crimes here are like this: that at the spur of the moment there is an altercation, and then they think about it later.”

Again, it is striking to compare Khan’s words to the impressions of Reynell Taylor, the British administrator of Bannu in the late 1800s. Speaking of the Bannuchi tribe, Taylor wrote in the 1883-84 Bannu District Gazetteer:

“Taken as a class, they are very inferior to their neighbors, the Waziris. Small in stature, and sallow and wizened in appearance […] Here and there a fine character may possibly be found, and they have no doubt some domestic virtues, which in some measure redeem their public and social immorality, but, taken as a class they certainly are the worst dispositioned men I ever had to deal with. They are vicious, false, back-biting, treacherous, cruel , and revengeful. I have never known or heard of men so utterly regardless of truth. The empire may have moved on, but in Bannu, the roots of power and of how it is exercised seem to run deep.”

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Bannu, gate to the old city

In Bannu, no one is perhaps quite as powerful as Akram Khan Durrani, the district’s elected representative in Parliament, and a former chief minister of the Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa government from 2002 to 2007.

Speaking in the courtyard of his opulent home in an upscale suburb of Islamabad, the federal capital, Durrani cuts a more jovial than imposing figure, for someone of his political importance. He grew up in Bannu and recalls it nostalgically. “Bannu, because it is on the border, people have lived very prosperous lives there, always. You would see that there used to an atmosphere like Eid. And there would be people in the streets with dhols,” he says, smiling as he remembers his youth. “In all of Pakistan, it was the most prosperous kind of life that people lived in Bannu.”

Under Durrani’s tenure as chief minister, Bannu did see a spurt of development work: a major new hospital, a university (named after Durrani himself), and several degree colleges and vocational centers were built, with new roads springing up around the district. Those buildings still stand, though many are either not operating, or operating below full capacity, Bannu residents said. The civilian administration, too, admitted as much, with the commissioner, Mohsin Shah, blaming bureaucratic incompetence for the lack of follow-through on service delivery in the district.

Durrani, though, speaks less of realities than of possibilities. As it stands, despite the hospitals and the colleges, the fertile agricultural land and the opportunities for commerce, not enough people are coming to Bannu. Most just seemed to be passing through. Even the refugees stuck here think of it as a way station rather than a destination.

Durrani seems cognizant of this, but, rather than being disheartened by the issue, he wants to use it to make the district come alive again. The fact that Bannu is a gateway, he says, cuts both ways. It may lie adjacent to the Tribal Areas where the law and the relationship to the state become contested issues, but it is also a route in the other direction — for trade and prosperity. For Durrani, Bannu’s proximity to the border areas is a blessing, not a curse. He has visions of turning Bannu into another Torkham or Chaman, passageways to Afghanistan. His eyes light up when he speaks of this prospect.

“If this law and order situation can be solved, then Bannu is a gateway,” says Durrani. “The road from Bannu to Ghulam Khan [in Afghanistan’s Khost province]is complete, and trade is ongoing.” It could be big business, Durrani argues, but when the law and order situation changed, it put a dent in his plans.

The road of which Durrani speaks runs from Bannu, through Mir Ali and Miranshah in unstable North Waziristan, to reach Ghulam Khan Kalay, a border town between Afghanistan’s Khost province and Pakistan. As such, security remains a major concern, although the army does man check posts on it at all times. And, historically, that route has been of limited importance except for certain local exports such as pine nuts and other dried fruit.

So, it remains to be seen whether Bannu, a town that has been ever-present in history and mythology can be capable of being not a land to be carelessly plundered as one passes through, but a destination in and of itself.

Shortly after I left Bannu, the military operation swung into full gear. I have gone back to see what it has down to the town. Bannu continues to provide refuge to refugees, militants and anyone else passing through. And, with the military assault underway, this small town is overwhelmed. Its streets are overflowing with those who have fled the violence there. More than half a million people have left North Waziristan since May 21st, with almost all of them seeking shelter in Bannu, either staying with relatives, or paying rent to move their families into rooms they consider safer than staying at the government’s only camp for refugees in Bakkakhel.

The impact of the influx on the city is unmistakable: one in every two people in Bannu today is an IDP. The civil administration says its infrastructure cannot handle the massive increases in demand, with power outages for 16 hours a day, and other civic services operating at peak capacity.

Long lines of [internally displaced persons]snake outside of three designated aid distribution centers, with thousands waiting for hours in temperatures of more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in the hope of receiving basic food ration packages and cash grants that the army and government are disbursing. The situation is often chaotic, with pushing, shoving and shouting often breaking out, as confused people seek aid for their families. The authorities periodically resort to aerial firing, beatings and laying out barbed wire to control the situation.

Bannu is choking, it seems, on the human detritus of the military assault.

Asad Hashim