ISLAMABAD -- Tribal elders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are enjoying safety they have not known in more than a decade.
A non-stop progression of military counter-insurgency offensives has broken up a long effort by militants to decapitate tribal society by assassinating tribal elders, observers say.
"Army operations revived peace in the tribal agencies," Lt. Gen. (ret.) Javed Ashraf Qazi, a senator and former intelligence official, told Pakistan Forward.
Prior to the restoration of peace, from 2005 through 2016, militants and gunmen killed 149 tribal elders, mostly in FATA and KP, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
Not a single tribal elder in FATA or KP died in terrorist attacks or targeted killings since 2015. In 2016, two tribal elders from Balochistan were killed.
Security efforts paying off
The Taliban began targeting tribal elders in 2005 after the elders voiced their support for the government, army and intelligence agencies, explained Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah, former FATA security secretary.
"At the end of 2004, the tribal elders signed agreements with the political administration, [allowing] for the arrest of Taliban members in tribal areas," he told Pakistan Forward.
The agreements aimed to discourage the Taliban's presence and power in the region, which previously the tribal community tolerated, he said. "That enraged the militants and they started killing elders."
Shah credits military operations -- beginning with Operation Rah-e-Nijat launched in South Waziristan in 2009 -- for breaking the militants' might and ability to carry out frequent terrorist attacks.
"In June 2014, the military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan and ultimately eliminated the networks, strength and bomb-making units of the Taliban, which improved security situation in FATA, KP and other parts of the country," he said.
The fall of militant might
Years of relentless work by security forces have made the tribal areas and KP safer for elders, observers say.
On-going military operations -- such as Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad (beginning in February 2017) -- have been successful in eliminating the threat of terrorism, killing and arresting thousands of terrorist elements belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamatul Ahrar, al-Qaeda and their allied militant groups.
However, tribal society that existed before the onset of terrorism no longer exists, said Qazi, pointing to the damage wrought by years of violence and the effect of recent political reforms.
Even though the army has defeated the TTP and restored peace in tribal areas, paving the way for the return of tribal elders, he said, elders lack the undisputed clout they enjoyed before terrorism began to surge in 2001.
That said, the TTP has become a shadow of its former self, operating on a small scale in remote pockets of Khyber and Orakzai agencies, he said.
"They are no longer capable of launching attacks," Qazi said. "Now the TTP men are operating in groups of two to four individuals, mostly comprising suicide bombers who try to slip through security and do an odd blast."
With the TTP and other militant groups effectively eliminated from the tribal areas, the army and civilian entities are busy rebuilding schools, hospitals and infrastructure, he said.
Nonetheless, reforms to improve life in FATA must include bringing FATA into the mainstream political fold, merging it with neighbouring KP, Qazi said.
Already, the Pakistani government has accepted some major demands of FATA residents, such as replacing the colonial-era political agents (appointed by the president) and Levies Force with a commissioner-and-police system, as seen elsewhere in Pakistan, he said.
Struggle is not over
Security is indisputably improved in FATA and KP, but much work remains, said Akram Zaki, chairman of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS).
"Military operations, especially Operation Zarb-e-Azb, have destroyed militants' strong networks in FATA, KP and other areas, improving security for people, including tribal elders," he told Pakistan Forward.
Nonetheless, militants who were not killed or arrested have relocated to Afghanistan or to areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, he said.
"Militants are not chickens and ducks who can easily be culled in military operations and they have shifted to different areas," he said.
Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad is meant to consolidate the gains of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and to crush militants who fled the earlier offensive, he said, adding that the government and military are determined to eradicate terrorism.