Showdown looms in North Waziristan

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD: Militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area on Tuesday issued a statement claiming that skirmishes had broken out early in the morning when the military tried to enter Miranshah, the tribal headquarters. There was no official confirmation.

The United States has placed Islamabad under intense pressure to launch an operation in North Waziristan, which it views as the command and control center of al-Qaeda and from where the powerful network of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani is based for its operations in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has over the past year marched into several other tribalareas to take on militants, including Swat and South Waziristan, but at present a peace agreement is in place between Taliban-led militants in North Waziristan and the military.

However, al-Qaeda linked militants have informed Asia Times Online that a battle in North Waziristan is inevitable to avenge atrocities that the militants claim the military has inflicted on children in the tribal area. The incident took place last week in a brief clash between the army and militants.

The al-Qaeda linked militants are spoiling for a fight even though the chief of the Taliban in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, has said that last week’s contact would not affect the ceasefire.

The militants also want to head off any attempt by the government to create a split in their ranks. In one effort, Islamabad has put in motion an operation that includes a former Iraqi intelligence official who now works for the Saudis, former officials of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and a former Taliban commander who was once a member of parliament.

“It is not an issue of whether the Pakistan army wants a military operation or not. The issue is related to their capacity,” Muhammad Umar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview. Muhammad Umar is an alias for a non-Pashtun from Punjab province.

“They [the army] are already under siege in North Waziristan. Troops are sitting at checkpoints and cannot even fetch water for themselves from a nearby stream if the militants, positioned all around the mountains, open fire on them.”

The situation in North Waziristan is clearly highly volatile as the militants are not united. Many, especially those allied with the predominately Pashtun Haqqani network, want to concentrate all of their efforts on Afghanistan, hence the peace accord with the army. Al-Qaeda-linked militants, including Punjabis, see the state as their enemy, in addition to the foreign forces across the border.

The recent abduction of influential powerbrokers highlights the problem. On March 25, retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI official, traveled to North Waziristan to interview Sirajuddin Haqqani and Waliur Rahman Mehsud. He was accompanied by Colonel Ameer Sultan Tarrar, also a former long-time ISI official and once Pakistan’s consul-general in Herat in Afghanistan. Tarrar is nicknamed “Colonel Imam” by the mujahideen as he was instrumental in helping raise the Taliban militia.

The men have not been seen since and Punjabi militants calling themselves the “Asian Tigers” said they had seized the men. Subsequently, Asia Times Online received several video clips of Khawaja speaking. (See Confessions of a Pakistani spy Asia Times Online, April 24, 2010.)

The militants believe Khawaja was a part of a joint international operation trying to isolate the al-Qaeda-linked militants.

Asia Times Online has leaned that Khawaja and Colonel Imam wanted to hammer out a formula of peaceful coexistence between militants and the military in North Waziristan, and in the broader context to seek a way for the US to withdraw from the region in such a manner that the Taliban would have a role to play in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have a friendly government in Kabul.

The initiative was stopped in its tracks with the abduction of the peacebrokers and in the video clips Khawaja, most likely under duress, spoke out against Pakistan’s military establishment.

The message between the lines from the militants is that the role of the Pakistan army in Afghan affairs through any Islamist or non-Islamist cadre is over; that is, the war is exclusively between the West and Muslim militants, and no “referee” is required.

Two sides of the story

Khawaja was retired from the air force in the late 1980s after he wrote a letter to the then-president, General Zia ul-Haq, in which he called him a hypocrite for not enforcing Islam in Pakistan. He then went to Afghanistan and fought alongside Osama bin Laden. He was a recruiter and trainer of Pakistani fighters for the resistance against the Soviets.

After his forced retirement, Khawaja was active in politics, from trying to stitch together an Islamic election alliance in 1988 against the Pakistan People’s Party’s government to the so-called Operation Khilafat, an alleged plot of some military officers and jihadis to stage an Islamic revolution in Pakistan in the mid-1990s.
Khawaja and former US Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey worked unsuccessfully after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US to prevent the invasion of Afghanistan.

Khawaja tricked a radical cleric into being arrested during the crackdown on the Taliban-sympathetic Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital, Islamabad, in mid-2007. Yet he has been active in providing support to the families of members of al-Qaeda who have been arrested or killed. Earlier this year he filed a case that prevented captured Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from being handed over to the Americans or the Afghan government.

Depending on the issue, Khawaja is clearly not afraid to act in the establishment’s interests, or against them, and he is equally comfortable speaking to Americans or with the ISI.

Along with an American friend, Mansoor Ejaz, who was close to right-wing Republicans, Khawaja worked on a project for peace in South Asia. In this regard he gave a detailed interview to Asia Times Online to promote his theme that the international proxy war in the region should be stopped. (See The pawns who pay as powers play June 22, 2005.)

Before his ill-fated trip to North Waziristan, Khawaja spoke to Asia Times Online, saying that a few veterans of the Afghan jihad (against the Soviets) were now coming together.

“It would be premature to tell you the details, but I will soon give you a breaking story about a mechanism under which these suicide attacks in Pakistan will be stopped completely,” Khawaja said. He also pointed to the involvement of a renowned Arab, Mehmud al-Samarai, earlier wanted by the Americans for financing militants in Iraq but now known to be helping Saudi Arabia’s peace efforts in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Umar gave his version of Khawaja’s trip to North Waziristan.

“Khalid Khawaja, Colonel Imam and a [former] Iraqi intelligence agent [Mehmud al-Samarai] and Shah Abdul Aziz [a commander during the Taliban regime and a former member of parliament] visited North Waziristan about a month and a half ago. They were all old mujahids who fought against the Russians, therefore they were all treated with respect. However, everybody noticed their suspicious activities,” Muhammad Umar told ATol.

“They met the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [Pakistani Taliban] Hakeemullah Mehsud, Mufti Waliur Rahman Mehsud [chief of the Taliban in South Waziristan] and the Khalifa Sahib [Sirajuddin Haqqani]. Khawaja brought with him a list of 14 commanders and he tried to convince Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman Mehsud that all those commanders, including Qari Zafar [a leader of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi] and others are Indian plants among the mujahideen and the Taliban should get rid of them. Both Hakeemullah and Waliur Rahman were tolerant of those allegations against their own commanders and they were silent. However, these people did some other things which made them suspicious,” Umar said.

“They tried to convince Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman Mehsud to stop attacking the Pakistan army and discussed a mechanism to target NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] supply lines only. They offered to help Hakeemullah set up pockets in different parts of the country from where they could attack NATO supplies going to Afghanistan.

“Shah Abdul Aziz was then spotted asking people the names of the militants who [last December] attacked the Parade Lane Mosque in Rawalpindi [several army officers were massacred along with 17 of their children]. At the same time, the visiting group met with Khalifa Sahib and urged him to keep his connection with the army. They asked him what kind of weapons he required and they would arrange it for him,” Umar said.

Umar said that during Khawaja’s first visit, he used Mufti Mehsud’s four-wheel drive vehicle. A few days after Khawaja and the others returned to Islamabad, the same vehicle was hit by a drone.

“You know that the Pakistan army aims to keep the Taliban divided as good and bad Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are good for them and the Pakistani Taliban are bad. We don’t have such distinctions. If we get proof that a person has a connection with the ISI, whether he is bad or good, he is an enemy. As far as Khawaja is concerned, he confessed that he was sent by an ISI officer. We have reports that he frequently meets with the CIA and arranges meetings of other people with the CIA in return for money,” Umar said.

“Khawaja and the others left North Waziristan with assurances that he would soon come back with a British journalist. We all compared notes and concluded that he had come with an agenda and he would come back again. As was expected, he came back and we caught him immediately. The journalist he brought with him also worked for the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations) for documentary-making projects. Therefore, they were all the Pakistan army’s assets and our enemies and they will be dealt with according to their crimes. It has been decided,” Umar said.

The Pakistan army, the Americans and the militants each have their own plans, and they are all at a critical juncture.

Pakistan’s military anticipated that the US would be defeated in Afghanistan and therefore there was no need to wage all-out war in the Pakistani tribal areas. Rather, they wanted to keep operations at a level where hostilities would remain minimal and once the Americans left, Pakistan and the militants would restore their traditional strategic relations.

“That illusion went away under General Kiani’s command,” a senior US official told Asia Times Online in reference to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani.

“The militants showed so much hostility that the military had to wage an all-out war against them. However, the situation in North Waziristan terrifies them [the army]. Sirajuddin Haqqani has a strong 4,000 armed militia [besides Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s men, al-Qaeda, Uzbeks, Chechens and other militias]. The army thinks that if they launch an operation in North Waziristan, the militants will occupy South Waziristan again and the military will be unable to fight them,” the official said.

However, the Americans aim to provide full support through their unmanned drones, which target militant leaders, as they have been doing for some while. The aim is to eliminate the major Taliban networks and support bases and then make preparations for a US withdrawal from the region.

However, as illustrated by the Khawaja case, sections of the militants are in no mood to talk, other than through the barrels of their guns.


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