June issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

There is a widespread belief that many Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials fleeing Afghanistan have found sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas with the help of sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen. However, it is hard trying to locate their hideouts given the region’s wilderness and the administrative hurdles created by the semi-autonomous status of the tribal areas. The inability of the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies to net any Al-Qaeda or Taliban member in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) until now demonstrates the enormity of the task.

Getting into the unadministered parts of the FATA was no easy task for the Pakistani military. The US military operations against Al-Qaeda in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan presented the Pakistan government with an opportunity to open up hitherto inaccessible areas such as Tirah valley in the Khyber and Orakzai tribal agencies. The delicate issue was handled by the NWFP governor, Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah and Corps Commander Lt Gen Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai, a tribesman from Orakzai agency, with caution and some ingenuity. The tribal people, who in the past opposed the construction of roads and opening of girls’ schools, were promised special development funds and the solution of their problems. They were also told that the US could start bombing places where the Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials were hiding as was done in Afghanistan. It was a classic carrot-and-stick approach and it worked. A large military contingent was deployed during the Tora Bora operation in Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan and a number of Al-Qaeda and Taliban members were captured while crossing over to Pakistan. Many of them were able to sneak into Pakistan undetected and some managed to escape from custody in Kurram agency, but the Pakistani soldiers and militiamen deployed on the border achieved to a large extent what the US had asked for.

The Pakistanis were clearly unhappy doing the US bidding, but the job was done and Pakistan could claim that it had done its bit as part of the international coalition against terrorism. One positive aspect of the operation was the arrival of Pakistani soldiers and militiamen to remote tribal areas that had never been infiltrated. Their presence also brought much-needed development activities to the tribal borderlands, and a special aid package to be executed by the military was put into practice. Though many tribesmen were unhappy that their sovereignty was gradually being eroded, others thought it was a blessing in disguise as the government had committed huge funds for the development of their remote and under-developed valleys.

In the next phase, Pakistani troops moved into the north and south Waziristan tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan’s Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces. Border security was intensified to stop Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters moving to Pakistan after fleeing the US-led allied forces combing of the three Afghan provinces during their search-and-destroy mission.

The deployment of the Pakistani soldiers and militiamen began during Operation Anaconda in the Shahikot mountains near Gardez, about 70 kms from the border, and continued as the allied troops began sweeping the Afghan mountains and valleys close to the Durand Line. The figure of Pakistani troops involved in the operation on the border was quoted as anywhere between 8,000 to 40,000 and 60,000. However, Islamabad started hinting that it would have to withdraw these troops from the western border with Afghanistan for deployment on the eastern borders with India in view of the belligerent statements emanating from New Delhi. This was the last thing the US wanted to hear because it knew only Pakistani troops would be able to operate in the tribal areas without causing much provocation among the fiercely independent and religious-minded Pashtun tribes. The American need to salvage its ‘war on terrorism’ in the region should explain hectic US efforts to prevent war between India and Pakistan.

While sending in its own forces to the tribal belt was bad enough, the government found itself in an even greater quandary when the US demanded that its intelligence and telecommunication operatives be allowed to join the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the tribal areas. The earlier US success in tracking down Al-Qaeda men in Faisalabad in central Punjab through telephone intercepts and the capture of over 50 suspects, including bin Laden’s close aide Abu Zubaida, bolstered the Americans confidence about handling the job. In fact, the successful Faisalabad mission strengthened the hands of the US while pressing Pakistan to allow a bigger number of American telecommunication and intelligence experts to operate in the country. Pakistan eventually relented but did not make the information public. In fact, government spokesmen kept denying the presence of US operatives in the tribal areas.

Unlike his spokesmen, General Musharraf in keeping with his hallmark forthrightness, conceded the presence of some American telecommunication experts in FATA. In any case, by this time the US presence in the area was no longer a secret because of several sightings of Americans in the north Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. The general did try to downplay the significance of this development by claiming that the number of American telecommunication experts in FATA was in single digits, but reports in the US media and eyewitnesses in the tribal areas contended the number of Americans on duty was much higher. The general also failed to mention that among the Americans operating in the FATA were some intelligence specialists.

The arrival of the American operatives in the tribal areas was a disturbing development. Although the President and his spokesmen and ministers had acknowledged from the outset that the US was allowed the use of Pakistan’s airspace and offered logistics support and intelligence-sharing in its campaign against terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan, they had taken pains to clarify that there were no American troops in Pakistan. In fact, it was stressed that only Pakistani troops would conduct search operations in the tribal areas. The belated admission by the general demonstrated how Pakistani rulers took decisions having far-reaching consequences without taking the nation into confidence. Strangely, the political administration in the north and south Waziristan continued to deny the presence of American operatives in the area even after the candid admission by the President.

When asked about the Pakistani failure compared to the US success in tracking down the wanted men in Pakistan, General Musharraf had commented that larger resources enabled the Americans to pay their informers handsomely and receive better intelligence. It was a tacit admission of the inability of Pakistani intelligence agencies, despite their vast numbers, to do a good job. One reason of their failure could be the politicisation of the intelligence agencies, their ever growing use to monitor the activities of political opponents, and them being put to work for the interest of the rulers instead of the state.

Americans have been spotted by tribesmen in Miranshah and Razmak in north Waziristan and Wana in south Waziristan. An abandoned vocational college in Miranshah, where the Americans were reportedly put up, came under rocket attacks a few times but all missed their target. One of the rockets hit an adjacent government-run degree college and partially damaged its boundary wall. The rocket attack was a manifestation of the resentment among the tribal population against the presence of Americans in their area. It also underscored the kind of problems Pakistan would face in case Washington forced it to allow its men a free hand to operate in the volatile tribal belt.

The rocket attacks followed the joint raid by Pakistani forces and US operatives on a madrassa run by former Afghan mujahideen leader Mulla Jalaluddin Haqqani, who also served as a minister of tribes and Frontier affairs in the Taliban government, in Darpakhel near Miranshah. Haqqani, it may be added, is the most wanted man on the US hit-list after Osama bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar. His experience of guerilla warfare against the Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan during 1979-89 has made him a dangerous man for the Americans. In fact, the growing number of guerilla attacks on US and allied forces in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces in southern Afghanistan are partly attributed to Haqqani. The US military has made several futile attempts to kill or capture Haqqani and killed scores of innocent people in the process. Among those killed were young Taliban studying in another Haqqani madrassa near Khost, and one of his brothers-in-law in his house that was rocketed in Gardez.

The raid on Haqqani’s madrassa did not achieve anything except making public the presence of US operatives in north Waziristan. The US helicopters flying overhead during the raid and the presence of Americans at the time of the raid were too obvious to be missed by the locals. In any case, it was naïve to expect Haqqani or any senior Taliban or Al-Qaeda officials to hide in a madrassa that would surely have been on the US and Pakistani hit-list right from the beginning. Haqqani and his supporters knew that they were no longer welcome in Pakistan. Already, the Pakistan government had withdrawn some of the favours it had extended to Haqqani for years, including houses provided to him and his family members in Miranshah.

The brief arrest of certain Pakistani clergymen in north Waziristan and their interrogation also inflamed sentiments. The clergy, mostly loyal to Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) — the most pro-Taliban religious party in Pakistan — and sections of the tribal population held protest rallies to condemn the raids and demand the pullout of US operatives from north Waziristan. The JUI, joined by certain other religio-political parties, later staged countrywide protest rallies to denounce the American military presence in the tribal areas. Maulana Fazlur Rahman told Newsline that General Musharraf had allowed US soldiers to operate freely in Pakistan after telling the nation that they were being offered logistics support only. “It could have serious consequences because the tribal people will never willingly allow the US or other foreign troops to operate in their area. Raids on seminaries are unacceptable and will be resisted,” he warned. Other religio-political parties also condemned the presence of the US agents in the tribal areas and demanded their removal. The religious scholars and the tribal elders, however, agreed to let Pakistani soldiers search suspected seminaries for Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials.

Tribal elders and clergymen also joined hands to announce punishments to local tribesmen helping the US in its raids on seminaries in the tribal areas. Violators were threatened with a fine of 50,00,000 rupees (about 90,000 USD), demolition of their houses and expulsion from the tribal areas.

The clumsy handling of the situation by the authorities didn’t help. The protests spread to the settled district of Bannu when Mufti Iltimas, who taught American Talib, John Walker Lindh for some time in his madrassa, and his colleague Khizar Hayat were taken into custody by Pakistani intelligence sleuths and brought to Peshawar to be interrogated by Americans apparently belonging to the FBI. A number of tribal homes were raided by a huge number of militiamen after being singled out as suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the FATA. All this was demeaning and provocative for the tribal people and it only fuelled anti-US and anti-Musharraf feelings in the area.

The case of Maulvi Nauroz explained the shoot-in-the-dark approach adopted by the American and Pakistani intelligence officials hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban members. He was picked up from his Gulshan-i-Ilm (Garden of Knowledge) seminary in north Waziristan on suspicion of being either an Arab or an Afghan. He was neither of the two. Enquiries in his native Dir district in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) revealed that he was a bonafide Pakistani citizen. He thus had to be released, but only after his incarceration had engendered widespread resentment among his fellow religious scholars and hundreds of their pupils.

The arrest of several young Sudanese receiving training at the Peshawar Flying Club also caused much heart-burning in parts of Pakistan. Apparently on an FBI complaint, the Sudanese trainee pilots were apprehended from their rented homes and put through a thorough interrogation. It seems all Arabs, or more specifically, Muslims, training to become pilots have become suspects after it was learnt that the hijackers who flew passenger planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon last September had trained at flying clubs in the US. The Sudanese were found innocent eventually and were freed. All have now returned to Sudan and it is unlikely that any other Sudanese will enrol in the Peshawar Flying Club, or any other flying club in Pakistan, in the future.

The hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders was later extended to south Waziristan. Militiamen from the Frontier Corps, whose officers are drawn from the Pakistan army, conducted search missions in Wana, the headquarters of south Waziristan, and the nearby town of Azam Warsak, to nab suspects and send a strong message to the people not to host Al-Qaeda and Taliban members. Mostly Afghan refugees were taken into custody and freed after interrogation. The searches were apparently made at the request of Americans operating in the area. Not a single wanted man has yet been apprehended in the tribal areas, but the Americans remain confident about the ability of their telecommunication and intelligence specialists to locate the suspects.

Though the Musharraf government has allowed some Americans to operate in the tribal areas and in the rest of the country, it does not want a large US presence for fear of problems at home. It has been trying to deflect the relentless US pressure — applied through diplomatic channels and indirectly — by leaking information to the American media that it is willing to do the needful, i.e. conduct raids on suspected hideouts identified by the American telecommunication experts. It has also been highlighting its limitations in undertaking operations in the tribal areas that have been traditionally autonomous and are populated by freedom-loving Pashtun tribes. The Americans must have known that the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line had blood ties, a largely conservative life-style, and a history of resisting foreign interference in their affairs. Given this backdrop, the current operation will inevitably turn the tribals even more anti-US.

For better results, the US would like to have a free hand to deal with the Al-Qaeda anywhere in the world, more so in Pakistan due to its contiguity with Afghanistan. The pressure on the US to deliver in its war on terrorism in Afghanistan must have mounted due to its inability to capture bin Laden, Mulla Omar and other top Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials despite resort to massive military operations. Washington believes General Musharraf’s role is crucial in nabbing the wanted men and denying them sanctuary on Pakistani soil. The earlier US success in forcing the Musharraf government to do its bidding in America’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan has whetted Washington’s appetite to demand greater compliance from Islamabad. General Musharraf, confronted with growing international pressure and domestic opposition and weakened by the lack of credibility of his distastrous referendum, will have to come up with newer excuses to keep the presence of US operatives in Pakistan to a minimum.

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.