Taliban and Allies Tighten Grip
in North of Pakistan
by Carlotta Gaul and Ismail Khan
www.nytimes.com/, December 11,
Islamic militants are using a recent
peace deal with the government to consolidate their hold in northern
Pakistan, vastly expanding their training of suicide bombers and
other recruits and fortifying alliances with Al Qaeda and foreign
fighters, diplomats and intelligence officials from several nations
say. The result, they say, is virtually a Taliban mini-state.
The militants, the officials say, are
openly flouting the terms of the September accord in North Waziristan,
under which they agreed to end cross-border help for the Taliban
insurgency that revived in Afghanistan with new force this year.
The area is becoming a magnet for an influx
of foreign fighters, who not only challenge government authority
in the area, but are even wresting control from local tribes and
spreading their influence to neighboring areas, according to several
American and NATO officials and Pakistani and Afghan intelligence
This year more than 100 local leaders,
government sympathizers or accused "American spies"
have been killed, several of them in beheadings, as the militants
have used a reign of terror to impose what President Pervez Musharraf
of Pakistan calls a creeping "Talibanization." Last
year, at least 100 others were also killed.
While the tribes once offered refuge to
the militants when they retreated to the area in 2002 after the
American invasion of Afghanistan, that welcome is waning as the
killings have generated new tensions and added to the region's
"They are taking territory,"
said one Western ambassador in Pakistan. "They are becoming
much more aggressive in Pakistan."
"It is the lesson from Afghanistan
in the '90s," he added. "Ungoverned spaces are a problem.
The whole tribal area is a problem."
The links among the various groups date
to the 1980s, when Arabs, Pakistanis and other Muslims joined
Afghans in their fight to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan,
using a network of training camps and religious schools set up
by the Pakistani intelligence agency and financed by the C.I.A.
and Saudi Arabia.
The training continued with Pakistani
and Qaeda support through the 1990s, and then moved into Afghanistan
under the Taliban. It was during this time that Pakistanis became
drawn into militancy in big numbers, fighting alongside the Taliban
and hundreds of foreign fighters against the northern tribes of
Afghanistan. Today the history of the region has come full circle.
Since retreating from Afghanistan in 2002
under American military attacks, the Taliban and foreign fighters
have again been using the tribal areas to organize themselves
- now training their sights on the 40,000 American and NATO troops
After failing to gain control of the areas
in military campaigns, the government cut peace deals in South
Waziristan in 2004 and 2005, and then in North Waziristan on Sept.
5. Since the September accord, NATO officials say cross-border
attacks by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies
In recent weeks, Pakistani intelligence
officials said the number of foreign fighters in the tribal areas
was far higher than the official estimate of 500, perhaps as high
as 2,000 today.
These fighters include Afghans and seasoned
Taliban leaders, Uzbek and other Central Asian militants, and
what intelligence officials estimate to be 80 to 90 Arab terrorist
operatives and fugitives, possibly including the Qaeda leaders
Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The tightening web of alliances among
these groups in a remote, mountainous area increasingly beyond
state authority is potentially disastrous for efforts to combat
terrorism as far away as Europe and the United States, intelligence
They and Western diplomats say it also
portends an even bloodier year for Afghanistan in 2007, with the
winter expected to serve as what one official described as a "breeding
season" to multiply ranks.
"I expect next year to be quite bloody,"
the United States ambassador in Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said
in a recent interview. "My sense is the Taliban wants to
come back and fight. I don't expect the Taliban to win, but everyone
needs to understand that we are in for a fight."
One of the clearest measures of the dangers
of this local cross-fertilization is the suicide bombings. Diplomats
with knowledge of the area's Pashtun tribes say they have little
doubt the tactic emerged from the influence of Al Qaeda, since
such attacks were unknown in Pakistan or Afghanistan before 2001.
This year suicide attacks have become
a regular feature of the Afghan war and have also appeared for
the first time in Pakistan, including two in this frontier province
in recent weeks, indicating a growing threat to Pakistan's security.
In recent weeks, Afghan officials say
they have uncovered alarming signs of large-scale indoctrination
and preparation of suicide bombers in the tribal areas, and the
Pakistani minister of the interior, Aftab Khan Sherpao, publicly
acknowledged for the first time that training of suicide bombers
was occurring in the tribal areas.
The Afghan intelligence service said last
week in a statement that it had captured an Afghan suicide bomber
wearing a vest filled with explosives. The man reportedly said
he had been given the task by the head of a religious school in
the Pakistani tribal region of Bajaur, and that 500 to 600 students
there were being prepared to fight jihad and be suicide bombers.
The bomber said that the former head of
Pakistani intelligence, Gen. Hamid Gul, was financing and supporting
the project, according to the statement, though the claim is impossible
to verify. Pakistani intelligence agencies have long nurtured
militants in the tribal areas to pressure the rival government
in Afghanistan, though the government claims to have ceased its
So numerous are the recruits that a tribal
leader in southern Afghanistan, who did not want to be named because
of the threat of suicide bombers, relayed an account of how one
would-be suicide bomber was sent home and told to wait his turn
because there were many in line ahead of him.
American military officials say they believe
much of the training in Waziristan is taking place under the aegis
of men like Jalaluddin Haqqani, once one of the most formidable
commanders of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen forces who joined the
Taliban in the 1990s.
He has had a close relationship with Arab
fighters since the 1980s, when Waziristan was his rear base for
fighting the Soviet occupation. Arab fighters had joined him there
in the struggle, among them Mr. bin Laden.
Mr. Haqqani later became the Taliban's
minister of tribal affairs and was the main protector for the
foreign fighters on their exodus from Afghanistan in 2001 and
2002. He and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, remain the most important
local partners for Al Qaeda in Waziristan.
Mr. Haqqani bases himself in North Waziristan
and has a host of other Taliban and foreign commanders, in particular
Uzbeks, who are loyal to him, United States military officials
Money continues to flow in from religious
supporters at home and in the Persian Gulf, as well as from a
range of illicit activities like a lucrative opium trade, smuggling
and even kidnapping, said diplomats, United Nations analysts and
"There are clearly very substantial
training facilities that are still operating in Waziristan, both
north and south, and other parts of FATA and Baluchistan,"
said a diplomat in Kabul, referring to the region by the acronym
for its formal name, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"Even more worrying is the continued
presence of the Taliban and Haqqani leadership networks,"
the diplomat said, dismayed at what he characterized as Pakistani
passivity in breaking up the networks.
"They haven't been addressed at all
on the Pakistani side," he added. "They haven't been
The diplomat also singled out Saddique
Noor, a Pakistani militant commander in his mid-40s who he said
was training suicide bombers in Waziristan and sending them into
Afghanistan. Mr. Noor fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban
in the 1990s and is a determined opponent of the American and
NATO presence in Afghanistan.
Another commander, Beitullah Mehsud, about
40 and also from the region, is now probably the strongest Pakistani
Taliban commander and may also be dispatching suicide bombers.
He also fought in Afghanistan under the Taliban and claims to
have 15,000 fighters under him now.
Both men are loyal to Mr. Haqqani, whom
Western diplomats consider one of the most dangerous Taliban commanders
because of his links to Al Qaeda and his strong local standing.
The other, for the same reason, is Mullah
Dadullah, a ruthless Taliban commander from southern Afghanistan,
who has emerged as the main figure in the resurgence of the Afghan
The one-legged Dadullah - he lost a leg
in fighting - has a flamboyant if cruel reputation. He narrowly
escaped capture in northern Afghanistan in 2001, often gives boastful
interviews to news agencies, and is known to have personally ordered
the killings of aid workers. His latest announcement, made in
a phone call to Reuters, was that the Taliban had infiltrated
suicide bombers into every Afghan city.
He is widely thought to be based in or
around the southern Pakistani town of Quetta but is reported to
be constantly on the move. He visited various areas of southern
Afghanistan this year and has traveled to Waziristan repeatedly,
in particular as the tribes of North Waziristan negotiated their
Sept. 5 peace deal with the government, which he sanctioned, according
to local reporters and intelligence officials.
Push for Order
The increasingly urgent question for Pakistani,
Afghan, American and NATO officials is what can be done to bring
the region under control. The Pakistani government's latest attempt
was the Sept. 5 peace accord in North Waziristan.
Under the deal, both the government and
militants agreed to cease attacks, and the militants agreed to
end cross-border help for the Afghan insurgency, the killings
of tribal leaders and accused government sympathizers, and to
cease the "Talibanization" of the area.
Taliban commanders sanctioned the deals,
arguing that the militants should concentrate their efforts on
the foreign armies in Afghanistan and not waste their energies
on clashing with the Pakistani military, journalists working in
Critics say that the agreement is fatally
flawed since it lacks any means of enforcement, and that it has
actually empowered the militants. In a report to be released on
Dec. 11, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research
organization, brands it as a policy of appeasement.
The government has taken down checkpoints,
released detainees, returned confiscated weapons and vehicles
and issued an amnesty. But the militants have increased their
activities, benefiting from the truce with the Pakistani military,
the groups said.
"From the start the agreement was
not good because there are too many concessions and no clauses
that are binding," said Brig. Mahmood Shah, who served as
secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas until 2005.
"This agreement is not going to work, and if it is working,
it is working against the government interest."
Afrasiab Khattak, a local politician and
spokesman for the Awami National Party in Peshawar, also criticized
the agreement. The militants rather than the traditional tribal
leaders have the power now, he said.
"They have imposed a new elite in
Waziristan," he said. "More than 200 tribal chiefs have
been killed, and not a single culprit brought to justice."
Still, Javed Iqbal, the newly appointed
Pakistani secretary of the tribal areas, defended the North Waziristan
accord as an effort to return to the traditional way of running
the tribal areas, through the tribal chiefs. That system, employed
by the British and Pakistani rulers alike, was eroded during the
military campaigns of the last few years.
"We have tried the coercive tactic,
we did not achieve much," he said in an interview in Peshawar.
"So what do you do? Engage."
He said the government had let down the
tribal elders in Waziristan who had wanted dialogue with the government,
but were murdered one after another by the militants. But the
big turnout of some 500 to 600 tribal elders at a meeting in Miramshah
in North Waziristan in November was encouraging, he said, and
showed that the tribes wanted to engage. "We are back in
business," he said.
Loss of Control
Some Pakistani officials admit they have
made a serious mistake in allowing the militants so much leeway,
but only if they will not be quoted publicly.
Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership
networks run training camps in various parts of the 500-mile length
of the tribal areas, from Baluchistan in the south to the hub
of North and South Waziristan, and farther north to Bajaur, said
a Western diplomat in Kabul.
A diplomat who visited Wana, the capital
of South Waziristan, said the government had almost no control
over either of the Waziristans.
"They are absolutely not running
the show in North Waziristan, and it runs the risk of becoming
like South Waziristan," he said. "In South Waziristan
the government does not even pretend to have a remit that runs
outside of its compounds."
The fundamentalists' influence is seeping
outward, with propaganda being spread on private radio stations,
and through a widening network of religious schools and the distribution
of CDs and DVDs. It can now be felt in neighboring tribal departments
and the settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province. In
recent months, Pakistani newspapers have reported incidents of
music and barber shops being closed, television sets burned and
girls' schools threatened.
The militants are more powerful than the
military and the local tribal police, kill with impunity and shield
criminals and fugitives. Local journalists say people blame the
militants for a rising tide of kidnappings, killings, robberies
and even rapes.
The brutality of some foreign militants
has led to rising discontent among their Pakistani hosts, many
of whom are also armed and militant, making the region increasingly
volatile and uncontrollable.
"Initially, it was sympathy,"
one Pakistani intelligence official said. "Then came the
money, but it was soon followed by fear. Now, fear is overriding
the other two factors, sympathy and money."
For now, however, the Taliban commanders
and the Pakistani militants under them remain unswervingly loyal
to jihad in Afghanistan and, despite the tensions, still enjoy
local support for the cause, officials and local journalists say.
The failed government military campaigns
of recent years, which are seen as dictated by the United States,
have further radicalized the local population, many in the region
As a potential indicator of local support,
the families of two suicide bombers sent to Afghanistan from Waziristan
gained renown in the community, according to a local journalist.
"The people support the militants
because they are from their own tribe, they are family,"
said the journalist, who asked not to be named out of fear of
Morale is high among the resurgent Taliban
after their revival in Afghanistan this year, one Pakistani security
official said. That will lead to still more recruitment and better
organization and planning in the year ahead.
Fighting traditionally dies down in winter
because of the inhospitable conditions in the mountains.
But the new fighting season in the spring
will be even bloodier, a Western diplomat in Kabul said. "We
have to assume that things will be bad again," he said, "because
none of the underlying causes are being addressed."