April issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

Only depressing news emerges from South Waziristan these days. In fact, it has been this way for a while. Since February 2004, the Pakistani Army has targeted the rugged mountainous terrain bordering Afghanistan in a determined hunt for the elusive Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked suspects. The hunt has turned the area into a war zone. Death and destruction, on a scale unknown before, is everywhere, and it’s the common man who has suffered the most, as entire communities have been uprooted. Worse still, there is little hope that the situation will improve in the near future.

The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the military continues to use Cobra helicopter gunships and long-range artillery in North Waziristan to target militant hideouts and other uninhabited areas from where militants attack with rockets and mortar. Tribal militants frequently ambush military convoys or insidiously attack by planting improvised explosives devices (IEDs). Mercifully, there have been no suicide-bombings in the tribal areas. In fact, Afghanistan has no history of such tactics. In the 10-year Soviet military occupation and the subsequent civil war, there were no instances of suicide attacks. But in the last five months, there have been about 30 suicide-bombings in Kabul and other urban centres in Afghanistan — and the trend is growing.

Large-scale deployment of Pakistani armed forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) began in December 2001 when the US air force relentlessly bombed the Tora Bora mountain range in eastern Afghanistan in an effort to kill Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda fighters. On the request of the US military, Pakistan sent thousands of soldiers, including paramilitary Frontier Corps personnel, to Tirah valley in Khyber Agency and the Kurram Agency, both part of FATA. The aim was to plug Al-Qaeda escape routes across the normally snowbound Spinghar (White Mountain) separating Afghanistan from Pakistan. Pakistani troops killed and captured many militants, but most Al-Qaeda fighters managed to escape Tora Bora via safe passages allegedly provided by Afghan militia commanders on the US payroll.

Fearful of losing American soldiers, the US military had sub-contracted the job of securing key vantage points and escape routes out of Tora Bora to anti-Taliban commanders Hazrat Ali, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik and Haji Zahir. Four-and-a half years later, the US government is still being criticised for not putting enough Americans troops on the ground at Tora Bora to capture bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Unconfirmed intelligence reports still circulate that at the time, intercepted radio communications heard bin Laden giving instructions to his trapped men in Tora Bora. Many US analysts note that this was probably the only time bin Laden was truly within striking range of the American forces.

Military operations in South Waziristan started in February 2004, when the US military complained that the territory was not just a hideout for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but a launching pad for attacks against allied troops in Afghanistan. Militants were crossing the long and porous Durand Line border, claimed US commanders.

Until then, militants, whether foreign or local, considered Pakistani assets off limits. Under their own policy, militants were banned from attacking an Islamic country. This policy prevented them from opening up attacks on many fronts and instead focused their energies on the “real enemy:” the US, Israel and their western allies. Or, in the words of bin Laden, the Crusaders and Jews.

Two years later, despite a military crackdown that temporarily dislocated the hardened militants and forced some of them to cut peace agreements with the government, the situation in South Waziristan is far from normal. A commander of the militants, Abdullah Mahsud, is still defiant and at large, even though there seems to be an unwritten pact of peaceful co-existence between him and the authorities. His former comrade and boss, Baitullah Mahsud, also made a deal with the military in return for amnesty. He is no longer on the wanted list. Mahsud cleverly used the arrangement to protect his interests and increase his influence in the Mahsud tribal territory in South Waziristan. The Taliban are now a force to reckon with in the area due to a weakening political administration and the military’s withdrawal from some remote areas.

waziristan-2-apr06In the Wana region, inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, a peace deal with five prominent former militants brought peace and a sigh of relief for the hapless civilian population. Under the deal, Haji Omar, his brother Haji Sharif, Javed Khan Karmazkhel, Maulvi Mohammad Abbas and Maulvi Abdul Aziz were offered amnesty on the condition that they cease attacking the military, stop harbouring foreign militants and refrain from sponsoring cross-border attacks on US-led coalition troops. Today, the peace agreement with the military is holding, despite disagreements that occasionally crop up whenever the government makes fresh arrests or fails to pay militants their promised compensation. All five players in the peace deal were comrades of commander Nek Mohammad, who was killed in a US missile attack in 2004 in a village near Wana. In fact, Nek Mohammad’s assassination scuttled the peace process that was set in motion by the Shakai agreement between him and then Corps Commander Lt, Gen Safdar Hussain in April 2004.

The US military commanders had publicly expressed concern over the peace agreement. That was, perhaps, the first time the US military launched air strikes in Pakistani territory using the unmanned Predator planes. The Bajaur aerial strikes earlier this year were the latest in the series — and the deadliest. Pakistan feebly protested against the attacks, and, unsurprisingly, Washington neither offered an apology nor promised that similar aggression would not be repeated.

The situation in North Waziristan is more complex. There are no all-powerful commanders as there are in South Waziristan. So, the government has been holding jirgas with tribal elders and ulema to forbid the tribes from harbouring foreign militants and aiding anti-government supporters. But militants threatened the tribal elders, known as Maliks, and the ulema not to meet authorities or take orders from them. Initially, the threats worked. A number of Maliks and members of the ulema were too scared to attend the jirgas.

But the militant’s bid to capture North Waziristan’s headquarters, Miramshah, backfired. Not only did military troops not evacuate, but the locals lost faith in the militants. In Miramshah, where thousands have been injured, shops and homes have been destroyed and family members have been lost. People blame the militants for triggering the clashes. But in a land where little is black and white, the government is not without fault. Locals complain that authorities didn’t do enough to protect their life and property and claim military troops used disproportionate force while retaliating against the militants, thus causing unnecessary civilian losses.

And today, the battle continues in Miramshah. Military action may have flushed the militants out of town, but pro-Taliban fighters have now found sanctuary in the villages dotting the mountainous terrain of North Waziristan. From there, they fire rockets at military and government targets and stage ambushes. The area is prone to frequent roadside IED attacks, firing incidents and rocketing. The conflict has morphed into a guerilla war.

So, despite warnings to tribes not to provide sanctuary to the militants, there has been little respite for troops. In all likelihood, the government will be forced to negotiate with Miramshah’s leaders, Maulvi Sadiq Noor and Maulvi Abdul Khaliq. Any pacts will surely resemble the peace agreements made with Baitullah Mahsud and the “Wana five” in South Waziristan. A military solution is just not on the cards. Strategists only have to look to former East Pakistan and Balochistan to understand why.

The Bush administration though, despite experiencing firsthand the financial, human and political costs of its war on terror, would not like such an arrangement. Still, Pakistan ought to keep its own national interests supreme. The wise option involves not just talking, but listening, to its citizens, whether in Waziristan or Balochistan. The language of reason should be the first option and the use of force, the last resort.

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.