Pakistan says it's reining in tribal areas
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: After some of the heaviest fighting in two years in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan's generals are claiming initial success in their latest efforts to combat foreign militants and regain some control in one of the most lawless regions.
President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged Thursday for the first time that the Pakistani military had been involved in the recent heavy fighting in the tribal area of South Waziristan and said that nearly 300 foreign militants had been killed.
The commander of Pakistani troops in the tribal areas, Major General Gul Muhammad, put the figure much lower, at 150 to 200, in a briefing for journalists in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, on Wednesday. By some estimates only dozens have been killed. Foreign journalists are not permitted to visit the tribal areas, except a few selected ones under strictly controlled visits, and there has been no independent verification of casualty figures.
The military does appear to have gained more control in the immediate region of Wana, and Muhammad said the progress made in clearing the area of foreign militants - mainly Uzbeks and other Central Asians who have been allied with Al Qaeda - would serve as a model to use in the rest of the region, including the equally lawless North Waziristan next door.
Pakistan has been under heavy pressure from the United States and NATO countries to contain the spreading lawlessness of its tribal areas, which Pakistani, Afghan and foreign militants have been using to wage an expanding insurgency across the border in Afghanistan. South Waziristan had become a Taliban state in all but name after a peace deal with militants in 2005 gave them freedom to operate while the military withdrew to its barracks.
The Pakistani military abandoned broad-scale military operations in favor of negotiated peace deals with the militants over the past two years. The strategy has been criticized for allowing militants a haven to regroup and increase their attacks across the border in Afghanistan and possibly farther afield. The military has now set upon a third way to tackle the problem of militancy in its tribal regions, backing local armed tribesmen who have turned against the foreigners and their local protectors.
A rift emerged between a local commander and Uzbek fighters in his region in November and the military, and intelligence agencies admit they have sought to exploit the growing animosity among the local tribespeople toward the foreign militants, whom they accused of thuggery, robberies and murders.
"It's indigenous, and it's picking up momentum," Muhammad said. "It's a homegrown affair."
In a speech at a military conference in Islamabad on Thursday, Musharraf said: "The people of South Waziristan now have risen against the foreigners. They have killed about 300 of them, and they got support from the Pakistan Army. They asked for support."
Military and paramilitary forces have moved in and occupied strategic hilltops and ridges in several areas that were until now controlled by militants in Shin Warsak, Kalosha and Tora Gola, Muhammad said. The immediate Wana region was almost clear of Uzbek militants, and tribal volunteers were chasing them in Nandran, a mountainous area near the Afghan border.
Even as it explains the recent developments as a homegrown uprising, the government is claiming credit for the shift in tribal dynamics as a result of its three-pronged strategy, referred to by Muhammad as coercive deployment, political engagement and socioeconomic development, to "win over the hearts and minds of the people."
Yet it remains unclear whether all is as the military says.
Promised meetings with members of the political administration of South Waziristan and with tribal elders did not materialize on the journalists' visit to the region Wednesday.
And while the military has tried to depict the fighting as local tribespeople moving against the foreigners, in fact it has been led by a Pakistani Taliban commander, Maulavi Nazir, who has close links to the Afghan Taliban and Arab members of Al Qaeda. One of his accusations against the Uzbek group of militants has been that they did not want to fight foreign troops in Afghanistan but preferred to attack pro-American Pakistanis, whether tribal elders or government members.
Answering a volley of questions regarding Nazir, Muhammad said only that the militant commander was subservient to his tribe and not above it.
Hundreds of foreign militants remain in the region, probably including the leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officials admit.
"It will take time," the general said. "There are no quick fixes in this war. We are here for a long haul."
Carlotta Gall reported from Islamabad, and Ismail Khan from Wana.