April issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

Gunship helicopters hovered over the mountains surrounding the small town of Wana, cannons fired and explosions echoed as smoke billowed out of mud houses. Against the backdrop of this clamour, a teenaged tribal boy explained to me the difference between the sounds of hand grenades, rockets and automatic weapons.

“The forces are launching an attack. Now you hear the mujahideen responding,” said the boy, a cousin of my tribesman friend, Mohmmad Noor, each time there was a fresh burst of gunfire. A few yards away, outside a mud house, bearded, turbanned tribesmen were huddled in a group listening to a Pushto news bulletin on a radio. On the road passing through the area, trucks bearing reinforcements for military troops wended their way towards a military base. And threateningly positioned in newly built-bunkers and on the rooftops of homes requisitioned by the forces, were paramilitary troops wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets.

As I took in the eerie sight and menacing sounds, a group of tribesmen struggled to carry an injured, profusely bleeding old man to a safe spot. I rushed to help. But temporary comfort was all one could provide him — Lali Khan was too old and too mortally wounded to survive the five-hour-long journey it would take to reach the nearest hospital.

So barely half-an-hour after reaching Wana, I had already witnessed a man die. His blood splattered all over me seemed to me a portent: things were going to get worse.

It was a sentiment that seemed to resonate across town. Hordes of clearly worried tribesmen were running to and fro, hundreds, perhaps thousands of villagers were trying to escape — children, chickens, and goats in tow — in cars, trucks, and donkey carts, to destinations unknown. But as many others who appeared to have nowhere to go, seemed resigned to their fate — whatever that might be. And then there were those engaged in battle. “The mujahideen have split into groups and are fighting using guerilla warfare tactics,” tribesman Mohammed Niaz Khan told me. “They have automatic weapons, rockets, and explosives strapped to their bodies.”

Like thousands of others, Niaz Khan felt he had to flee the area after his neighbours, Dilawar Khan and family, were caught in the midst of heavy crossfire between security forces, Al-Qaeda militants and supporting tribesmen during an operation described as the biggest hunt ever launched against “foreign terrorists” in this semi-autonomous and independent tribal belt of South Waziristan.

“For us, the sky and earth are both spitting fire,” said Dilawar Khan, sitting next to his four injured children at a local hospital. “From the sky, helicopters are targeting us, and from the ground the mujahideen are firing. We poor tribesmen are sandwiched between the Al-Qaeda and Pakistani forces.”

And while the battle is now technically over, the war continues as the continuing presence of the army indicates.

The 12-day long battle was concentrated in about a 50-square kilometre area near Wana, around the villages of Schin Warsak, Daza Gundai, Kalusha, Ghaw Khawa, and Kari Kot. Officials say some 400-500 “foreign terrorists” were engaged in the fighting. Local tribal sources say in addition to these fighters were some 2000-2500 Al-Qaeda local tribesmen, trained and recruited by the foreign militants.

For almost two decades this area was under the sway of five men known to be close to Al-Qaeda: Noor-ul Islam, Naik Mohammad, Mohammad Sharif, Maulvi Abbas, and Maulvi Abdul Aziz. These men harboured the foreign militants and led the fight with them against the government forces. They had plenty of experience under their belt: they had fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s under the command of a top Taliban commander, Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, now wanted by the US on charges of terrorism.

The operation started on March 16, when hundreds of paramilitary troops cordoned the villages of Schin Warsak and Kalusha on an intelligence tip-off. According to an official, they had received information that a group of 20-30 Al-Qaeda militants were in hiding with some of the country’s most wanted local tribesmen. A resident journalist, Mujeeb-ur Rehman, recalls what he says were some of the most “horrifying” moments of that day.

“There was firepower coming from everywhere. Suddenly the movement of men in groups of twos and threes became visible. Carrying rockets over their shoulders, their bodies covered with blankets, they formed a cordon around the Frontier Corps jawans positioned there, and, encircling them, launched a heavy attack on them. Their rockets hit the FC men’s armoured vehicles, killing some of the jawans inside. As the jawans returned fire, bodies of slain militants could be seen on the ground.

“When the FC counter-attack began in earnest, some of the militants fled the scene. A few took refuge in a nearby mosque. Many others were given shelter by local tribesmen. Nonetheless, fireballs were still being emitted from the APCs. Interestingly, even in the heat of battle, I could see some Afghan refugees stealing spare parts from the damaged vehicles.”

On that bloody day, officials say, 16 paramilitary troops lost their lives, several were injured, and 26 militants were killed. Officials claim, the high level and “unexpected” attack indicated the possible presence of a “high value target” in the area, and there was widespread speculation that it might be Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

nwfp-2-apr04“Whenever there is a senior militant leader spending a night somewhere, his armed men guard several houses in the surrounding area,” said a senior government official. “On March 16 that is what we saw, and the multi-pronged attacks they launched on paramilitary personnel further indicated to us that there was a senior leader hiding there.”

Officials later backtracked on their claim of surrounding Zawahiri — a contention echoed by President Musharraf on international networks — but confirmed that the high value leader was Qari Tahir Yaldash, also known as Tahir Yaldashev, an Uzbek national and founding member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Subsequently it was reported that Yaldashev had managed to escape the dragnet. How he managed to escape remains a mystery, considering the heavy deployment of security forces in the area he was said to be hiding in. Sources say two bullet-proof, twin-cabin pick-up trucks broke through one security cordon and helped Yaldashev escape. “He seems to have been injured, but managed to escape along with other militants,” said a senior government official.

A tribesman has an interesting tale to tell of the escape. “I was sitting on my rooftop when I saw some mujahideen open fire with automatic weapons from speeding vehicles on a group of scouts (paramilitary forces). Suddenly there was smoke everywhere and the scouts stood like statues covered in the dust those vehicles left behind.”

Yaldashev is now believed to be hiding in the heavily forested Shawaal Mountains overlooking North Waziristan and Paktika in Afghanistan.

Following the pitched battle of March 16 and the loss of large numbers of paramilitary forces at the hands of trained militants and after reassessing their strength, thousands of military troops backed by gunship helicopters moved in to strike the hideouts of the “foreign terrorists.” “They are professional fighters who exercise great patience as they lie in wait for their prey,” said Lt. General Safdar Hussain, who is in charge of the Wana operation.

The onslaught by the military forces triggered fear and anger amongst the tribesmen. “It is an attack against Pakistan-loving tribesmen and our motherland; it is the same thing the goras did during British times,” said Mehbut Khan, an old tribesman. “Our forefathers would tell us how British forces tried to occupy our land but we never expected it from our own forces. Look at the misery the operation is causing among innocent civilians. Not every tribesman is involved with Al-Qaeda and they cannot all be punished for somebody else’s sin or crime.”

nwfp-3-apr04Tribal elder, Malik Behram Khan, dilated on Mehbut Khan’s argument. “The tribesmen perceive these operations as an intrusion and interference in their centuries-old traditions, culture and independent lifestyle. To compound the outrage, the forces failed to consult tribal elders or take the tribesmen into confidence before launching the operation. Many poor tribesmen sympathise with the mujahideen and their cause. They genuinely believe that saving them from the Americans is a service to Islam.”

Even angrier about the military operation in Waziristan is Saeed Wazir, who fought against the US forces at Bagram airbase along with the Taliban. “Till yesterday the Americans and Pakistanis were supporting these jihadis and calling them mujahids. Now they dub them ‘terrorists.’ Washington and Islamabad can change their policies overnight, but we cannot change our hearts. The tribesmen supported them yesterday and will support them tomorrow,” he said.

This point of view was echoed in a series of jirgas held between the tribal elders and officials of the local administration, which understandably failed to yield any results. Finally, the administration issued an ultimatum to, among others, the Yargul Khel clan of the Zalikhel tribe: either hand over those tribesmen harbouring Al-Qaeda militants and expel foreign terrorists from their respective areas, or face military action.

“Zalikhel tribe members are providing shelter to foreign terrorists. Some are themselves fighting for Al-Qaeda,” said Azam Khan, a top government official in South Waziristan. “Their elders repeatedly promised to cooperate, but never delivered. That is why the operation was launched. It is high time for them to cooperate, otherwise there will be further destruction to the region and the responsibility will lie with them.”

Tribal sources estimate that around 600 Al-Qaeda guerillas, mostly Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs, remain in and around South Waziristan, which has long provided foreign militants a safe haven.

Describing the operation as a “success,” officials disclosed 63 militants, mostly Chechens and Uzbeks, were killed in the fighting and 166 other fighters, including 93 Pakistani tribesmen and 73 foreigners were captured. However, they admitted that 46 military and paramilitary troops also were killed and 26 injured in attacks by Al-Qaeda and their local fighters.

Said Mehmood Shah, secretary of security in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, “We have achieved our target. We have dismantled their dens and hideouts in the villages and towns. South Waziristan can no longer serve as a safe haven for foreign terrorists.” But, he added, “we will continue small scale and targeted operations against the scattered Al-Qaeda militants that remain in the area.”

Tribal sources say that most of the Al-Qaeda militants fled their hideouts in the villages and towns during the first two days of the operation and may have converged in the forest-covered, snow-swept mountainous regions of Shikai, Bush, Shawaal and Khamrang.

Shunning the conspicuous vehicles they hitherto used, the militants now camouflage their movements by journeying with local woodcutters and shepherds who trek to the mountains to earn their livelihood.

“The Al-Qaeda men now avoid travelling in Land Cruisers because they believe they will either be spotted by American satellites or killed by pursuing Pakistani forces,” said a local tribesman, Farid Khan. “They are paying local woodcutters and shepherds, who are known as the best guides, 5,000 to 10,000 rupees each for a safe passage to the mountains.”

And even from their new locations the militants are offering tough resistance. Rocket attacks and explosions in Peshawar, Bannu, and the tribal region of the Kurram Agency seem to be demonstrations of their muscle, a show of strength. More ominously, they indicate that peace will be a while in coming.

“The game of hide-and-seek will continue between security forces and Al-Qaeda militants. The militants who got away will try to regroup by launching attacks across the border and engage Pakistan’s security forces inside Pakistan,” said Sailab Mehsud, a known writer in South Waziristan. “However, if the security forces decide to take them on, the real battle will be in mountains like Tora Bora, as these mountains have natural caves and thick forests and Al-Qaeda militants know the escape routes and terrain. These people belong to the mountains; they have fought and taken shelter here for more than two decades.”

Many tribesmen believe that the Al-Qaeda guerillas would prefer to die rather than surrender to US and Pakistani forces. Said a tribal elder, “They have pledged to blow themselves up rather than surrender. Recently I met a local Al-Qaeda militant who is wanted by the government, and tried to persuade him to surrender. He said, ‘We wish to go to Paradise, not to Guantanamo.’ If the days belong to them, the nights are for us to strike.”