Terrorists in the Tribal Areas: Endgame for Musharraf?
por Julian Richards, 13 de septiembre de 2007
(Published in Pakistan Security Research Unit site at Bradford University, September 2007)
The most important geographical focus for the Global War on Terror since 2002 has been Pakistans north-west frontier zone neighbouring Afghanistan. Here, in the remote and mountainous terrain which has frustrated invading armies for centuries, it is presumed that the core leadership of Al Qaeda, including Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, have been hiding with the tacit cooperation of certain local tribes.
With enormous financial assistance, and comprehensive military and intelligence support from the US, Pakistan has committed approximately 70,000 troops to operations in the Pashtun tribal belt since 2002, to flush out the final remnants of Al Qaeda and its former Taliban masters fugitive from Afghanistan. There were some notable successes in the early phase of the conflict, with 300 Al Qaeda operatives killed and many captured in South Waziristan, including a number of high ranking officials. Many of these were Uzbek fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), led by Tahir Yuldashev, who was himself killed in 2005 in North Waziristan. There has also been evidence of tribal leaders in certain parts of FATA taking the fight to the foreign fighters of Al Qaeda themselves, notably the Uzbek IMU fighters.
All has not gone to plan for Musharraf, however. The war has been costly for the Pakistani military. By 2006, it had lost 600 personnel to fighting in the region: more than all the Coalition losses in neighbouring Afghanistan put together. Initial successes and a peace deal with local tribal Maliks in 2004 in South Waziristan has been followed by a much tougher fight in North Waziristan, where Al Qaeda remnants have moved under the protection of the local Daur tribe. There has been much evidence, furthermore, that while there may have been some successes against foreign militants in the tribal areas, progress against Taliban elements has been limited, and such militant elements may have been able to regroup within Pakistani territory. A British military commander, Colonel Chris Vernon, raised the temperature in May 2006 by claiming that the Taliban leadership was coordinating its campaign from the capital of Baluchistan Province, Quetta. This prompted angry denials from the Pakistani military. The local conflicts with Uzbek foreign fighters have also proved to be a false dawn, and appear to have concerned a local dispute which has not been replicated widely across the region.
Meanwhile, there has been growing tribal discomfort with the Pakistani military, over heavy-handed military raids which often cause much collateral damage including civilian deaths. At the time of writing, in one of countless such examples, the military and militants were exchanging accusations over a helicopter gunship attack on a village in Mir Ali in North Waziristan. The military claimed that 15 militants were killed in the attack, which was in retaliation for a militant attack on an army checkpoint the previous night. Local tribal sources claimed, however, that at least five civilians were also killed in the attack when small dwellings in two villages were strafed by the helicopters.
There is also extreme anger among many in the tribal areas over the US backing for the military and direct attacks by unmanned CIA drones. The January 2006 airstrike in Bajaur agency, which targeted Al Zawahiri, led to angry demonstrations by locals and an equally robust police response using batons and tear-gas, which a local member of the Jamaat-i Islami party described as a slap in the face of the countrys sovereignty. In a more recent example, at least 32 people are thought to have been killed in a missile attack by CIA drones operating out of Afghanistan on a madrassa in the Dattakhel area of North Waziristan. There were also reports that Coalition aircraft from Afghanistan violated Pakistani airspace in the Kurram tribal agency area around the same time, which created panic among the residents. Such incidents are unsettling at a time when US presidential nominee Barack Obama has said that the US will pursue specific terrorist targets in Pakistans tribal areas if the Pakistani military fail to do so.
There is no doubt that US-backed military action and the heavy handedness of many of the strikes in the tribal areas is antagonising the population in many tribal districts and pushing them towards the Islamist militants in this deeply conservative Islamic society. Pashtun tribal society is such that central authority is always viewed with suspicion, but the hand of the US in the current conflict makes the Taliban-style militants popular in many areas. This has led to the emergence of local militias such as Mufti Munir Shakirs Lashkar-e Islami (Islamic Army), which is prevalent in the Khyber Agency. Lashkar-e Islami have organised themselves directly against the Pakistani military and peddled a strongly Salafist ideology, often clashing violently with local, more moderate groups.
In the face of these travails, President Musharraf has signed a number of peace agreements with tribal leaders in the South and North Waziristan agencies since 2004, agreeing to cease military operations and roadside checkpoints in certain areas, and numerous other conditions, if the tribal leaders promised to hand over foreign militants in their midst. Most of the deals have been brokered by Fazlur Rehmans JUI party, the leader of the Muttaheda Majlis-e Amal (MMA) Provincial coalition administration in the NWFP. Many observers including the US administration, which was cautiously supportive initially, have seen this as a tactical mistake which has allowed local Taliban agents and Al Qaeda affiliated militants to regroup and plan a heightened level of cross-border attacks against Coalition forces in Afghanistan. A United Nations Security Council report in November 2006 suggested that security incidents in Afghanistans Khost and Paktia provinces, which neighbour North Waziristan, increased by 50 per cent immediately after the latest peace deal in that area.
Throughout the period since 2002, many have worried about a creeping Talibanisation in parts of the tribal areas. This process involves Pakistani Taliban elements and tribal chiefs sympathetic to their ideals imposing Salafist laws and practices in various districts, which effectively act as a parallel state to the overarching Pakistani rule. The Tehrik-i Nifaz-i Shariat-i Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law: TNSM) group, for example, which is strongly committed to the enforcement of Sharia laws, is prevalent in areas such as Bajaur, Malakand, Swat Valley and Mingora (despite being banned by the government in 2002). TNSM, like many local militant groups, spreads its message through FM radio stations broadcasting in Pashto. Their practices include the banning of music, television and barbers in some areas, and summary punishments and executions for crimes. While diktats from militant leaders may not be heeded immediately, Islamist vigilantism is ensuring that the process is entrenched in many areas.
The extent of this process throughout the tribal areas is difficult to quantify, and it is probably the case that it is patchy geographically and does not represent an organised or comprehensive development across the whole region. In the Peshawar valley for example, and in Peshawar city itself (which is outside the tribally administered zone), Taliban-style influences are, as yet, less prevalent. One estimate suggests that there are probably 15 to 20 small pro-Taliban militant groups in South Waziristan and 10 to 12 in North Waziristan. Formal links and agreements between these groups are not strongly developed, largely due to tribal differences.
The fact remains, however, that Taliban-style practices are starting to become strongly and visibly established in certain districts. This process has also caused great anxiety in the national capital, Islamabad, with the Jamia Hafsa madrassa and Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) affair, which commenced in April and reached a bloody conclusion in early July. To some extents, the Talibanisation that the noisy occupants of the madrassa and mosque demanded, and the symbolic gestures of attacks on video stores and abduction of women accused of immoral practices, were more grandstanding by a specific group of militants than a threat of real substance to Pakistani society or a movement with widespread public support across the country. However, people who have lived and worked locally have seen a slow move towards a more austere and Talibanised society in some aspects of life in Islamabad, such as in the Quaid-e Azam University where hijabs and burqas have increasingly become the norm, and in aspects as the growing segregation of the sexes in public life, and removal of advertising hoardings showing women.
On a more sinister note, one of the leaders of the siege at the Lal Masjid, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said he had links to the Waziristan Taliban and that any military operation against the mosque would be followed with revenge attacks by their militants. Ghazi was himself killed by the operation to clear the mosque on 10-11 July, but his words have proved to be prophetic, as there have been a number of vicious suicide bombing attacks in Islamabad and North West Frontier Province, and attacks on military installations in the tribal areas, notably in Matta Tehsil in the Swat district, and in Dera Ismail Khan, following the military operation. These have claimed at least 130 lives so far. Whether there was a direct organisational link between Ghazi and some sort of unified Taliban organisation in the Waziristans is unclear: it may be the case that the militants unilaterally took matters into their own hands. They were encouraged in their actions by a message on the internet, posted by Al Qaedas As Sahab media agency and purporting to be from Ayman Al Zawahiri, calling for revenge attacks against Musharrafs regime following the Lal Masjid operation. Al Zawahiri pointed out to the Pakistanis that:
Musharraf and his hunting dogs have rubbed your honour in the dirt in the service of the Crusaders and the Jews.
Also of note has been the fact that militants connected with the Kashmiri militant group Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM), which was proscribed by Musharraf in 2002 and went to ground somewhat thereafter, were present and active in the Lal Masjid occupation. They had always used the mosque as a radical forum, notably when their leader, Maulana Masood Azhar called for Musharrafs assassination in Friday prayers at the mosque shortly after 2001. A Jaish-e Mohammad militant accused of attempting to murder the Pakistani Prime Minister in 2004 was killed by the army early in the operation to clear the mosque. Other militants belonging to the Kashmiri militant group Harakat-ul Jihad-i Islami (HUJI) were also purportedly found in the mosque during the siege. It is quite plausible that militants connected with JeM and similar Kashmir-associated groups are orchestrating subsequent attacks in the Pashtun belt, not least as they have fallen out of favour with the central regime and indeed attempted to assassinate Musharraf on more than one occasion in recent years.
Such extreme militant groups have always had very close links with Al Qaeda in the Pashtun tribal belt neighbouring Afghanistan, especially in such aspects as terrorist training, and the modus operandi of Al Qaeda has been very noticeable in the tribal areas since 2002. Many have noted that Pashtun militants were never protagonists of Iraq-style suicide bombing operations before this time, but the incidence of such attacks and choice of martyrdom as a method has increased dramatically in the region. Similarly, there has been much evidence of threats and murders, including beheadings, of collaborators and tribesmen who have not towed the line. In December 2005, an Al Qaeda website showed the beheading of an Afghan hostage for the first time, apparently in retribution for his working as a spy for the Americans.
About 150 tribesmen were murdered during 2005 in North and South Waziristan by the militants, including Wazir tribal leader Faridallah Khan, demonstrating that local tribal leaders are being heavily pressurised to reject the Pakistanis and the War on Terror. Many of the murders are remarkably similar to those that Al Qaeda in Iraq carries out, including such features as notices attached to bodies by the roadside warning others that the same fate can be expected in the event of suspected collaboration with the US. Again, as apparently brutal as Pashtun tribal justice can sometimes appear, these practices were never the norm in the past and have clearly been imported from such places as Iraq.
In addition to the threat of violence, there has also been evidence of financial pressure being applied to local tribal leaders, in the shape of large loans being given to tribal Maliks by Al Qaeda to buy their cooperation. Much of the money that the Pakistani government offered as part of the South Waziristan peace deal in 2004 (purportedly some USD 500,000) was to buy off the indebtedness for the tribal leaders and release them from the grip of Al Qaeda.
In these aspects we can see the hidden hand of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, but it is uncertain how prevalent they still are in the region. The Pakistani and US militaries admit that it is difficult to put precise figures on the numbers of militants killed in operations, and their nature and provenance. This is because the militants clear bodies quickly from the battlefield and bury them covertly, and the Pakistanis do not have sufficient personnel coverage on the ground, particularly in North Waziristan, to analyse the post-operation situation accurately. This can lead to much uncertainty over the aftermath of particular operations. The January 2006 airstrike targeting Al Zawahiri in the Bajaur area was a good example. The Pakistanis estimated that, while Zawahiri escaped the attack (probably having left the building before the attack, if he was ever there) many others did not and that 18 people were killed in all. As has been the case in military operations in Iraq, however, it is impossible to be confident about such facts and figures given the lack of penetration on the ground locally of the authorities. The CIA had initially suggested that Al Zawahiri was among the dead in the Bajaur airstrike but were later persuaded otherwise. Similarly, reports occasionally resurface that Bin Laden may have been killed some time ago, while others insist that he is still around and present in the mountainous tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Whatever the current status of the top leaders of Al Qaeda in the region, it is estimated that the number of core foreign fighters associated with the Al Qaeda leadership present in the tribal areas of the Pashtun belt is probably low, and may be little more than 100 people. Some estimates suggest that approximately 1000 local tribal members are directly supporting this group. These figures are plausible, and suggest that the Al Qaeda leadership has been both seriously denuded, and is boxed into a restricted geographical situation where it may be finding it difficult to organise and direct major operations overseas. It is probably the case that the major preoccupation of those Al Qaeda leadership elements located in the tribal areas at the moment is hiding and surviving.
It is difficult to test the validity of this, although from a British perspective, it is the case that the only serious Al Qaeda-style attack since July 2005 was one with connections pointing strongly towards Iraq rather than Pakistan/Afghanistan (namely the attempted vehicle bomb attacks in London and Glasgow in June 2007). Such an analysis is uncertain at present, however, as it may be the case that attacks are being planned and have not yet come to light, or that the security services have foiled operations that might otherwise have brought Al Qaeda back into the limelight. (The Operation Overt airline bombing plot of one year ago is a large and conspicuous example.) To an extent, time will tell, but it has to be the case that Al Qaeda is feeling the heat very considerably in the tribal areas and will continue to do so for some time.
Musharrafs war on terror in the tribal areas points to something of a divergent picture currently. On the one hand, the foreign militants of Al Qaeda have been under serious pressure. Many have been arrested or killed, and the leadership of the organisation itself has been under considerable pressure in the region, having lost its base in Eastern Afghanistan, even if Musharrafs assertions that he had shattered Al Qaeda in 2002 proved to be over-ambitious. Arrests of figures such as Faraj al -Libbi, Ab Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh and several others across Pakistan will undoubtedly have dealt serious blows to the core leadership of Al Qaeda (even if its inspiration to operations overseas has continued apace). Yet success against the local Taliban-style militants who have been asserting themselves in parts of the tribal areas, and making it virtually impossible for the Pakistani military to enforce its writ, particularly in North Waziristan, has been more limited. Former Afghan Interior Minister, Ali Jalali, has recently suggested that Pakistan has focused on foreign militants but not done much toward containing the Taliban. At a recent tribal jirga, Musharraf pointed out that Taliban politics are not necessarily an issue, but rather extremist Islamism is, indicating that his government is willing to accommodate Taliban elements who reject extremists.
The effect of this is shown by the sharp rise in attacks across the border into Afghanistan, linking up with the likes of Gulbedin Hekmatyrs Hezb-e Islami in Khost and Paktia provinces, and by the murderous whirlwind of bombing attacks that have been unleashed within Pakistan following the military operation against the Lal Masjid in July and have killed more than 100 people.
Accusations from the US and British still linger, furthermore, that the Afghan Taliban have openly established their headquarters in Quetta and operate across the border into Kandahar and Helmand provinces at will. The suggestion is that the Pakistani military is less keen to attack and pressurise Taliban-style militants, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the same strategic interests for Islamabad in detracting from Pashtun militancy in the region by focusing on Islamist politics still exist to a certain degree (although the violence of the post-Red Mosque era may increasingly call this into question for Musharraf.). Secondly, many of the soldiers in the Pakistani army are Pashtuns themselves and find it problematic to effectively target their own. Thirdly, there are still many in the military and ISI intelligence agency who have sympathy with the politics of Salafist Islamism and see Taliban politics to be a good solution for the tribal areas, if not for Pakistan as a whole, much as the Taliban restored law and order to Afghanistan in its early years.
This has been the dilemma for Musharraf, but the situation has changed markedly in recent months, and it may be the case that his policy in the tribal areas is necessarily entering some sort of final chapter.
This is so for a number of reasons. Firstly, the policy of appeasement and negotiation towards the tribal leaders in the Waziristans - Musharrafs enlightened moderation -between 2004 and 2006 has now been largely discredited. For their part, the militants in North Waziristan have formally declared that the peace deal with Musharraf is over, not because of the Lal Masjid military operation, but because of perceived Pakistani transgressions of the agreement in the shape of re-establishing military checkpoints in the region and moving in extra troops. Meanwhile, a number of senior US officials have publicly declared that the policy has not worked. White House press secretary Tony Snow described the deals as a carrot approach .[that] did not work. US presidential candidate Obama has further raised the temperature with his recent remarks on pursuing Al Qaeda suspects into Pakistan.
With massive military aid linked to his performance in the war on terror, Musharraf cannot afford to ignore these warnings and has little choice but to re-enter the conflict in North Waziristan robustly and steel himself against further heavy military losses. Events in recent weeks have shown another surge across the tribal areas, leading to another ceasefire agreement in the Wana area in South Waziristan in the wake of heavy losses on both sides of the fight. Musharrafs patience with Taliban-style militants in the tribal areas may have evaporated following their direct and brutal attacks on the Pakistani military in recent weeks. While he has continued to follow a diplomatic line where possible, notably in his attendance at a tribal jirga uniting Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders either side of the border in the Pashtun areas, and also supported by President Karzai of Afghanistan, the jirga itself did not include key tribal leaders from the Waziristans and was thus seriously limited in its chances of bringing a lasting solution.
All of these factors become significant and pressing for Musharraf personally in the light of pressure to go ahead with democratic elections later this year. Musharraf has to ensure that he and his PML-Q party are demonstrating a robust and effective line on security issues in the north of the country, particularly since the worsening of the situation after the Lal Masjid operation. While such problems were mostly over the border in Afghanistan in the recent past, they are now wreaking havoc on the streets of Pakistan itself and directly confronting Musharraf and his state apparatus. Time may be running out for Musharraf to develop an effective policy in the tribal areas which will win the confidence of the Pakistani people and ensure his political survival into next year. Benazir Bhutto herself claims that only democracy will allow Pakistan to cease to be the Petri dish of the pandemic of international terrorism. Musharraf is juggling a lot of political and security issues nationally and internationally in an effort to maintain stability, and maintain his position in power. Perhaps the most significant of these is the support of the US in his handling of the war on terror in the tribal badlands of the frontier with Afghanistan. If he does not succeed in this balancing act, it could be that the north-west of the country and its travails could be the issue that finally trips Musharraf up and ends his career.
Dr Julian Richards is Research Fellow at the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies (BCISS)
 I Kfir (2006) The Paradox that is Pakistan: Both Ally and Enemy of Terrorism, Middle East Review of International Affairs 10(1), p.77
 Serious clashes erupted during March 2007 in South Waziristan: see Reuters Alertnet (March 6) Al Qaeda Uzbeks, Pakistani tribesmen clash; 17 dead. From http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/ISL249039.htm accessed 19 August 2007. See also D Suba Chandran (2006) Attacks on Uzbek Militants in South Waziristan: Issues and Implications of an Internal Jihad. Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) Brief no.9, 17 April 2006. From http://spaces.brad.ac.uk:8080/download/attachments/748/Attacks+on+Uzbek+Militants+in+South+Waziristan.pdf
 R Zeb (2006) Cross Border Terrorism Issues Plaguing Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations. China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 4(2), p.71
 D Walsh (2006, May 19) Pakistan sheltering Taliban, says British Officer. The Guardian, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan/story/0,,1778443,00.html accessed 15 August 2006
 The News (2007, August 20) 20 killed in North Waziristan Army attack. From http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=9681 accessed 20 August 2007
 Agence France Presse (2006, January 14). Thousands of protestors tear-gassed after US airstrike deaths in Pakistan. From http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/headlines06/0114-05.htm accessed 18 August 2007
 The News (2007, August 20) 32 killed in attack on Waziristan madrassa. From http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=8574 accessed 20 August 2007
 The News, Ibid
 International Crisis Group, Ibid, p.23.
 Cited in Janes Sentinel Security Assessment (2007, April 18) Security: Pakistan, p.2
 S S Shahzad (2007, June 3) US to hunt the Taliban inside Pakistan. Asia Times Online: from http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/IG03Df03.html accessed 18 August 2007
 P Hoodbhoy (2007, May 23) Pakistan - the threat from within. Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) , brief number 13, p.13
 Janes Terrorism and Security Monitor (2006, June 6). Pakistans tribal Taliban.
 Shahzad, Ibid
 International Crisis Group (2006). Pakistans tribal areas: appeasing the militants. Asia Report no.125, 11 December 2006, Islamabad/Brussels, p.21
 P Hoodbhoy, Ibid, pp.7, 11
 J Booth (2007, July 18) 16 Pakistani soldiers die as militants step up revenge attacks. Times Online: from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article2096836.ece accessed 18 July 2007
 ABC News (2007, July 11) Al-Qaida: Wage Holy War against Pakistan. From http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=3367353&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312 accessed 20 August 2007
 Khaleej Times (2007, July 10) Red Mosque: militant nest that surprised Pak. From http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticle.asp?xfile=data/subcontinent/2007/July/subcontinent_July403.xml§ion=subcontinent accessed 20 August 2007
 S G Jones (2007) Pakistans Dangerous Game. Survival 49(1), Spring 2007, p.22
 A figure quoted by Pakistani Interior Minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, in early 2006. Cited in Janes Security and Terrorism Monitor (2006, June 6). Pakistans tribal Taliban.
 I Kfir, Ibid, p.75
 Reuters Alertnet (2007, March 17) Militants kill US spy in Pakistan. From http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/ISL216648.htm accessed 20 August 2007
 Janes Islamic Affairs Analyst (2005, May 1) How Al-Qaeda bankrolls terror in Pakistan, para 7
 CNN.com (2006, January 14). Pakistan protests airstrike. From http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/01/14/alqaeda.strike/index.html?iref=newssearch accessed 17 August 2007
 Time (2006, September 23). Is Bin Laden dead? From http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1538569,00.html, accessed 17 August 2007
International Crisis Group, Ibid, p.21
 See CBS News (2007, July 3) Two men linked to both UK plots. From http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/07/03/terror/main3010835.shtml accessed 20 August 2007
 Some observers, such as Bruce Riedel suggest that Al Qaeda is more dangerous now than ever having regrouped in the tribal areas and spread its ideological message internationally to great effect. But Riedel also accepts that the movement has suffered some setbacks since September 11, 2001. See B Riedel (2007) Al Qaeda strikes back. Foreign Affairs 86(3)
 A Jalali (2006) The Future of Afghanistan. Parameters, 36(1), Spring 2006, p.8
 NATOs Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, James Jones, said in a testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2006 that the main Taliban headquarters are in Quetta. Cited in B R Rubin (2007) Saving Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs 86(1), Jan/Feb 2007, p.64
 Rubin (Ibid, p.64) suggests that intelligence quoted by Western military officials in Afghanistan provides strong circumstantial evidence that Pakistans ISI is providing aid to the Taliban leadership shura [in Quetta]
 The White House (2007, July 16). Press briefing by Tony Snow. From http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/20070716-6.html accessed 20 August 2007
 The News (2007, August 20) Agreement on ceasefire in South Waziristan. From http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=9682 accessed 20 August 2007.
 B Bhutto (2006) Only Democracy will Break Pakistans Terror Link. New Perspectives Quarterly 23(4), p.21