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Taliban?s new country?

Last Monday, the Taliban offered Islamabad peace ? from within Pakistani territory.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2006 02:03 IST

Last Monday, the Taliban offered Islamabad peace —  from within Pakistani territory. From Waziristan, a mountainous tribal area on the Afghanistan border that’s just a bit bigger than Tripura but that has become the epicentre of the USA’s War on Terror. It’s also become another war against the Pakistani state from within, joining Balochistan, Gilgit, and Karachi.

And despite Islamabad having sent six divisions of the Pakistan army —  pulling several from the India border and equipping them with helicopter gunships, jet fighters and heavy artillery — to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda, Waziristan continues to slip out of its grasp. Another six months, say government sources in New Delhi, and the war in Waziristan would have a momentum of its own. “Azad Qabaili” (Free Tribals) would become a reality, and the Taliban would have found a new country of their own.

North and South Waziristan are two of seven Pushtun regions known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). No one has ever subjugated FATA, from Alexander of Macedonia to the Imperial British. The Pakistanis kept a ‘hands off’ policy, but did not hesitate to use the Waziristan tribals to invade Kashmir in 1947, or help in the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s.

The tribal DNA is the same as that of the Pushtuns in Afghanistan, so they became as radicalised as the Taliban government. And when the US invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks — especially after December 2001 when the US nearly nabbed Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora — Waziristan was a natural refuge for the Islamists.

Under pressure from the Americans, the Pakistanis have run several operations in Waziristan since 2002, each successive one growing in lethality, and achieving nothing more than driving the local population deeper into the Taliban embrace. Despite deploying nearly 80,000 troops — a bulk of them drawn from the border with India, evidence of Pakistani desperation — and 80 check posts (to keep an eye on the border) in the area, there have been no gains for Islamabad. Partly this is because of Pakistan’s approach to the US “hammer and anvil” strategy, wherein Pakistan is supposed to push Taliban/jihadis across the border for the US — Afghan forces to neutralise; on the ground, very little US — Pak coordination appears to be happening.

It’s also because the Pakistan state’s reach is limited (a consequence of the ‘hands off’ policy); the army is comfortable only in the main towns of South Waziristan. It does not venture into the remaining two — thirds of Waziristan, rural and mountainous. This has partly to do with the migration of the Taliban and al Qaeda into FATA; in 2002, they went first to the Ahmedzai Wazir area of South Waziristan, and their 2003 operation in Angoor Adda was a bloody one.

So the jihadis moved to North Waziristan, and major army thrusts in 2004 around Azam Warsak and Shakai made heroes out of tribals like Baitullah Mehsud. That 2004 operation (which began while India resumed cricketing ties with a tour) was planned as a quick surgical strike; it has stretched far beyond the anticipated timeframe and territorial limits.

The latest offensive in that operation was on March 29, when the Pakistan army’s Special Services Group reportedly killed 41 jihadis in North Waziristan. What galled the locals is that just six days earlier, the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) Governor, Khalil-ur-Rehman, announced that the government had halted all operations to let the tribals take a shot at peace. The Islamists accused the government of timing the offensive with the visit of US President George Bush (and after he landed, clashes broke out in North Waziristan’s main town Miranshah, which left nearly 100 people dead).

In all, during 2005, 300 civilians were killed while 250 army personnel lost their lives in the region. And whenever Pakistan has slackened in its fight, the US has stepped in: missile strikes by unmanned Predator drones have been regular since 2004. In January this year, the US launched a missile strike on a house at a Bajaur village abutting Waziristan, where Osama’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was supposed to be dining. Zawahiri got away, and the strike brought into the open what the tribals know and what Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has been denying — US military activity within his country’s territory.

The US-Pervez nexus has allowed the Islamists to gain ground, and last month the Taliban opened an office in South Waziristan’s Wana town; they also announced the imposition of Shariat laws in the region. Consequently, girls schools and barber shops have been shut down; local thugs have been beheaded and their headless corpses displayed on the roadside. The fact that throughout Waziristan’s history, the legends have all been clerics provides a clue to how the locals feel about this radicalisation.

The irony, of late, is that with a war on, the Taliban is offering Musharraf a truce. The terms are a bit difficult: withdrawal of all troops, and release of all prisoners. The Americans won’t allow it. Things are going to get worse in Waziristan before they get better, and it will take a long, long time to settle.