Pakistan fights for its tribal soul

Posted in Terrorism , Pakistan | 12-Jun-09 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Pakistani troops unload weapons from an army helicopter in Mingora, capital of Swat valley, in May 2009.

KARACHI - Pakistan's month-long military operation in the Malakand Division of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes the scene of especially heavy fighting in the Swat Valley, has, per official figures, cost the lives of over 1,300 militants and led to the displacement of 3.5 million civilians.

The battle is far from over.

Under relentless pressure from the United States to get the job done once and for all, Pakistan is opening up new fronts in an attempt to wipe out Taliban militants and the al-Qaeda "franchise" under which they operate.

On Thursday morning, the Pakistan Air Force conducted strikes in Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and ground and air operations have started in the Frontier Regions (Jani Khel - the tribal areas adjacent to the city) of Bannu district in NWFP. Al-Qaeda's shura (council) is believed to operate from Jani Khel.

The military is also expected to move in strength into the South Waziristan tribal area to go after a nexus that includes Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, Punjabi militants, Uzbeks and al-Qaeda. Clashes are reported to have already taken place.

Washington has reacted positively to the Pakistani initiatives, but garrison headquarters in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the capital Islamabad, are nervous. The top brass are aware of the tough fight their troops have had in Malakand Division and the resentment the operations have caused across the country.

Tuesday's attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, in which 19 people, including two United Nations staff, were killed and 70 wounded, is a stark reminder of the dangers of fighting the American war in the region.

Contacts familiar with the background to the attack told Asia Times Online it was approved by al-Qaeda and carried out by a nexus of militants that included Hakeemullah Mehsud of Orakzai Agency (a relative of Baitullah Mehsud), members of the Sunni militant group Laskhar-e-Jhangvi from the town of Darra Adam Khel in NWFP and the Omar group from the Frontier Regions of Peshawar.

In a message to Asia Times Online, a senior militant leader maintained that the operation had also aimed to take out US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials staying at the hotel. They were said to be in talks with Pakistani officials to work out ways to protect the 90% of NATO supplies for Afghanistan that pass through Peshawar.

This account, however, was disputed by Qudsia Qadri, editor-in-chief of the Pakistani Daily Financial Post, who told Asia Times Online that she stayed in the five-star hotel for a few days until Tuesday afternoon and she had not seen any FBI or NATO officials.

"The occupancy of the hotel was hardly 5%. I met a few foreigners, in the gym and at breakfast, but they were all working with NGOs [non-governmental agencies] to help the internally displaced people of Malakand," said Qadri.

How the attack was conceived
Baitullah Mehsud, al-Qaeda members and Punjabi militants live in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, remote regions on the border with Afghanistan far from Khyber Agency, through which NATO supplies pass, Kurram Agency, a hub of anti-Taliban Shi'ite forces, and Peshawar.

None of these three areas has indigenous Taliban. Therefore, Orakzai Agency, the only tribal area that does not have a border with Afghanistan, was chosen to station Taliban from South Waziristan and other regions.

By the beginning of this year, Orakzai Agency had been taken over by the Taliban and declared an Islamic emirate. The amir (leader) was Moulvi Saeed, but the public face was Hakeemullah Mehsud, a lieutenant of Baitullah Mehsud imported from South Waziristan.

Gradually, they brought in criminal elements, including anti-Shi'ite fugitives of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, and placed them in Darra Adam Khel, just on the outskirts of Peshawar. The Omar group was assigned to the frontier regions of Peshawar. With these groups in place, Khyber Agency and Peshawar could easily be accessed - exactly as happened with Tuesday's hotel attack.

The Pakistani security forces are braced for similar attacks now that the battle is being extended into South Waziristan and other tribal areas. At the same time, ethnic and political clashes have risen to unprecedented levels in the southern port city of Karachi, through which most of NATO's supplies enter Pakistan.

In the past week, over 50 people have been killed. The anti-Taliban Muttahida Quami Movement is attributed with most of the killing in a fight against members of a breakaway faction. Retaliation is expected in the coming days, which could result in even heavier bloodshed. The situation could become so bad that the military would have to intervene. The problem is, its forces are already spread thin in the north.

For the time being, these northern areas remain the prime concern, and the militants and al-Qaeda are ready.

Safe havens in the Hindu Kush
The Eastern Hindu Kush range, also known as the High Hindu Kush range, is mostly located in northern Pakistan and the Nuristan and Badakhshan provinces of Afghanistan.

This chain of mountains connects with several smaller ranges, such as Spin Ghar, the Tora Bora, the Suleman Range, Toba Kakar, and creates a natural corridor that passes through the entire Pakistani tribal areas and the Afghan border provinces all the way to the Pakistani coastal area in Balochistan province.

By 2008, al-Qaeda had taken control of the 1,500-square-kilometer corridor - something it had planned to do since fleeing Afghanistan when the Taliban were defeated by US-led forces in December 2001.

Al-Qaeda decided then to build a regional ideologically motivated franchise in South Asia to thwart the strategic designs of Western powers in the area.

While US forces were vainly trying to hunt down al-Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains, the group was focused on establishing links with organizations such as the Jaishul al-Qiba al-Jihadi al-Siri al-Alami and Jundallah in the Pakistani tribal areas and organizing the recruitment of Pakistanis and Afghans to those organizations. The underlying reason for doing this was to destroy the local political and social structures and in their place establish an al-Qaeda franchise.

The plan worked. Today, in many parts of the Hindu Kush corridor, centuries-old tribal systems and their connections with the Pakistani establishment through an appointed political agent have been replaced by a system of Islamic warlordism.

The old breed of tribal elders, religious clerics and tribal chiefs, loyal to Pakistan and its systems, has been wiped out, to be replaced by warlords such as Haji Omar, Baitullah Mehsud, (slain) Nek Mohammad and (slain) Abdullah Mehsud. They are all al-Qaeda allies, and allow al-Qaeda freedom of movement in their areas within the corridor.

Al-Qaeda members from abroad also use the corridor to enter the Pakistani tribal areas. It is not always safe. Recently, security agencies arrested four Saudi nationals in Mohmand Agency. They were named only as Ahmed, Ali, Mohammad and Obaidullah and had arrived in Pakistan from Saudi Arabia in 2008-09 after passing through Iran. Had they traveled through Pakistani cities towards the tribal areas, they would most likely have been arrested much earlier.

Recently, al-Qaeda broadened its network by forging closer links with the Pakistani-based Iranian insurgency group Jundallah, which operates from around Turbat in Pakistan's Balochistan province.

Pakistan at a crossroads
This situation has brought Pakistan to a crossroads. Al-Qaeda has in many areas devastated the traditional tribal systems and established its franchise in very strategic terrain.

The country's administrative systems and law-enforcing agencies were not designed to cope with such developments. The only response it has been able to come up with is to mobilize the military - a controversial decision that could yet backfire.

There are several reasons why the militants were able to undermine the tribes. The militant organizations are highly organized, battle-hardened, heavily armed and well funded. And importantly, while tribal influence is limited to its own area, its own people, the militant organizations have cross-tribal, cross-border and international linkages. And while the tribes are bound by their tribal traditions and customary laws (riwaj), the militant organizations are not. They have out-gunned, out-funded and out-organized the tribal malik (leader) and his tribe.

Pakistan had planned to prop up the tribes, as the real strength of a country is its people. No government, whether civilian or military, can function or succeed until it has public support behind it.

This it started doing by signing agreements with selected tribes. These included ones with Sufi Mohammad in Malakand to prop up the administrative system. However, international pressure - mainly from Washington - forced Pakistan to abandon this roadmap in place of full-frontal military engagement with the militants.

Up until the latest offensive that began in Swat and which is now being extended, military action usually petered out after securing only temporary success. The government of the day generally lacked the will to go for the kill, and there remained segments within the intelligence apparatus and military sympathetic to the militants.

It now appears the government is prepared for a long fight, but ultimately it will have to take control of the corridor that provides the militants with the space from which to attack, regroup and attack again.

This would have to involve stepped-up cooperation with forces in Afghanistan to jointly patrol the border, and most importantly, a renewed attempt to revive the tribal systems where they have been infiltrated by militants.

Individually, these are mammoth tasks, in combination almost impossible. And as the planes and tanks roll in greater numbers across greater areas of Pakistan, these goals risk being lost in the fog of war.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at