April issue 2004
The Tunnels That Weren’t
The bizarre claim about the discovery of mysterious tunnels in the South Waziristan Agency sent alarm bells ringing around the world about the existence of Al-Qaeda in the tribal belt and exposed the government’s lack of intelligence reports on the terrain and situation in the Frontier.
The word was spread by none other than the authorities themselves, who were convinced that Al-Qaeda had established a strong presence in the tribal areas of Pakistan and were now challenging the writ of Islamabad. The entire scenario was misinterpreted to justify the military operation in Azam Warsak, Kalusha, Schin Warsak and the adjacent villages inhabited by Wazir tribesmen since time immemorial.
The discovery of the tunnels, which happened to be water channels used by tribesmen for irrigation and potable water, proved to be a hoax as was the case with the much-hyped “high-value” target, ostensibly Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. So far Al-Zawahiri’s presence has not been confirmed in the area either by the locals or the government.
The tunnels, meanwhile, are centuries old water channels connected to wells and used for drinking water and to divert floodwater for irrigation purposes. The authorities played up the discovery of the tunnels, and knowingly or otherwise gave the impression that the irrigation channels where the military met with tough resistance from the tribesmen, were tunnels used by the Arab terrorists. The national and foreign media were quick to highlight only that part of the press briefing by the secretary of security in FATA, Brig (Retd) Mehmood Shah, who disclosed that about two kilometers of tunnels had been unearthed in Kalusha village and other parts of Azam Warsak.
“The government either misled the media about the tunnels, or the officials were not fully aware of the situation,” said Mujib-ur-Rehman, a local tribesman, who is familiar with the area and the use of these channels. He said these tunnels, in fact are irrigation channels, many six miles long, which are inter-linked to service the wells. “I am sure that as many as 1200 such channels still exist in the area, but have been unused for years,” said another tribal, Muhammad Rehman. The system of channels is now out-dated and can no longer be used for irrigation due to a drop in the water table with the installation of tube wells.
The prime suspects who provided protection to foreign terrorists were Nek Muhammad and his bother, Muhammad Sharif. Shah mentioned in his press briefing that one of the tunnels started under the house of Nek Muhammad and was linked to the house of his brother. Constructing tunnels and making rooms inside is common practice and not a new phenomenon. People do talk about Nek Muhammad’s links and contacts with the Taliban government, but are not aware of his links with Al-Qaeda.
Local tribesmen have long ruled out the possibility that a person like Al-Zawahiri would have sought refuge in the tribal belt. “Why would Al-Zawahiri stay in the same place for any length of time? It is clear that Pakistan and the US government would show him no mercy. So it is unlikely that Zawahiri was in the area,” says a local.