Pakistan’s embattled army appears set to move into what it calls a “black hole” for security and intelligence forces i.e. South Waziristan. Parts of the wild and inhospitable region bordering Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province – the mountainous and rugged Mehsud area – are being branded as al Qaeda’s nest, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan reportedly has entrenched itself.
For the army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, says a senior military commander dealing with the tribal regions, the Uzbeks have meanwhile assumed a “wild card” status in a region where space has gradually been shrinking on the Uzbek militants, largely driven by the al-Qaeda ideology under Tahir Yuldashev.
“It is a do or die situation for them (Uzbeks) so they are scrambling for protection and would do anything for survival” says the official, adding this was one reason why common people are scared to rise against them.
Based on recent intensive army and intelligence high command consultations, officials believe that the dynamics of Waziristan would change if “we take out the Uzbeks because they represent the most dedicated al-Qaeda ally in Waziristan.
Does it mean the Pakistani army is about to unleash a new campaign against this “wild card.” Officials refrain from a direct answer but they seem united in their conclusion; the security forces must cleanse Waziristan of elements that pose a direct threat to the government writ.
How Uzbeks found sanctuary in Waziristan:
Regardless of their exact numbers, which vary between 500-1000, most of the ferocious Uzbek militants had moved into the Waziristan region following the December 2001 defeat of their host regime – the Taliban. Led by Tahir Yuldashev, these IMU militants faced little problem in finding support and shelter amongst the Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen. Yaldashev soon became a star-speaker at mosques in the Sheen Warsak region near Wana; the administrative headquarter of southern Waziristan.
Once well-entrenched, Yuldashev founded an organization Mohajireen-o-Ansar, to pursue his agenda, which essentially converged with that of al Qaeda. One of the Pakistani Punjabi fugitives Qari Mudassir, used to act as their spokesman. Yuldashev also set up a private jail to try and punish enemies and dissidents.
Yuldashev’s revered status took a hit when his vigilantes began targeting Pakistan army and government officials since late 2006. These anti-army strikes turned the Uzbeks from revered heroes to villains. The pro-government Ahmedzai Wazir Taliban commander Mullah Nazir disapproved of targeting the Pakistani army and civilians.
This led to bloody fights between Mulla Nazir’s men and the Uzbeks in March 2007, and eventually forced the IMU zealots to take refuge in the Baitullah Mehsud dominated area Mehsud and North Waziristan.
Despite the limits that the new geo-military situation puts on the IMU 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 they opened their first training camp near Mazare Sharif in northern Afghanistan, to their escape to South Waziristan from the US-led Operation Anaconda, most of the Uzbeks from the former Soviet Central Asian republics are probably now making their last stand in a region that is under sharp CIA focus because of the presence of all the al Qaeda driven militant outfits there.
For the time being, 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 local opposition to the Uzbeks. And secondly, lack of adequate and actionable intelligence makes the choices harder.
“Waziristan is like a black hole for the 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, most of them in the last four years. Execution and beheading of “spies” reached alarming levels particularly in North and South Waziristan since early 2008 as a result of target-killings.
This severely eroded Pakistani intelligence ingress into the Waziristan region, which apparently also resulted on the one hand in greater intelligence-sharing with the US-NATO forces based across the Durand Line. 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 intelligence capacity also meant an increasing reliance on the CIA-guided drone attacks – over five dozen since February 2008 – to hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.
Publicly, Pakistani military and civilian leadership continues to oppose the Hellfire missiles being fired into suspected al Qaeda hideouts in Waziristan as an “impingement on sovereignty”. Privately, however, they see it as an unwanted though welcome faite accompli; as long as these missiles eliminate enemies such as Baitullah Mehsud, a feared militant leader killed in an August 5 lethal strike, it makes little sense to oppose them.
Concerned officials within the defense and foreign ministry still argue against formalizing the drone strikes through a bilateral agreement. They believe this might prompt other countries with vested interest in the region to demand the same. Maintaining ambiguity, they opine, would perhaps be the best course in the current situation rather than openly acknowledging the tacit understanding on the drone strikes.
The desire to fixing internal stability seems to be one of the factors that is bringing both Pakistan and the United States closer. Discussions with very senior government officials underline – probably for the first time – a new admission that brushes aside the widely-held perception on the “American designs to destabilize Pakistan.”
“Why should the United States destabilize Pakistan if its entire leadership considers a stable Pakistan as the key to stabilizing Pakistan,” remarked a very senior government official in the ministry of foreign affairs.
This formulation amounts to a turn-around – at least on highest political and military level; most Pakistanis – officials and public at large alike – somehow have long remained incensed with purported CIA plans to create instability in Pakistan for justifying direct US intervention there.
This also underscores a new confidence within Pakistan’s ruling establishment which seems willing – more than ever – to act against militant networks that it meanwhile perceives as a threat to the long term interests of the country.
Unlike the days, former president Pervez Musharraf, the present ruling troika – President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and the chief of Army Staff Gen. Kiyani – agrees that:
a) The Taliban movement as well as al Qaeda today stands discredited than ever before
b) Defeating these forces is a must to reverse the insurgency and the wave of religious extremism, and
c) The US-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 Aid Bill also reflects those pressures. For instance, the article 2 is exclusively focused on the conduct of the Pakistan army and expects it not to lend any direct or indirect support in any form to militant groups that pose a threat to Pakistan and the world.
One would have to wait and see as to whether the Pakistani military receives these conditions as “directed against national interests.” This would perhaps also determine the course and level of future military cooperation because if these conditions are viewed as “coercion” this might prompt elements within the civil-military establishment to stonewall the aid and obstruct military cooperation.
Moving with mutual trust is essential for any effective and whole-hearted crackdown in Waziristan; if the security forces do manage to disrupt militant networks including those of Haqqani and Hekmetyar, which have been the main supporters of the vicious Tehreeki Taliban Pakistan (TTP), it would create space not only for Pakistan but for the entire international community to assert itself vis a vis obscurantist forces which don’t promise development but destruction and ignorance only.