April Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Ostensibly, foreign militants, or Uzbekistanis to be precise, taxed the patience of their Pashtun hosts in South Waziristan to such an extent that the latter took up arms against them in the third week of March and vowed to evict them from their villages in Wana. It was obvious that the foreigners had overstayed their welcome and even the famously hospitable Pashtuns were unable to continue looking after their unruly guests

By March 19, fierce clashes had erupted in villages sited between Wana, headquarters of the troubled South Waziristan tribal region, and Azam Warsak, towards the border with Afghanistan. Local tribesmen opposed to the presence of the Uzbek militants aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, set up checkpoints from Wana to Zha Ghunday and began searching vehicles and villages to apprehend members of the rival group. Beyond Zha Ghunday and up to Azam Warsak and Kaloosha, the Uzbeks and their tribal allies erected checkposts and manned them round the clock. The villages were effectively carved up into fiefdoms held by the two heavily armed groups and movement of people and goods was restricted. Human suffering was evident everywhere, and many families fearing more fighting started evacuating to safer places, though not many areas were safe from the highly sophisticated weapons being used by the combatants.

Five days later, on March 23, an uneasy ceasefire came into force due to the efforts of jirgas of tribal elders and ulema from both South Waziristan and North Waziristan. Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F, which is the strongest political force in the two tribal agencies, sent a delegation under the leadership of two of its tribal MNAs, Maulana Merajuddin Qureshi and Maulana Abdul Malik, and Maulana Ainuddin. However, the most crucial role in effecting a ceasefire was played by the Afghan Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani, eldest son of the former Afghan mujahideen and Taliban military commander Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, was one of the first mediators to reach Wana and meet the leading figures of the two sides. So long as he stayed in the area he ensured that the guns remained silent. Such was his influence that both groups reposed trust in him and gave him “wak” (authority) to settle their dispute.

There were also reports about the arrival of certain influential Taliban figures from Afghanistan to join the mediation efforts. The name of their top commander Mulla Dadullah Akhund was also mentioned, but the news wasn’t confirmed. In the past as well, Dadullah has made trips to South Waziristan and North Waziristan and has gone on record to say that he advised the Pakistani Taliban operating in the region to make peace with the Pakistan Army and concentrate their efforts on fighting the real enemy, the US. In fact, it was after Dadullah’s visits and the arrival of messages to the same effect from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar that the tribal militants in Waziristan agreed to sign peace agreements with the Pakistan government. The links between the Afghan Taliban and the tribal militants in South Waziristan became obvious even during the latest round of fighting when both groups pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and vowed never to abandon him and his followers. The group of tribal militants opposed to the presence of Uzbeks in Wana and presently considered close to the Pakistan Army made its intentions clear when three of its leading figures — Haji Sharif, Malik Khannan and Meetha Khan — declared that they were committed to waging jihad against the US and its allies among the infidels. In fact, they were critical of the Uzbek militants for refusing to wage jihad against the US-led coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan and instead preferring to fight the Pakistan Army made up of Muslims. However, despite their differences, which have arisen due to local and tribal factors or personality clashes, the militants share the same worldview. They all consider the US and its western allies the real enemy of Muslims and want to fight them everywhere, particularly in Islamic countries under the occupation of American and Nato forces.

The fighting between the tribal militants and the Uzbeks backed by sections of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe didn’t come as a surprise for keen watchers of the situation in South Waziristan. Resentment against the Uzbeks, who according to estimates total several hundred, was building up. Small clashes had occurred earlier in Shakai when the tribesmen suspected the Uzbeks of having a hand in the attempted murder of one of their tribal elders and the killing of four fighters loyal to the anti-Uzbek tribal elder, Malik Khannan. This was followed by the fighting last month between a pro-government tribal elder, Malik Saidullah Khan, and the Uzbeks and their tribal supporters in Azam Warsak area. Malik Saidullah lost his son and two brothers in the fighting and his houses were burnt. It inflamed passions, and the Darikhel sub-tribe to which Malik Saidullah belonged, along with their allies from the Tojikhel sub-tribe, vowed to avenge the loss. Finally on March 19, the inevitable happened and the tribesmen led by Maulvi Nazeer took on the Uzbeks and their tribal allies.

The fighting signalled a split in the ranks of the tribal militants, who generally refer to themselves as the Taliban or mujahideen. They were all in one camp when the Pakistan military launched operations in South Waziristan against militants suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in early 2004. The military action was later extended to neighbouring North Waziristan. The local and foreign militants suffered losses and had to abandon some of their bases, but they also inflicted damage on the Pakistan Army and more than 700 soldiers lost their lives in the intermittent fighting. The killing of Nek Mohammad, commander of the militants in Wana area, in April 2004 as a result of a missile strike by a pilotless US Predator plane, removed a commanding figure from the ranks of the militants and caused splits. Haji Omar and Maulvi Nazeer competed for Nek Mohammad’s vacant slot and the militants were split into rival factions. The decision of the militants’ commander, Baitullah Mahsud, to sign a peace agreement with the government also caused differences in their ranks and another commander, Abdullah Mahsud, who ordered the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers, broke away. The differences in the militants’ ranks are also visible in North Waziristan, where the Uzbeks are concentrated in the Mir Ali area.

The recent fighting seems to have caused a permanent split in the ranks of the tribal militants in the Wana area. Maulvi Nazeer and his commanders, including Haji Sharif, Malik Khannan and Meetha Khan, have made it clear they want the Uzbeks to leave the area. They accuse the Uzbeks of interfering in tribal affairs, kidnapping and torturing local people, and refusing to honour peace agreements signed by the tribes with the government. Haji Sharif’s brothers, Haji Omar and Noor Islam, and their tribal supporters, mostly from the Yargulkhel sub-tribe, would like the Uzbeks to continue living there. Due to the death of fighters from both sides, a number of dangerous blood-feuds have started and these would continue to take their toll due to the inherent Pashtun trait to avenge a wrong. Even if a truce is brokered by the jirgas, a durable solution of the issue appears unlikely on account of the growing opposition to the presence of the Uzbeks. Unlike them, the other foreigners hiding in the area are not disliked. Among them are Arabs, who reportedly are fewer in number and are known to keep away from tribal affairs to avoid becoming controversial.

As for the death toll in the five days of fighting in the Wana area, the civil and military officials having access to information claimed that more than 150 combatants and some civilians were killed. The NWFP Governor, Lt Gen (Retd) Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai, came up with a round figure of 160, which included 133 Uzbeks. He and other government functionaries maintained that the local tribes had also taken several dozen Uzbeks and their tribal supporters prisoners. But the tribal combatants, both pro-Uzbek and anti-Uzbek, insisted that not more than 20 people were killed. They also played down reports about the intensity of the fighting and the number of hostages that they had taken. The wide discrepancy in the figures of casualties was intriguing. One explanation was that the government was keen to exploit the situation so that the tribes could take on the Uzbeks in bigger numbers and evict them from South Waziristan. There were also reports of the military siding with the local tribesmen opposed to the Uzbeks and using long-range artillery guns to attack positions held by Uzbek militants and their allies. The military also helped evacuate some of the wounded tribesmen, including students and women hit by a shell, to Peshawar for treatment in the Combined Military Hospital. As the days wore on, the government functionaries argued that its policy of concluding peace accords with the tribes had paid off because the tribesmen on their own were now fighting to expel the foreign militants. The government had tried doing that by launching several military operations in Waziristan and failed. It is now banking on the tribal militants to do the needful and rid Waziristan of their “guest fighters,” who came in as guests and are now trying to become owners of the land.

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.