From a localised affair in South Waziristan, the conflict between Pakistan's armed forces and Islamic militants has spread to some of the other Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. The spillover has alarmed the people as it has caused considerable loss of life on both sides. The recent firing of four rockets at specific targets in Peshawar city highlighted the kind of threat that the well-armed and trained tribesmen and some of their 'guest fighters' now pose to President Pervez Musharraf's government.
South Waziristan, the largest of the seven tribal agencies in FATA in terms of area, has always been difficult to govern. It is also one of the bigger agencies in terms of population and has, therefore, been given two seats in the country's national assembly as against one for most of the other tribal regions. Maulana Abdul Malik and Maulana Merajuddin, the two parliamentarians from South Waziristan, are clergymen affiliated to the pro-Taliban religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. This also explains the influence of religious scholars and Islamic political parties in the overwhelmingly conservative tribal region.
South Waziristan is largely mountainous, making it ideal for guerrilla warfare. There are fertile agricultural fields and apple orchards in places like the Wana valley, where the Pakistan army's current military campaign against the militants is concentrated. The landscape is dotted by forts built by the British in the early part of the last century in their largely unsuccessful colonial bid to crush the freedom struggle of the native tribes.
The faqir of Ipi was a legendary freedom-fighter in Waziristan who, like several other clerics, exercised both religious and temporal power to inspire the tribesmen to fight the foreign forces of occupation. Pir Roshan, the most progressive religious figure in the whole tribal belt on the Afghanistan border, also belonged to present-day South Waziristan.
South Waziristan, like the other six tribal agencies, is underdeveloped. The indicators for education, health, communication, and the like are far below the national average. Government neglect has been endemic. The funding for developmental projects for South Waziristan and some of the other tribal regions has been increased since the US military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 in a bid to prompt the tribal population to co-operate with the Pakistani government in its war on terror. But the funds are still far less than the need.
Two Pashtoon tribes, Ahmadzai Wazir and Mahsud, inhabit and dominate South Waziristan. There are also some Burkis, a small ethnic group that has been assimilated by the Pashtoons and now mostly speaks the Pashtoo language. The Waziris live on both sides of the Durand Line that serves as a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the Pakistani tribesmen who gave refuge to the non-Pakistanis and are now fighting alongside them against the Pakistan army belong to the Zalikhel section of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe.
There have been no reports of Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the territory populated by the Mahsud tribe, which has achieved impressive literacy figures in recent years and produced scores of senior civil and military officers. But the recent ambush of a military convoy that destroyed eight vehicles, killed 12 soldiers, and injured 24 took place in the Sarwakai area populated by the Mahsud tribe. The rocketing of Frontier Corps forts, blowing up of a small bridge in the Ladha area, and other acts of sabotage were also reported from the Mahsud territory. It was an indication that the militants certainly had some supporters among the Mahsud and Burki tribes.
A sizeable number of tribesmen from South Waziristan took part in the US-backed Afghan 'jihad' against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Subsequently, most of these tribesmen fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the US. The tribesmen, who are born fighters and learn the use of guns at an early age in keeping with local traditions, acquired more sophisticated fighting skills during the long years of the Afghan war. Those skills have now enabled the militant tribesmen to
put up fierce resistance to the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps troops and execute ambushes, plant landmines, and fire rockets despite being outnumbered and outgunned.
The militants apparently adopted diversionary tactics by rocketing an army position in the Dogar area of central Kurram killing four soldiers and injuring several others. Attacks were also launched against army and militia posts in North Waziristan in a bid to disrupt their supply lines and harass troops on their way to South Waziristan. In the thickly forested Shawal valley, militants sneaked into an army post through a stream at night and killed Major Abdul Waheed and a sepoy before they could retaliate.
Suddenly, the tribesmen who had hitherto been friendly turned hostile. These attacks were also designed to convey a message to the government that the conflict would not remain confined to South Waziristan. The political administration as usual pressured tribal elders to apprehend and punish the culprits under the locally prevalent concept of collective responsibility or face the consequences.
There was a further escalation in the hostilities when four small-range rockets were fired at Peshawar. Though the rockets did not cause much damage, the attacks shocked everyone and added to the concern of the government. It was the first time that Peshawar had been rocketed and Peshawarites suddenly realised their helplessness and vulnerability in the face of such attacks. The Russian-made ROB-107 rockets with a range of about 8km were apparently fired from the Khyber tribal agency, but the authorities, despite their best efforts, are yet to locate the staging area or identity the suspects.
The attackers managed to hit the Balahisar Fort, which is the headquarters of the Frontier Corps militia, but missed the other intended targets, including the residence of the Peshawar corps commander, Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain. The paramilitary Frontier Corps, whose officers are drawn from the army, has been in the forefront of the military operations in South Waziristan and other tribal regions, while the newly appointed corps commander has been entrusted with the overall command of the ongoing action.
As luck would have it, Lt Gen Safdar was thrust into the limelight only a couple of days after taking over as the corps commander from Lt Gen Ali Mohammad Jan Aurakzai upon his retirement from service. It wasn't clear if the Governor's House was also a target, but the militants are definitely angry with the governor, Lt Gen Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah (retd), for spearheading the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and their local supporters in FATA.
By now, it is clear that most of the militants managed to slip out of the cordon that the troops had laid in a 50 square kilometre area in Azam Warsak and its surrounding villages. Military officials believe the militants escaped through a 2km long tunnel that linked the homes of two of the most wanted tribesmen, Sharif Khan and Nur Islam, in Kalosha village. The militants later split into small groups and took refuge with sympathetic tribesmen elsewhere in South Waziristan or even in other tribal agencies. The military demolished about 50 homes of the wanted tribesmen and then withdrew from the area to the regional capital, Wana. However, the matter is far from resolved and future military operations are very much on the cards.
There is no doubt that the army and militia suffered heavy casualties. At least 43 soldiers, including two majors, and 17 militiamen were killed and many more sustained injuries. Two junior-level government officers, known as tehsildars, were made hostage by the militants and killed. Twelve Frontier Corps personnel, who were also made hostage, were luckier. They were freed through the intervention of a jirga (council) of tribal elders and religious scholars.
The army and militia also lost a number of military vehicles, arms, and food and fuel in the ambushes. Eleven non-Pakistani militants were also reportedly killed. The number of Pakistani militants killed is not known. Besides, 26 civilians, mostly women and children, were caught in the fighting and killed. One hundred and sixty-two persons, a majority of whom were Pakistani tribesmen, were arrested by the troops and are now undergoing interrogation. Most of the locals will eventually be freed while the foreigners can expect to stay behind bars for a long period.
No 'high-value target' has been captured until now. There is no evidence that Osama bin Laden, his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri or any other senior Al Qaeda figure is in the area. Members of the Western media, after converging on Islamabad for the imminent capture of Dr al-Zawahiri, have started to return home.
There were certainly a number of Uzbeks, affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that has been declared a terrorist organisation by the US government, holding out in the area along with Chechens, Arabs and Afghans. IMU leader Tahir Yuldavesh was among the militants hiding in the area. The authorities were also probing the presence of Chechen commanders Daniyar and Qurban Ata in South Waziristan.
Unlike the US and its allies, who were obsessed with bin Laden and Dr al-Zawahiri and looked at the military operation in South Waziristan in the context of their capture or escape, the priorities were very different for the Pakistani government. They were counting their dead and hoping that the fallout of the situation in South Waziristan would not become uncontrollable.
Photograph: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images | Image: Uday Kuckian