The Waziristan stand-off

By A.R. Siddiqi

THE news from Waziristan sounds like a daily war bulletin. And worse. For it is not just the casualty list of so many killed or wounded in action —- soldiers and civilians —- but also so many tortured and hanged from electric poles. News magazines offer a weird picture gallery of the gory happenings. And all that goes on and on, with no end in sight.

ISPR Chief Major-General Shaukat Sultan in a recent statement frankly admitted that it was not possible to give a ‘time frame’ to end the operations in Waziristan, now in the fourth year (since 2002)

“It is only possible when the militants stop using Pakistani soil for terrorist activities and their supporters stop supporting them,” he said.

Now, who exactly are the militants and their supporters and for how long will they continue to have a free run of Pakistani soil at will?

Kabul continues to harp untiringly on the theme that Pakistan is not ‘doing enough’ to combat, control and eradicate the terrorist threat — a jarringly loud echo traced directly to the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalizad, former US envoy plenipotentiary to Kabul.

President Karzai’s spokesman Rahim Karimi demands “more and better” cooperation from Pakistan against terrorism. He wants Pakistan to “shake hands” with Afghanistan in the war against terrorism.

Whose war is it ultimately? Pakistan’s, America’s or Afghanistan’s? In real terms, it is a war initiated by the US, being waged by and for it, with Afghanistan gripping Pakistan tightly at its own cost.

In these circumstances comes the news of Pakistan “inviting” a “unit” of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to join the “tripolar” war on terrorism. The unit left undefined could be anything from a mere company or a battalion to a whole formation or a brigade.

Afghanistan’s inclusion would round off the military triangle. The forthcoming three-sided military exercise — Inspired Gambit 06 — is not to be mixed up with the standing US- Pakistan-Afghan tripartite council.

This is obviously a training exercise with troops (TEWT) involving a unit of the ANA and not just a crystal ball war game without troops.

Initially, the Afghan unit will take part in the “joint military exercise” to be conducted between the US and Pakistan next month - on which side of the Durand Line is yet to be stated. In all probability, however, it will be on the Pakistan side which is supposed to be the hub of the militants. Might it not be relevant, therefore, to have added one or two brief paragraphs about the size of the ANA’s participation together with a brief description of the scope, area and duration of the exercise?

The news carries certain far-reaching implications — military, diplomatic and geo-strategic — which will impact on the status of the Durand Line. The name itself, Inspired Gambit 06, makes the lay reader wonder as to what the gambit — a loaded word — is all about.

Soldiers involved in the exercise can hardly be expected to be carrying valid travel documents for its duration. That the Durand Line is being crossed and re-crossed already by trespassers does not invalidate the normal travel rules demanding valid passport and visa.

The military element attached to the tripolar exercise enhances its sensitivity manifold. It would be for the first time ever that the ANA would be operating on Pakistan soil regardless of the size of the force involved.

Frequent American violation of Pakistani territory and air space is unfortunate. However, there is little Pakistan can do about it as a partner in the US war on terrorism and as one tied to its apron strings.

Afghanistan’s traditional pro-Indian tilt together with its prospective status as a full member of Saarc some time this year leaves Pakistan with its flanks exposed, especially in terms of India-Afghan intelligence sharing. Yet another piece of news, not a little disturbing, relates to the raising of a new Levies force in the tribal areas for “eliminating terrorists from the region”. A certain margin of poor reporting notwithstanding, the intended formation of such a joint US-Pakistan force presages an inevitable widening of the dragnet to haul up “miscreants” and of the operation itself.

The recent encounter and killing of Marwan Hadid Al Suri in the Bajaur tribal area, ground zero of America’s indiscriminate bombing in January this year, put the area under the spotlight as one of the permanent hideouts of Al Qaeda men. Marwan was supposed to be a close Al Qaeda operative and a close lieutenant of the Jordanian Musab Al Zarqawi.

Seen in the context of the generally shared view of our tribal areas as the hub of Al Qaeda terrorists, the Marwan episode acquires loaded significance. How come that our tribal areas still remain bustling with foreign militants after all our intensive mopping-up operations?

Whereas South Waziristan is said to have been purged of the Taliban menace, recent media reports tend to negate the impression. Jandola, some 30-40 miles from Wana, headquarters of the South Waziristan Agency, appears to have become the regrouping and recruiting point of the Taliban. At one time, Jandola used to be the pride of the South Waziristan officers’ messes complete with tennis and squash courts, a small bathing pool and a piano forte. Local radicals, branded the Taliban, have established what is called.

The Taliban Islamic Republic on the pattern of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan under Mullah Omar. Dissidents have been outlawed and the pesh imams of local mosques have been forbidden to lead even their funeral prayers. Groups of Taliban dominate Tank, once a princely state, and have infiltrated Dera Ismail Khan, the district headquarters. The writ of the district authorities and the nazims has gone by the board. In North Waziristan, daily encounters betweens state forces and local militants, besides causing untold loss of life and property have has forced the displaced and peace-loving citizens to migrate to neighbouring towns like Bannu and Kohat. The political administration, the backbone of law and order, has practically collapsed.

A retired Pakistan army colonel, an ethnic Mahsud, tells me that Baitullah Mahsud, the renegade-turned-patriot and now a renegade again, virtually controls much of North Waziristan. The Maliks, traditionally loyal and in the pay of the government, live in perpetual fear of Baitullah Mahsud and are of little or no help to the government as informers and mediators.

Besides the Maliks, the militants are also targeting the Levies, the Khassadars and the Scouts in a bid to subvert their loyalties. Leaflets are being distributed urging the paramilitaries to rebel and wage jihad against the “Jews”. In Bara and the Khyber Agency, local FM radio networks operate to wage an abusive propaganda offensive carried out among rival groups of maulvis. There, too, apparently the traditional role of the political agent as the principal liaison betweens the tribal and provincial/ federal authorities is not half as effective as before.

Isn’t it high time that Islamabad eased the operation, announced a general amnesty, initiated a peace process in right earnest and attempted some damage control?

— The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army.

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