Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pakistan cracks down on Waziristan

Pakistan killed four foreign nationals when it raided a military camp in North Waziristan. Army troops backed up by helicopter gunships stormed a suspected Al-Qaeda training camp. Pakistan ordered the raid on the compound at Zargarkhel village after militants holed up at the camp opened fire on a peace delegation flown in by helicopter. Locals saw US-built Cobra gunships flying repeated sorties toward the village over a number of hours until the compound was destroyed. The four dead are believed to be Uzbek nationals.

North Waziristan is a troubled tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fled across the border after the US-led invasion ended the Taliban regime in 2001. Military operations by Pakistani forces in the rugged tribal belt have left 700 soldiers and more than 1,000 insurgents dead since 2003, according to Pakistani officials. Pakistan has been taking tougher action since the February visit of Dick Cheney to General Musharraf. US commanders say radical fighters are training in the Waziristan area. There has been conflict in the area since 2004 when local tribesmen objected to Pakistani forces searching for al-Qaeda operatives in the area.

In September 2006 Pakistan agreed to withdraw its forces from North Waziristan tribal areas in return for a pledge from tribal leaders to stop attacks by Pakistani Taliban across the border. The agreement ensured Pakistan would not arrest members of banned militant organizations connected with al-Qaeda. This included the two Pakistanis on the US’s most wanted list, Saud Memon and Ibrahim Choto. Memon was the owner of the property where US journalist Daniel Pearl was killed. The list of untouchables also includes Ghulam Mustafa, believed to be Al Qaeda chief in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army was roundly defeated in Waziristan. The terms of the truce were humiliating to Islamabad. It saw the Pakistani army abandon its garrisons in North and South Waziristan, cease all monitoring in the area and turn over weapons seized during Army operations to what is called “the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan”. Pakistan also paid an unknown amount of money in ‘tribute’ or ransom to end the fighting.

The deal with North Waziristan follows the controversial peace deal with pro-Taliban tribes in South Waziristan in 2005. Both pacts have alarmed NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, who said that rebels based in the region were launching cross-border attacks on their troops and on Afghan forces and civilian targets. A report in the New York Times earlier this week described Northern Waziristan as a Taliban mini-state. The story quoted an arrested attempted suicide bomber in Afghanistan as saying that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, General Hamid Gul, “was financing and supporting the project (of producing suicide bombers)”.

Both areas of Waziristan have becoming a magnet for foreign fighters, who challenge government authority and in some cases wrest control from local tribes. Pakistani intelligence officials said there may be up to 2,000 foreigners including Afghans, Uzbeks and other Central Asians. Among them may be al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri who are believed to be hiding in South Waziristan. Sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen in the area are providing fugitives with shelter and support.

While Waziristan is one geographical unit with a common spoken Waziri language, it has been broken up in the two agencies of North and South Waziristan. Britain created South Waziristan in 1895 and the North Waziri agency was set up in 1910 with its headquarters at Miran Shah. But British rule was nominal. Neither North nor South Waziri tribesmen were loyal subjects and they killed over 10,000 British or Indian troops from 1849 to 1947. After independence the tribesmen acceded to newly created Pakistan out of their free will. Prime Minister Mohammed Jinnah made a solemn promise to the tribespeople that their customs and their Pathan way of life would not be interfered with.

They remain an independent thorn in the side of Jinnah’s successors.

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