The nonstop violence in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Pak-Afghan border has become a cause of great concern for the United States and her allies in the war on terror, especially Afghanistan, given the fact that the Taliban have virtually taken over the entire North Waziristan tribal area, which could be used as a major military base to wage their resistance against the US-led forces in Afghanistan.
The ongoing fighting began in 2004, when the Pakistan Army entered the region inhabited by the Waziri tribe in search of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who were using the Waziristan area as a base for launching deadly attacks against the US-led Allied forces in Afghanistan. Since the fighting began, the Pakistani forces have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Taliban militia due to roadside bombs and ambushes. The law and order situation in the lawless tribal border land has come to a pass where the writ of the Pakistan Government is almost non existent.
Almost three years down the road after the military operations were launched, the Taliban militia, backed by al Qaeda, has virtually established an Islamic Republic in the rugged and remote Waziristan region, with the Pakistan Army desperately trying to broker a peace deal with it. While the Army wants an assurance from the Taliban that they would not cross the Pak-Afghan border to attack the US-led coalition forces, the militants want the military authorities to release all their colleagues and pay monetary compensation for the damage caused to their property during the operations, to pave the way for the peace deal.
On July 25, 2006, the militants in North Waziristan had announced a ceasefire which they subsequently extended to September 10, 2006, as Leader of Opposition in National Assembly Maulana Fazlur Rehman joined efforts to help clear some obstacles to an agreement for restoring peace in the restive tribal region. Two of the three issues that have bedeviled the peace agreement have already been taken care of: the release of over a dozen militants and the return of seized weaponry. However, the withdrawal of the military from the North Waziristan Agency, one of the key militants’ demands, is yet to be worked out.
Despite the deployment of over 80,000 Pakistani troops along the Afghan border in the tribal areas to capture the fugitive Taliban and al Qaeda elements, the situation is far from stable in a region that is crucial to three world capitals -- Islamabad, Washington and Kabul. Waziristan, often in the news due to frequent clashes between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban militants, is now more-or-less controlled by the local Taliban, which has established a foothold in both North and South Waziristan and has opened recruiting offices these areas to hire new fighters.
As the recruitment drive started last year, many former members of Pakistani jehadi organizations belonging to the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI), Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), have converged on North and South Waziristan. According to rough estimates, about 25,000 activists of several jehadi organisation had assembled in North and South Waziristan alone in 2005, with the declared determination to "fight until the last man and the last bullet". And most of them are still siding with the local Taliban in their ongoing fight against the Pakistani security forces.
Waziristan, 11,585 square kilometers of remote mountain valleys, is historically an area that cannot easily be conquered or subjugated. Most of the Taliban active in the region are largely members of Pashtun tribes, although they include some Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens, and Arabs who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. Ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, also make up the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. This poses two major problems for Washington and Kabul. First, the Pakistani militants continue to shelter the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda fighters as they flee US-led allied forces. Secondly, Pakistani recruits are being trained to launch ambushes and suicide bombings in Afghanistan.
Several major military operations have been carried out in Waziristan since 2004, which Pakistani military authorities claimed were ‘successfully concluded’. These operations literally turned Waziristan into a war zone, yet the fight still goes on despite the use of Cobra helicopters and long-range artillery by the Pakistan Army to target the Militia. The Taliban, under the leadership of Haji Mohammad Omar, is now a force to be reckoned with in the area due to a weakening political administration. Omar had first enforced a rigid social order in Waziristan in 2004 and then declared, in December 2005, the establishment of an Islamic state in Waziristan governed by Islamic law.
Not many outside Waziristan are familiar with the name of Haji Mohammad Omar, but in Waziristan, it is a name that commands great respect and awe. Omar is the chief of the Pakistani Taliban which has put up tough resistance against the Pakistani military troops in the tribal region, to take control of large parts of Waziristan. Haji Omar, 55 had served as one of the many lieutenants of Taliban ameer Mullah Mohammad Omar until the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001. Haji Omar’s writ runs virtually unchallenged in South Waziristan while he is hopeful that his commanders would soon establish Taliban control in North Waziristan as well.
Omar’s three important commanders include Maulana Sadiq Noor, Maulana Abdul Khaliq and Maulana Sangeen Khan. US intelligence sleuths stationed in Pakistan allege that the Taliban have already lined up more than 100 suicide squads for suicide missions, with specific targets all over Afghanistan.
Three major tribes currently live in North Waziristan, which has become the principal stronghold of the Taliban outside Afghanistan: the Wazirs, the Mehsuds and the Dawar. British soldiers referred to the Wazirs as wolves and the Mehsuds as panthers of the mountains while the Dawar have traditionally been peace-loving, preferring shop-keeping to guns and towns over mountains.
The Mehsud and Wazir tribes have been arch-rivals for centuries. Traditionally, the Mehsuds have been part of the Pakistani establishment, and as recently as the past few years they supported the military's actions against the Wazir tribes, who are mostly Taliban. Things are, however changing, and traditional roles and rivalries have shifted. In North Waziristan, Maulana Sadiq Noor and Maulana Abdul Khaliq, the unbending leaders of the Taliban-led resistance, are both Dawar and, even more surprising, the Wazirs and the Mehsuds have accepted their command.
Currently, the man responsible for launching the Taliban raids into Afghanistan is Maulana Sangeen Khan, an Afghan from the neighboring Khost province. In South Waziristan, Haji Mohammad Omar, a Waziri, is the commander of the resistance movement against the Pakistani security forces, while the Afghan operations run from the area are taken care of by Abdullah Mehsud, the chieftain of the Mehsud tribe. Never before has there been such an arrangement in centuries, where Mehsuds and Wazirs have fought side-by-side, and more, under the command of the Dawars.
Since there is no clear demarcation of the Pak-Afghan border, the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters sheltering in the tribal belt under the control of Wazirs, Mehsuds and Dawars easily cross the border and attack their targets on Afghan soil, using the mountain terrain to strategic advantage, and then melt into the villages located in the Pak-Afghan border areas. The result is that the al Qaeda-backed Taliban resistance movement in Afghanistan continues to gain strength in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which provide natural strategic depth to Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
Consequently, hardly a day now goes by without Afghanistan urging Pakistan to do more to help overcome insurgency in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. The anxiety being expressed by the Karzai administration is understandable and not entirely misplaced, given the fact that much of the trouble along the border area of Afghanistan happens to be a result of the Taliban militia crossing over from the Pakistani side of the border. In the past, the Afghan mujahideen too had bases in the Waziristan region which they used as launching pads to make frequent incursions into Afghanistan to target the occupying Soviet troops.
Under these circumstances, the Musharraf regime is often blamed for whatever is happening in Afghanistan, given the quantum of activity within close proximity of the Pak-Afghan border. Many visiting US officials have stated time and again in the recent past that Islamabad should fulfill its international obligations by curtailing the movement of miscreants from its side of the border as it cannot simply absolve itself by asking Kabul to tighten control on the other side. They have made it clear that the issue is not just placing 80,000 Pakistani troops on the border, but rather how effective that force has been in accomplishing its mission objective.
On the other hand, the Army’s troops in Waziristan have apparently been bogged down by an insurgency which has proved to be more lethal and dangerous than the one in Afghanistan itself. The Taliban have turned their guns on the Pakistani forces, pro-government tribal elders and intelligence operatives. Statistically speaking, the Pakistani security forces have lost more personnel – almost three times more, since the operation was launched in 2004 – than the US has since 2001, in its ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan.
Before the ceasefire between the military and the militants in Waziristan was announced, ambushes and roadside bomb attacks against the Pakistani security forces had been as frequent as they were across the border, forcing the Army leadership to consider an out-of-the-box solution. Going by Musharraf’s own admission [in an interview with the British daily Guardian on May, 5, 2006] "Extremism in a Talibanised form is what people are now going for. Mullah Omar and the Taliban have influence in Waziristan and it is now spilling over into our settled areas".
Musharraf did not mention the names of the ‘settled areas’ but the districts falling under these areas include Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Hangu and Kohat, all in the southern North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and all very conservative and largely under the political influence of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), led by the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rahman. Yet in the same vein, Musharraf claimed quite amusingly that the war against al Qaeda had ‘almost been won’ in Waziristan. By saying so, the General contradicted none other than himself, because the increase in support for the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar in Waziristan, as confessed by him, meant that the Osama-led organisation too would benefit from the surge in the Taliban’s popularity. Independent analysts say that al Qaeda may have suffered physical and infrastructural losses in terms of the decimation of its bases in Afghanistan and the killing and capture of its operatives, but there is no evidence to suggest that the ideology it professes has registered a decline.
Under these circumstances, it appears that the Taliban resistance movement in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will continue to gain strength until and unless Islamabad abandons its current policy which actually seeks to keep the Taliban alive in the hope of using them to retrieve its lost influence in Afghanistan.
Amir Mir is former editor of Weekly Independent now affiliated with Reuters and
Gulf News. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal