THE clock has come full circle for the Uzbek militants in South Waziristan.
They are, in all probability, making their last stand – capping an eventful journey that brought them first to Afghanistan and eventually to Pakistan from their homes in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Welcomed by tribesmen with open arms, the militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan faced little problem finding support and shelter among the Ahmadzai Wazir tribes in Wana, the regional headquarters of South Waziristan.
Qari Tahir Yaldashev, the IMU leader, aka Qari Farooq, became the star speaker at mosques in the Wana region. Yaldashev had succeeded Jumma Namangani, who was killed in a US air strike in northern Afghanistan in Nov 2001.
It was in June 2001 that Pakistan, reluctantly acknowledging the presence of foreign militants in the tribal region, launched its first operation in Azam Warsak. The tip had come from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The encounter was bloody and shocking. Ten soldiers of the Pakistan Army were killed, amongst them were two officers.
More troops were rushed in, but it was the March 2004 operation in Kaloosha (South Waziristan) that made it clear to Pakistan’s military strategists that they were fighting no ordinary enemy. They were pitted against a hardened enemy.
What followed was a spate of ambushes, IED (improvised explosive devices) and rocket attacks.
Over the next two years, around two hundred pro-government tribal elders, intelligence operatives and their tribal moles, journalists and government functionaries were ruthlessly killed and eliminated; most were blamed on Uzbek militants.
Resentment against Uzbeks had been brewing in Wana for about a year now. Fear and resentment had replaced the initial sympathy for them. Things, however, began to change last year when senior Taliban figures from Afghanistan ordered reshuffling in the militant hierarchy in Waziristan. Maulavi Omar, who had succeeded Commander Nek Muhammad as overall commander of the Ahmadzai Wazir militants and was known to harbour a large number of Uzbek militants, was in turn replaced by Maulavi Nazir.
Three things happened in the past one year or so that sealed the Uzbeks’ fate. One, the Taliban and their supporters in Waziristan had begun to realise that Uzbeks were turning into a liability because of their alleged involvement in target-killings. The most prominent name to come up was that of Saiful Asad.
Two, the Uzbek militants had allied themselves with militant commanders led by deposed commander, Maulavi Omar, who was using their muscle as a counterweight to Maulavi Nazir -- a key factor why the Taliban threw their weight behind their nominee to ward off any threat against him.
Three and most importantly, there was a tribal dimension to the brewing conflict. Omar came from the all-powerful Yargulkhel sub-clan of Ahmadzai Wazir tribe and so were Haji Sharif and his brother, Noor Islam. Maulavi Nazir was from the Ghulamkhel sub-clan, the weakest group and one that had little influence within the tribal hierarchy. This intra-tribal rivalry had a significant bearing on subsequent developments.
Moreover, the Uzbeks, particularly the ones led by Qari Tahir, were seen as a liability in view of their reluctance to fight the Taliban’s `jihad’ against the US forces in Afghanistan.
The tribal militants soon realised this group was more interested in fighting Pakistan on its own turf. The argument used by the Uzbeks was that `jihad against hypocrites’ takes precedence over `jihad against infidels’ – an allusion to Pakistan’s collaboration with the USin the `war on terror’.
Twice late last year, Maulavi Nazir held a meeting of his shura of militant commanders to decide the fate of unruly Uzbeks and on both the occasions, Qari Usman Jan, who represented Mr Yaldashev’s faction, agreed to submit to the tribal command. What however, served as the tipping point in this Uzbek-local stand-off that was continuing for a year, was the murder of a widely respected Saudi, Sheikh Asadullah, on March 13.
Asadullah, in his mid-50s, was, according to some government officials, the moneybags in the entire tribal belt. He had succeeded Ahmad Saeed Abdur Rehman Khaddar Al Canadi, an Egyptian-born Canadian known for being a conduit for finances to Al Qaeda affiliates. He was killed in a military action in Angor Adda, near the Pakistan-Afghan border, in Oct 2004.
Mr Asadullah, who was taking money to the widow of yet another unidentified foreign militant also killed by Uzbeks, was ambushed to death on the way. His tribal companion, an associate of Maulavi Nazir, put the blame on the Uzbek militants.
Two weeks before this incident, a pro-government tribal elder who had twice escaped attempts on his life by Uzbeks, decided to take on the central Asian fighters with the help of his Darikhel tribesmen. Maulavi Nazir, who had remained neutral hitherto, decided to jump into the fray.
For the first time since the tribal region was beset by militancy in 2002, tribal militant commanders, who had until now been fighting the Pakistan Army, found themselves training their guns at each other. The larger group, led by Maulavi Omar, supported the Uzbeks. The smaller one, led by Commander Nazir, opposed the Uzbeks.
Therefore, all that is happening has little to do with the government’s ingenuity – a government that has shown remarkable ignorance of tribal history. One government official admitted it had fallen into the government’s lap like a ripe fruit.
What does the present conflict mean? One needs to understand that it is an Uzbek-only tribal campaign, targeting the so-called `Bad Uzbeks’. The `Good Uzbek’ are clearly not the target. The same goes for other foreign militants.
It is clear that the `bad Uzbeks’ have few choices. They will either have to leave the Wana region as they are no longer welcome or fight the last battle and die.
They had spurned a Taliban offer earlier to resettle in areas under their control in Helmand and Zabul, fearing they would become sitting ducks.
Indications are that the first round of Uzbek-hunting would be followed by bloody intra-tribal feuds. Tribesmen, who lost nearly two hundred of their near and dear ones in targeted-killings to Uzbeks, would henceforth be hunting for their tribal collaborators.
Little wonder then that the likes of Haji Sharif, Haji Omar, Javed Karmazkhel, Maulavi Abbas, Noor Islam and Ghulam Jan, some of them key militant commanders who had signed the failed peace agreements with government in 2004, are now nowhere to be seen and their whereabouts not known. Reports suggest that men folk of families whose near and dear ones were killed allegedly by Uzbeks at the behest of their tribal protectors, now form the bulk of the nearly nine hundred tribal volunteers hunting the central Asians.
As for the government, it is free to claim credit for something with which it had little to do in the first place. Nonetheless, by pure default, it can take some solace from developments in Wana.
The ongoing campaign would not only tame the Uzbeks’ firepower but also that of the tribal militants. The weakening of tribesmen would take care of a good number of militant commanders in the ensuing intra-tribal rivalries and hopefully bring some semblance of normality to the tribal region.
The government would be glad to see its writ restored in the restive region.