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What sparked the deadly clashes in tribal Pakistan

By B Raman
October 10, 2007 19:19 IST
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About 200 members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the jihadi group allied to Al Qaeda, and the Pashtun tribal group led by Baitullah Mehsud and about a hundred members of the Pakistani security forces -- mostly para-military personnel -- have been killed in violent clashes around the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan since October 6. The clashes started after the terrorists ambushed a convoy of the security forces in North Waziristan, inflicting an undisclosed number of fatalities and capturing some Pakistani security personnel.

The dead bodies of the some of the security forces personnel  were later found abandoned with their throats slit. A jirga of leading North Waziristan clerics led by former member of the National Assembly, Maulana Nek Zaman Haqqani, after daylong negotiations, received 30 bodies of the slain soldiers from the jihadis in Khaisur and handed them over to military officials in Mir Ali.

The News, a well-informed daily newspaper, quoted an unidentified jirga member as claiming on October 8, that the jirga members had recovered 73 bodies of soldiers, majority of which were burnt or badly mutilated, from the Mir Ali villages that they had visited.

Malik Sher Khan, a local tribal elder, said 45 bodies of soldiers had been handed over to military officials in Mir Ali. Quoting a local government official, The News reported as follows: 'Very few of the over 200 soldiers besieged by militants on Sunday (October 7) seem to have survived after the deadliest ever attack on them.'

Following the discovery of over a dozen mutilated dead bodies, either beheaded or with their throats slit, of paramilitary personnel captured earlier by Baitullah Mehsud's men, the paramilitary forces ran amok. Some surrendered to the terrorists, others discarded their uniforms and took shelter in the homes of the residents of the area and some others went on a killing spree, indiscriminately killing the local villagers and the Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs living in Mir Ali.

The Pakistani security forces retaliated initially with ground troops and helicopter gunships. Subsequently, unable to prevail over the jihadi forces, they called for an air strike. Major General Waheed Arshad, an army spokesman, claimed in a TV interview that Pakistan Air Force planes targeted militant hideouts and struck 'one or two places' near Mir Ali. Local villagers said PAF aircraft also bombed a village near Mir Ali called Hader Khel. There was a large number of fatalities of civilians on October 9, when some bombs fell on a crowded village market.

Till March, Mir Ali used to be the headquarters of the Islamic Jihad Group, a break-away group of the IMU. It is also known as the Islamic Jihad Union. It ran a number of training camps there where jihadis from many countries, including Germany, China's Xinjiang, and Pakistan itself were trained by Uzbek and Chechen instructors. The IMU's headquarters used to be in the Azam Warsak area of South Waziristan.

This area became the scene of  violent attacks by sections of the local tribals on the Uzbeks living in the area following the alleged murder of a local tribal personality by an Uzbek resident of the area in the third week of March. In the ensuing clashes, nearly 100 persons were killed -- about 70 Uzbeks and the remaining locals mainly belonging to the Darikhel and the Tojikhel sub-tribes of the Pashtuns. The Yargulkhel sub-tribe led by Noor Islam and his brother Haji Omar, two important pro-Taliban military commanders who had once fought in Afghanistan, supported the Uzbeks in their fight against the Darikhels and the Tojkhels. Some Yargulkhels were also killed. Ultimately, the IMU was forced to evacuate South Waziristan and shift to Mir Ali.

Following this, I had reported, 'According to well-informed sources in the police of the North-West Frontier Province, the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is under the effective control of the IMU headed by Qari Tahir Yaldeshev. Small groups of Chechens and Uighurs are also present in the area. They work under the overall command of Qari Tahir. They were being helped by Maulana Sadiq Noor, a local tribal leader close to the Neo Taliban.

'The IMU, with the help of Chechen instructors, has set up training camps in the area for training the recruits of the Neo Taliban, the jihadi terrorist organisations of Pakistan and individual jihadis from abroad -- particularly from the Pakistani Diaspora abroad. In a report on the ground situation in the North Waziristan area, the Dawn of Karachi stated as follows on July 29: 'The problem now is that the situation in Miranshah has worsened to an unusual extent. In a letter to the government, that sounded more like a lamentation, a political agent stated that the khasadars (tribal police) had abandoned their duty without seeking his permission. All those appointed for 599 posts of the levies force had renounced their responsibilities and officers of the line departments had left their offices at the mercy of watchmen. Little wonder then that a line department office and a check-post are blown up every day. Junior tribal officers and moharrirs (clerks) have not reported for work and tribal elders remain too scared to meet the political administration for fear of reprisal attacks from militants.'

Independent sources say that there is a total administrative collapse in the area, with very little governance. This chaos and anarchy have been spreading to the adjoining Bannu and other areas of the NWFP. The Pakistan Army, despite the claims of General Pervez Musharraf, is not in a position to restore its authority in the area. At the same time, it is reluctant to let the US forces in nearby Afghan territory mount covert actions against these elements lest it further aggravate the jihadi anger against Musharraf in the tribal and non-tribal areas.

Instead of making too many statements on the options available to the US, which are proving counter-productive, the US should authorise its commanders on the ground in the Afghan territory to mount any covert action in Pakistani territory in the North Waziristan area within a certain depth, if such action is warranted by intelligence of terrorist operations under preparation.

After the Pakistani commando raid in Islamabad's Lal Masjid between July 10 and 13, the Mehsuds of Baitullah joined hands with the IMU and the Islamic Jihad Group and started instigating suicide terrorist attacks not only in FATA areas and the NWFP, but also outside the tribal belt -- even in places like Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Coinciding with the raid, the government sent reinforcements of security forces to North Waziristan. This was interpreted by sections of the local tribals as a violation of the peace agreement signed with them by the Pakistan Army in September 2006, and as a prelude to attacks on the headquarters of the IMU and the Islamic Jihad Group.

They kidnapped nearly 300 members of the paramilitary forces and threatened to kill them at the rate of three a day if their followers in government custody were not released and the reinforcements were not withdrawn.

Following the arrest in Germany in September of three German Muslims trained in the camps of the Islamic Jihad Group in the Mir Ali area, who were allegedly planning to attack a US military base in Germany, the Musharraf government came under increased pressure from the US to act against the pro-Al Qaeda jihadis in the Mir Ali area.

There was similar pressure from the Chinese, who were concerned over the attacks on Chinese nationals working in Pakistan after the Lal Masjid raid. Even apart from these pressures, the worsening security situation in the tribal belt forced the Pakistani security forces to act against the Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs and their local tribal supporters.

Reports from the NATO forces in Afghanistan of the presence of increasing numbers of Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs with the Neo Taliban forces operating in Afghan territory added to the pressure for action. Responding to these pressures, the Pakistani  government started sending further reinforcements to the area. It was a jihadi attack on one of the convoys carrying these reinforcements which triggered off the latest round of deadly clashes.

The writer is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat,Government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: 

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B Raman