Tuesday, April 25, 2006

BBC on Waziristan (Part Three)

In his third piece Aamer Ahmed Khan tells us that in Waziristan:

  • The Pakistan government has completely conceded its writ to the Taliban.
  • There was not a government soldier in sight throughout the three-hour journey he took from Dera Ismail Khan District to Wana.
  • It is "Al-Qaeda Central"- armed to their teeth Taliban fighters can not only be seen patrolling the main roads in small groups but the local town bazaars are also ‘crawling’ with them.
  • The only military options open for Pakistan is to either carpet-bomb the place - killing every man, woman and child - or engaging in hand-to-hand combat outside every house in area to flush out the foreign militants. Either option would cause heavy military and civilian losses.


The Taleban stronghold of Waziristan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, South Waziristan, Pakistan

Waziristan's new landmarks speak eloquently of the intensity of the conflict that still rages between Taleban and al-Qaeda militants and the Pakistani security forces.

Not long ago, visitors from outside the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan were shown a different version of history.

They would see the mountain passes where Waziristan's fiercely independent tribesmen inflicted crushing defeats on the British army.

Or they would be shown the first concrete bunkers built by the British to protect themselves from raids by the locals.

'Most dangerous'

Today, visitors are shown the house where Pakistan's most wanted tribal militant, Abdullah Mehsud, was hiding Chinese hostages when government forces attacked him.

It is possible to be taken to the house where a US military strike killed emerging Taleban leader Nek Mohammed.

Freshly dug graves of tribesmen - some killed in battle with security forces, others by "unknown assailants" - dot the roadside along the only metalled road in South Waziristan.

But even these are perhaps insignificant landmarks for a place that has become known for blunting the self-declared American war on terror.

American officials describe Waziristan as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

"Everyone here calls himself a Pakistani," says BBC Urdu Service reporter Dilawar Khan Wazir.

"And they do actually look at themselves as Pakistanis."


But it is not an identity that is easy to define.

"A dozen governments can change in Pakistan and few in Waziristan will even talk about it," says Mr Wazir.

"In comparison, the slightest change in Afghanistan can destabilise the entire tribal belt."

It was perhaps inevitable that the conflict in Afghanistan between the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai and remnants of the ousted Taleban regime would spill across into Waziristan.

Over the last couple of years, this has led to the emergence of local Taleban commanders and brought droves of Arab and Central Asian militants to Pakistani territory.

Ahmed Rashid, author of the authoritative bestseller Taliban, calls Waziristan "Al-Qaeda Central".

Apart from the Pakistan government, few in the area seem inclined to challenge this description - for good reason.


Entering Waziristan feels like travelling back in time.

The sparsely populated and dramatic barren hills show few signs of having encountered modern times.

The fortress-like houses that occasionally dot the landscape add to that image.

These houses have walls that are just under a metre (three feet) thick and just over six metres (20 feet) high.

In most cases, they are built around the entire landholding of the occupant that can be anything between five to 20 acres.

Originally meant to protect locals against invading Afghan tribesmen, many now serve as potential sanctuaries for militants on the run.

The sanctity of these fortress-like homes is considered inviolable in the tribal belt - its invasion a crime deemed worse than murder.

A top military source with knowledge of the tribal areas told me that the government had compelling reasons for halting its military activities in South Waziristan, even if it meant accepting peace on the Taleban's terms.

"We could either carpet-bomb the place, killing every man, woman and child or we could risk hand-to-hand combat outside every house in order to flush out the foreign militants," the source said.

Either option would cause heavy military and civilian losses.

"And every death would have given birth to a new tribal vendetta which would have prolonged the war for ever."

No writ

From inside Waziristan, the argument seems logical enough. And it explains why the government has conceded its writ to the Taleban so completely.

Armed to their teeth, Taleban fighters can be seen patrolling the main roads in small groups.

There is not a government soldier in sight throughout the three-hour journey from Dera Ismail Khan district to Wana.

The five check posts up to Wana are manned by Waziristan Scouts, a paramilitary forcetraditionally employed to keep an eye on the traffic.

The scouts mostly avoid checking vehicles, not wishing to engage armed tribesmen over their often dubious cargo.

Thousands of regular army troops deployed in South Waziristan remain bunkered in a fort that is visible from the main bazaar of Wana, one of the largest in the tribal belt.

The bazaar crawls with Taleban fighters.

Their trademark long hair, beards and perpetually sullen expressions distinguish them from the non-militant tribals.

The Russian assault rifle AK-47, commonly known as Kalashnikov, seems to be a part of the dress.

Some fighters can be seen with hand grenades dangling from their jackets - a typical tribal response to the government's call for a ban on the display of arms across Waziristan.

The scene is such that one has to keep reminding oneself of the fact that this is a time of relative peace for South Waziristan.

Relative, because peace as it is understood in the modern world has perhaps never existed in this lawless part of Asia.



Gedroshian said...

could you, by any chance, please persuade Aamer to pay a visit to Kohlu, and Dera bugti?

mountainman said...

It is interesting to note that the top millitary leadership considers it okay to carpet bomb and drive out the local population in Balochistan in its attempt to fight Baloch insurgents yet considers it impractical in Waziristan. According to informal estimates more than 250,000 people have been rendered homeless in Kohlu and Dera Bugti Districts as a result of the ongoing millitary action. Not that one wants people in Waziristan to suffer any more than they already have but that one wants the government to adopt an attitude of moderation in Balochistan. Also, lest we forget, there are commononalities between Balochistan and Waziristan as well, namely, the government's singular failure to penetrate the insurgent cadres and carry out pinpointed action. As a result it had to resort to a campaign of aerial bombing and imposing collective punishment which appear to yield little result.

And now back to the difference in attitude and possible reasons for it.

The millitary agencies, politicians and a large majority of people in Punjab share the religious outlook as well as sympathize with the strategic objectives of the Taliban. They believe in the notions of holy war and consider meddling millitarily in Afghanistan and Kashmir a legitimate strategic objective.

However, these same agencies, politicians and their supporters in the citizenry find it difficult to understand or reconcile themselves to the secular outlook of Baloch leadership. Hence they will go out of their way to please the Taleban millitants by making all kinds of offers to them but would spurn dialogue in Balochistan and accuse them of rejecting modernization and economic development! The government of 'enlightened moderation' would allow the Taleban to hang headless bodies from electric poles and tolerate the total absence of government authority in Waziristan. But the same government would bomb the Bugti chief's house even though the government institutions were fully functioning- police, paramillitary forces, courts, dco, etc- because it wants to impose the 'writ of the government' there.

Moreover, within Balochistan the millitary agencies have shifted the balance of electoral strength against Baloch and Pashtun nationalists by helping the pro-Taleban JUI win the elections and become the leading partner in the Provincial Government in a bid to cramp the nationalist parties for political space.

The reason for this is very simple. Baloch nationalist parties, majority of whom do not espouse violence, do not correspond to the ideological and strategic outlook of the millitary, sections of political elite and a large majority of people in Punjab. So it is okay to bomb them, to make entire population homeless, to put thousands of youth in jail-many of them without formal charges- and even prevent national and international NGOs like Oxfam to provide relief to the affected people. The politicians in Islamabad would make minimal noises against the Taleban presence in Waziristan but would not hesitate to engage in the character assasination of Baloch leadership- many of whom have good credentials as former Governors, Chief Ministers and members of national and provincial assemblies.

Anonymous said...

I dont know how may people read this, the mountain man screwed the wits out of Gedroshian, eyes popping.....

That's Pakistan for you, for real.

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