May Issue 2007
Eviction or Safe Passage?
Tribesmen, led by pro-Taliban militants, evicted Uzbek fighters from Wana in South Waziristan after clashes between the two sides continued for over a month, and their military commander, Maulvi Nazeer Ahmad, claimed victory on April 20. Attention quickly shifted to the adjoining North Waziristan tribal region amid speculation that a similar operation could take place in its Mir Ali tehsil, where the Uzbeks were reportedly present in significant numbers.
Satisfied with the outcome of the latest battle in South Waziristan, the government made no effort to conceal its joy over the defeat and eviction of the Uzbek militants from Wana. It readily deployed Pakistan Army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops in strategic positions, vacated by the fleeing Uzbeks and their tribal supporters. The tribal offensive against the Uzbek fighters was hailed as a popular uprising, sparked by atrocities allegedly committed by the foreigners in Wana and nearby villages. The government argued that its much-criticised peace agreements with the tribal elders and militants had paid off as the tribesmen rose against foreign fighters under the terms of these accords.
There is no doubt that the victory of Maulvi Nazeer’s men strengthened one group of militants at the expense of the other, which was largely made up of Uzbek fighters and their tribal accomplices. Maulvi Nazeer publicly expressed his appreciation for the Afghan Taliban, and refuted allegations about the presence of top Taliban leaders in Pakistan by claiming that they were all based in Afghanistan. The 32-year-old commander, holding his first-ever press conference, was earlier caught unawares by a group of experienced reporters who had travelled from Peshawar to Wana and grilled him by asking tricky questions. In reply to one such question, he naively said Osama bin Laden or any other foreigner was welcome to come and stay in Wana if they pledged to abide by the local tribal culture and traditions. He later resorted to damage control by pointing out that he had no links with bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and was unaware about their whereabouts.
Maulvi Nazeer, who had fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, was, however, careful in his subsequent interviews not to cause any further embarrassment to the government. He said his men had no intention of enforcing Shariah in the areas under their jurisdiction in Wana, since they lacked the resources, and that this should best be left to the government. He also maintained that the tribal fighters would not set up any parallel administration, courts or private prisons and would abide by all agreements made with the government. He warned all sub-tribes of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe inhabiting Wana that harbouring foreign militants would pose serious consequences for them. He also issued a warning to neighbouring tribes not to allow use of their soil for any retaliatory or vindictive action against the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe as this could trigger tribal wars in South Waziristan. There was real concern among the Wana tribes about acts of terrorism by the Uzbeks and local tribesmen still aligned with them.
Though Maulvi Nazeer is now an ally of the government and has helped it to rid Wana of Uzbek militants, he made it clear that he would not be sending his fighters to fight the Uzbeks and their tribal supporters in neighbouring North Waziristan. In fact, he has no intention of operating outside Wana, in the rest of South Waziristan. The eviction of Uzbeks and foreign militants from the Mahsud tribal area in South Waziristan would be the responsibility of the government. The authorities would have to convince some Mahsud tribal commanders to replicate the Wana strategy in their area. Baitullah Mahsud, the most powerful pro-Taliban commander in that area, is unlikely to play the kind of role played by Maulvi Nazeer. He was publicly blamed by President Musharraf for sending fighters to Afghanistan against US-led coalition forces, and warned him to desist from the practice. The President also disclosed at a press conference in Rawalpindi in February that twice the Pakistan Army came close to eliminating Baitullah Mahsud. Ironically, the peace accord that the government signed with him in February 2005 is still intact. The governor of NWFP, Lt Gen (Retd) Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai, sent a jirga of tribal elders and ulema to find out if Mahsud was still willing to abide by that agreement.
The case of Maulvi Nazeer illustrates the complexity of the situation in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He lives in Wana, and is the commander of the tribal militia comprising armed men from almost all the sub-tribes of Ahmadzai Wazir. But he also owns land and other properties in Birmal area, near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan’s southern Paktika province, and in Kandahar. He has dual nationality and has fought alongside the Taliban against the US-led coalition forces. He does not want to criticise the Taliban and their supreme leader Mullah Omar, and would not have picked up the gun to drive out Uzbek militants from Wana had they refrained from interfering in tribal affairs and becoming involved in kidnappings, beheadings and other crimes. Backing him and his armed men to rid Wana of Uzbek fighters would, therefore, not appear an ideal solution to the problem for the government. At best, it is a temporary solution fraught with risks.
The Uzbeks haven’t left Pakistan after suffering defeat in Wana. The death-count of 100-200 Uzbeks appears exaggerated, and was never backed by any evidence. Independent accounts of the fighting in Wana put the total number of deaths at not more than 50, and this figure includes both Uzbeks and the tribal fighters. Maulvi Nazeer subsequently confirmed reports that the Uzbeks and their tribal comrades left Wana as part of an understanding between the two sides. There were credible reports that the Afghan Taliban played an important role in ensuring that the Uzbeks were given a safe passage out of Wana. Most of the Uzbeks shifted to other parts of South Waziristan, or in most cases headed for North Waziristan. Despite claims by some government functionaries, there is no evidence that the Uzbeks crossed over to Afghanistan to join the Taliban ranks. One of the biggest complaints of Maulvi Nazeer and his supporters was that the Uzbeks didn’t want to wage “jihad” in Afghanistan; instead, they wanted to fight the Pakistan Army and establish an Islamic state in Wana. He claimed that the Pakistani ulema, who tried to mediate between him and the Uzbeks, gave up the on the task when the tribesmen narrated stories of Uzbek atrocities before them. Justifying his uprising against the Central Asians, hitherto treated by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribes as guests, Maulvi Nazeer offered to debate the issue of eviction of Uzbeks from Wana with any religious scholar in the light of Islamic teachings.
The overbearing Uzbeks, led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) head Tahir Yuldashev, may have become a nuisance for the government and the Wana tribes, but the punitive action against them is unlikely to impress the US and Afghan governments or NATO. As one Western analyst put it, the Uzbeks weren’t much of a threat to the US-led coalition forces because they rarely crossed over to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Their association with Al-Qaeda was also unclear and unimportant. In western capitals, the real Al-Qaeda primarily comprised Arabs associated with groups led by bin Laden, Dr Zawahiri and Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman. There was no mention of any action against Arabs and other foreign militants reportedly hiding in South Waziristan during the recent fighting in Wana. The US and its western allies would have liked the Wana tribes and the Pakistan government to evict Arabs from the area because they believe bin Laden and some of his Al-Qaeda lieutenants are hiding in Waziristan. That hasn’t happened, and may not happen in the near future. In the circumstances, the US military will likely continue to launch attacks on Pakistani territories.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.