A Taliban ministate arises in Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Islamic militants are using a recent peace deal with the government to consolidate their hold in northern Pakistan, vastly expanding their training of suicide bombers and other recruits and fortifying alliances with Al Qaeda and foreign fighters, diplomats and intelligence officials from several nations say. The result, they say, is virtually a Taliban ministate.
The militants, the officials say, are openly flouting the terms of the September accord in North Waziristan, under which they agreed to end cross- border help for the Taliban insurgency that revived in Afghanistan with new force this year.
The area is becoming a magnet for an influx of foreign fighters, who not only challenge government authority in the area, but are even wresting control from local tribes and spreading their influence to neighboring areas, according to several American and NATO officials, as well as Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials.
This year, more than 100 local leaders and government sympathizers or accused "American spies" have been killed, several of them in beheadings, as the militants have used a reign of terror to impose what President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan calls a creeping "Talibanization." Last year, at least 100 others were killed.
While the tribes offered refuge to the militants when they retreated to the area in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan, that welcome is waning as the killings have generated new tensions and added to the volatility in the region.
"They are taking territory," a Western ambassador in Pakistan said. "They are becoming much more aggressive in Pakistan."
"It is the lesson from Afghanistan in the '90s," he added. "Ungoverned spaces are a problem. The whole tribal area is a problem."
The links among the various groups date to the 1980s, when Arabs, Pakistanis and other Muslims joined Afghans in their fight to drive out the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, using a network of training camps and religious schools set up by the Pakistani intelligence agency and financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia.
The training continued with Pakistani and Qaeda support through the 1990s, and then moved into Afghanistan under the Taliban. It was during this time that Pakistanis became drawn into militancy in big numbers, fighting alongside the Taliban and hundreds of foreign fighters against the northern tribes of Afghanistan.
Today the history of the region has come full circle. Since retreating from Afghanistan in 2002 under American military attacks, the Taliban and foreign fighters are again using the tribal areas to organize themselves — now training their sights on the 40,000 American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
After failing to gain control of the areas in military campaigns, the government cut peace deals in South Waziristan in 2004 and 2005, and then in North Waziristan on Sept. 5. Since the September accord, NATO officials say cross-border attacks by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies have increased.
In recent weeks, Pakistani intelligence officials said the number of foreign fighters in the tribal areas was far higher than the official estimate of 500, perhaps as high as 1,500 to 2,000 today.
These fighters include Afghans and seasoned Taliban leaders, Uzbek and other Central Asian militants, and what intelligence officials estimate to be 80 to 90 Arab terrorist operatives and fugitives, including possibly the Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The tightening web of alliances among these groups in a remote, mountainous area increasingly beyond state authority is potentially disastrous for efforts to combat terrorism as far away as Europe and the United States, intelligence officials warn. They and Western diplomats say it also portends an even bloodier year for Afghanistan in 2007, with the winter expected to serve as what one official described as a "breeding season" to multiply ranks.
"I expect next year to be quite bloody," the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said in an interview last week. "My sense is the Taliban wants to come back and fight. I don't expect the Taliban to win but everyone needs to understand that we are in for a fight."
One of the clearest measures of the dangers of this local cross-fertilization is suicide bombings. Diplomats with knowledge of the Pashtun tribes in the area say they have little doubt the tactic emerged from the influence of Al Qaeda, since such attacks were unknown in Pakistan or Afghanistan before 2001.
This year suicide attacks have become a regular feature of the Afghan war and have also appeared for the first time in Pakistan, including two in this frontier province in recent weeks, indicating a growing threat to Pakistan's security.
In recent weeks, Afghan officials say they have uncovered alarming signs of large-scale indoctrination and preparation of suicide bombers in the tribal areas, and the Pakistani minister of the interior, Aftab Khan Sherpao, for the first time publicly acknowledged that training of suicide bombers was occurring in the tribal areas.
The Afghan intelligence service said last week in a statement that it had captured an Afghan suicide bomber wearing a vest filled with explosives. The man reportedly said he had been given the task by the head of a religious school in the Pakistani tribal region of Bajaur, and that 500 to 600 students there were being prepared for jihad and be suicide bombers.
So numerous are the recruits that a tribal leader in southern Afghanistan, who did not want to be named because of the threat of suicide bombers, relayed an account of how one would-be suicide bomber was sent home and told to wait his turn because there were many in line ahead of him.
American military officials say they believe much of the training in Waziristan is taking place under the aegis of men like Jalaluddin Haqqani, once one of the most formidable commanders of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen forces who joined the Taliban in the 1990s.
He has had a close relationship with Arab fighters since the 1980s, when Waziristan was his rear base for fighting the Soviet occupation. Arab fighters had joined him there in the struggle, among them bin Laden.
He later became the Taliban's minister of tribal affairs and was the main protector for the foreign fighters on their exodus from Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. He and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, remain the most important local partners for Al Qaeda in Waziristan.
Haqqani bases himself in North Waziristan and has a host of other Taliban and foreign commanders, in particular Uzbeks, who are loyal to him, U.S. military officials say.
Money continues to flow in from religious supporters at home and in the Gulf states, as well as from a range of illicit activities like a lucrative opium trade, smuggling and even kidnapping, diplomats, UN analysts and local journalists say.
"There are clearly very substantial training facilities that are still operating in Waziristan, both North and South, and other parts of FATA and Baluchistan," a diplomat in Kabul said, referring to the region by the acronym for its formal name, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"Even more worrying is the continued presence of the Taliban and Haqqani leadership networks," the diplomat said, dismayed at what he characterized as Pakistani passivity in breaking up the networks.
"They haven't been addressed at all on the Pakistani side," he added. "They haven't been pursued."
The diplomat also singled out Saddique Noor, in his mid-40s, a Pakistani militant commander who he asserted was training suicide bombers in Waziristan and sending them into Afghanistan. Noor fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban in the 1990s and is a determined opponent of the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan.
Another commander, Beitullah Mehsud, about age 40 and also from the region, is now probably the strongest Pakistani Taliban commander and may also be dispatching suicide bombers. He also fought in Afghanistan under the Taliban and claims to have 15,000 fighters under him now.
Both men are loyal to Haqqani, whom Western diplomats consider one of the most dangerous Taliban commanders because of his links to Al Qaeda and his strong local standing.
The other, for the same reason, is Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban commander from southern Afghanistan, who has emerged as the main figure in the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban.
The one-legged Dadullah — he lost a leg in fighting — has a flamboyant if cruel reputation. He narrowly escaped capture in northern Afghanistan in 2001, often gives boastful interviews to news agencies and is known to have personally ordered the killings of aid workers. His latest announcement, made in a phone call to Reuters, was that the Taliban had infiltrated suicide bombers into every Afghan city.
He is widely thought to be based in or around the southern Pakistani town of Quetta but is reported to be constantly on the move. He visited various areas of southern Afghanistan this year and has traveled to Waziristan repeatedly, in particular as the tribes of North Waziristan negotiated their Sept. 5 peace deal with the government, which he sanctioned, according to local reporters and intelligence officials.
The increasingly urgent question for Pakistani, Afghan, American and NATO officials is what can be done to bring the region under control. The Pakistani government's latest attempt was the Sept. 5 peace accord in North Waziristan.
Under the deal, both the government and militants agreed to cease attacks, and the militants agreed to end cross- border help for the Afghan insurgency, the killings of tribal leaders and accused government sympathizers, and "Talibanization" of the area.
Taliban commanders sanctioned the deals, arguing that the militants should concentrate their efforts on the foreign armies in Afghanistan and not waste their energies on clashing with the Pakistani military, journalists working in Waziristan say.
Critics say the agreement is fatally flawed since it lacks any means of enforcement and that it has actually empowered the militants.
An international policy analysis group, the International Crisis Group, branded it as a policy of appeasement in a report released Monday.
Some Pakistani officials admit they have made a serious mistake in allowing the militants so much leeway, but only if they will not be quoted publicly.
Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership networks run training camps in various parts of the 800-kilometer, or 500-mile, length of the tribal areas, from Baluchistan in the south to the hub of North and South Waziristan, and farther north to Bajaur, a Western diplomat in Kabul said.
A diplomat who visited Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, said the government had almost no control over either of the Waziristans.
"They are absolutely not running the show in North Waziristan, and it runs the risk of becoming like South Waziristan," he said. "In South Waziristan the government does not even pretend to have a remit that runs outside of its compounds."
The fundamentalists' influence is seeping outward, with propaganda being spread on private radio stations, and through a widening network of religious schools and the distribution of CDs and DVDs. It can now be felt in neighboring tribal departments and the settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province. In recent months, Pakistani newspapers have reported incidents of music and barber shops being closed, television sets burnt and threats to girls' schools.
The militants are more powerful than the military and the local tribal police, kill with impunity and shield criminals and fugitives.
Local journalists say people blame the militants for a rising tide of kidnappings, killings, robberies and even rapes.
The brutality of some foreign militants has begun causing rising discontent among the Pakistani hosts, many of whom are also armed and militant, making the region increasingly volatile and uncontrollable.
"Initially, it was sympathy," a Pakistani intelligence official said. "Then came the money, but it was soon followed by fear. Now, fear is overriding the other two factors, sympathy and money."
For now, however, the Taliban commanders and the Pakistani militants under them remain unswervingly loyal to jihad in Afghanistan and, despite the tensions, still enjoy local support for the cause, officials and local journalists say.