The South Asia Channel

The Waziristan wild card

The Waziristan wild card

By Imtiaz Gul

Pakistan’s embattled army appears set to move into what it calls a "black hole" for security and intelligence forces: the troubled tribal agency of South Waziristan. Parts of the wild and inhospitable region bordering Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province — the mountainous and rugged area populated by the Mehsud clan — are being branded as al Qaeda’s nest. This is where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has reportedly entrenched itself.

For the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, says a senior Pakistani military commander dealing with the tribal regions, the Uzbeks have assumed a "wild card" status in a region where their safe space has gradually been shrinking. The Uzbek fighters in the region are largely driven by al Qaeda’s ideology under the leadership of militant commander Tahir Yuldashev.

"It is a do or die situation for them [the Uzbeks] so they are scrambling for protection and would do anything for survival," says the official, saying that this perceived desperation is one reason why local Pakistanis are scared to rise against them.

Based on recent interviews with army and intelligence high commanders, officials believe that the dynamics of the Waziristans would change if they "take out the Uzbeks, because they represent the most dedicated al Qaeda ally in Waziristan."

Does this assessment mean the Pakistani army is about to unleash a new campaign against this "wild card"? Officials refrain from answering directly, but they seem united in their conclusions: Pakistan’s security forces must cleanse Waziristan of elements which pose a direct threat to the writ of the government.

How the Uzbeks found sanctuary in Waziristan

Regardless of their exact numbers — which vary between five hundred and one thousand —  most of the ferocious Uzbek militants moved into the Waziristan region from northern Afghanistan  in the aftermath of  the December 2001 defeat of their host regime, the Taliban. Led by Tahir Yuldashev, these Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants encountered few problems finding support and shelter amongst the Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen in North and South Waziristan. Yaldashev soon became a star speaker at mosques in the Sheen Warsak region near Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan.

Once well-entrenched, Yuldashev founded an organization that he dubbed Mohajireen-o-Ansar, which mean refugees and friends or supporters in Arabic, to pursue his agenda, which essentially converged with that of al Qaeda. A Pakistani Punjabi fugitive called Qari Mudassir used to act as spokesman for the group. Yuldashev also set up a private jail to try and punish enemies and dissidents.

Yuldachev’s revered status took a hit when his vigilantes began targeting Pakistan army and government officials beginning in late 2006. These anti-army strikes turned the Uzbeks from revered heroes to villains in the eyes of their Pakistani hosts. The pro-government Ahmedzai Wazir Taliban commander Mullah Nazir disapproved of targeting the Pakistani army and civilians.

This led to bloody fights between Mullah Nazir’s men and the Uzbeks in March 2007, and eventually forced the IMU zealots to take refuge in the area in South Waziristan then dominated by then erstwhile Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and North Waziristan.

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Despite the limits that the new geo-military situation put on the IMU’s area of influence, most intelligence and local sources agree that this organization has indeed morphed into a lethal non-Arab al Qaeda entity. From the late 1990s, when the Uzbeks opened their first training camp near Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan to their escape to South Waziristan from the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda in 2002, most of the Uzbeks from the former Soviet Central Asian republic are probably now making their last stand in a region that is under sharp U.S. and Pakistani focus because of the presence of all the al Qaeda-driven militant outfits there. Indeed, rumors of Yuldachev’s death are now circulating.

Operational handicaps

For the time being, some efforts are afoot to mobilize the local community in support of a military campaign in Waziristan. But two factors put certain limitations to these endeavors. Firstly, the locals are scared to mobilize opposition to the Uzbeks due to their reputations as fierce fighters with long memories. And secondly, the lack of adequate and actionable intelligence makes military operations that much more difficult to conduct with minimal casualties to both Pakistani soldiers and civilians in the area.

"Waziristan is like a black hole for intelligence and any action there requires extreme care for an effective campaign," says a general involved in recent military operations.

At least 800 pro-government tribal elders and intelligence officials have lost their lives to Taliban and al Qaeda assassins in Waziristan and adjacent tribal areas, most of them in the last four years. The execution and beheading of "spies" have reached alarming levels, particularly in North and South Waziristan, since early 2008 as a result of targeted killings, suggesting that military operations in the tribal areas have forced the militant groups to adopt greater internal security measures.

These killings have severely eroded Pakistani intelligence access to the Waziristan region, which apparently also resulted, in what is perhaps a mixed blessing, in greater intelligence-sharing with the U.S.-NATO forces based across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities now claim the intelligence network in the Waziristan region is being vigorously revived to help the Army conduct an intelligence-based precision crackdown on what it calls "anti-state miscreants."

Secondly, the erosion of the Pakistani military’s intelligence capacity has also meant an increasing reliance on the CIA-guided drone attacks — over six dozen since the beginning of 2008 — to hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, including four strikes on the last two week of September in North and South Waziristan.

Publicly, Pakistani military and civilian leadership continues to oppose the Hellfire missiles being fired into suspected al Qaeda hideouts in North and South Waziristan as an "impingement on sovereignty." Privately, however, they see it as a welcome fait accompli; as long as these missiles eliminate enemies like Baitullah Mehsud, the feared militant leader who was killed in a lethal August 5 strike, it makes little sense to oppose them.

Concerned officials within the defense and foreign ministries in Pakistan still argue against formalizing the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan regarding the drone strikes, believing this might prompt other countries with vested interests in the region to demand the same reciprocity of consent. Maintaining strategic ambiguity, they opine, is the best course in the current situation rather than openly acknowledging their tacit understanding on the drone strikes.

The desire to fix the country’s internal stability is one of the factors bringing Pakistan and the United States closer. Discussions with very senior government officials highlight a new admission that brushes aside the widely-held Pakistan perception that the United States seeks to destabilize Pakistan."

"Why should the United States destabilize Pakistan if its entire leadership considers a stable Pakistan as the key to stabilizing Afghanistan" remarked a very senior government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a truly circular, but telling, comment.

This formulation amounts to a recognition at least at the highest political and military levels; most Pakistanis — officials and public at large alike — have long remained incensed at purported CIA plans to create instability in Pakistan in order to justify direct U.S. intervention there. Indeed, Pakistanis view the United States’ plans to expand the embassy in Islamabad to help handle increased U.S. aid to the country with grave suspicion.

This also underscores a new confidence within Pakistan’s ruling establishment which now seems more willing to tackle the militant networks that it perceives as a threat to the long term interests of the country.

Fighting with funding

Unlike the days former President Pervez Musharraf, members of the present ruling troika — President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani and the chief of Army Staff Gen. Kiyani — agree that:

  1. The Taliban movement as well as al Qaeda today stand discredited and weaker  than ever before;
  2. Defeating these forces is a must to reverse the insurgency and the wave of religious extremism; and
  3. The U.S.-led foreign forces will not leave Afghanistan "lock, stock and barrel."

The troika also understands the international pressures being mounted for actions against all shades of militancy presently operating on the Pakistani territories.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill that recently passed the U.S. Senate and promises $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan for the next five years also reflects those pressures. For instance, one article requires the government of Pakistan to "[demonstrate] a sustained commitment to and [make] significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups" and "[cease] support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups, particularly to any group that has conducted attacks against United States or coalition forces in Afghanistan."

We will have to wait and see whether the Pakistani military finds these conditions "directed against Pakistani national interests." The aid bill will perhaps also determine the course and level of future military cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan because if these conditions are viewed as coercive by Pakistani officials, they could prompt elements within the civil-military establishment to stonewall the aid and obstruct military cooperation.

One would therefore hope that instead of denting the current spirit of cooperation, the Kerry-Lugar bill at least helps minimize, if not remove, some of the mistrust between the U.S. intelligence establishment and its Pakistani counterpart.

This potential new sense of trust will be crucial for any effective and whole-hearted crackdown in Waziristan, against the Uzbeks and other al Qaeda and Taliban fighters; if the Pakistani security forces do manage to disrupt and neutralize militant networks including those of Siraj and Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it would create space not only for Pakistan but for the entire international community to assert itself against obstructionist forces which promise not development but destruction.

Imtiaz Gul heads the Independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. He is the author of a recently released book called The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.