There is no doubt that North Waziristan is dangerous territory. It is a major sanctuary of local and foreign militants espousing diverse causes. No other place in the world has been subjected to so many missile strikes by drones in such a short period of time. Its reputation as a lawless place was reinforced when last month the so-called Punjabi Taliban kidnapped two former Pakistani military spies and a British journalist accompanying them.
Over-confidence and naivety led the two former ISI officers, Colonel (R) Sultan Amir Tarar, commonly known as Colonel Imam, and Squadron Leader (R) Khalid Khwaja, to venture into North Waziristan and provide an opportunity to one of the many militant groups operating there to have them kidnapped.
Nobody could have advised them to travel to North Waziristan to interview militant commanders for a documentary that Assad Qureshi, a British journalist of Pakistani origin, was making. Two former MNAs, PML-N’s Javed Ibrahim Paracha from Kohat and JUI’s Maulana Shah Abdul Aziz from Karak, were the last people that they met and interviewed before heading for North Waziristan and both reportedly advised them not to undertake the risky trip. Paracha and Shah Abdul Aziz have had contacts with the militants and they would have known the risks for outsiders travelling to North Waziristan where the government presence is weak.
Col Imam and Khwaja must have felt that the militants posed no threat to them due to their past association with jihadi and Taliban groups. The name of Usman Punjabi has been mentioned as someone with whom Khwaja was in touch before heading for North Waziristan. It was a trap and now they are paying the price for their poor judgement. Times have changed and a new generation of militants has emerged that is suspicious of anyone linked to the Pakistan Army or the ISI. They have now taken on the Pakistani state and the military for siding with the US in the ‘war on terror’. Besides, they would have known that Col Imam and Khwaja sympathised with the Afghan Taliban for fighting against foreign occupying forces and had little sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban who were killing their own soldiers and policemen and were exploding bombs in cities.
Though there are reports that Khwaja had undertaken an earlier trip to North Waziristan on a mission that is unclear, his March 2010 visit was clearly aimed at assisting journalist Qureshi to make a documentary on the militants. In fact, Khwaja had contacted many people including this writer for a possible interview. As Khwaja explained to this scribe, he wanted this documentary to be objective as he felt all other documentaries and stories about the Taliban were one-sided. For Qureshi, it must have been an opportunity of a lifetime to gain access to the world of militants. Journalists do take risks to cover important events and Qureshi, in this case, must have felt reassured in the company of Khwaja and Col Imam.
This certainly was Khwaja’s idea to travel to North Waziristan and he seems to have persuaded Col Imam to come along with him. There is no evidence that the two were on a mission to mediate between the military and the militants even though in his second video-tape Khwaja is made to say by his captors that he was sent by the Pakistan Army to North Waziristan to seek safe passage for the troops caught in the conflict against the militants. This isn’t quite right as there is no real conflict in North Waziristan at this stage and the peace accord between the military and the local militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur is working. The security forces maintain a strong presence in North Waziristan, but no operation is presently being carried out by the military against the militants. There have been occasional clashes between the two sides and a recent incident near Khattay Killay village on the Miramshah-Dattakhel road claimed the lives of eight soldiers, two children and an unspecified number of militants. Both sides, however, have managed to keep the situation under control by reiterating their resolve to abide by the peace deal.
In fact, the military or the ISI doesn’t need the services of outsiders to establish contacts with the militants. This job is better performed by local tribal elders and clerics who know the area and the people and their language and customs. On occasions, the tribal elders and clerics along with the Afghan Taliban have mediated between the two sides and succeeded in arranging ceasefires, peace accords and prisoners’ swap.
There cannot be any doubt that Khwaja under duress was forced to make sweeping statements in the video-tape. He confessed to being an ISI and CIA agent and accepted his guilt for luring the Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz to escape from the besieged mosque wearing a woman’s veil and then getting him arrested. He is prompted to say that certain jihadi commanders such as Fazlur Rahman Khalil, Masood Azhar and Abdullah Shah Mazhar and militant organisations including Jaish-e-Mohammad, Jamiatul Mujahideen, Harkatul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Badr were still operating as ISI’s proxies and were allowed to collect funds in Pakistan. This clearly reflects the rift between the jihadi groups. It seems the militant groups angry with the military are trying to settle scores by using the kidnapped Khwaja to say things in the video against the ISI. The Punjabi Taliban seem to dislike Khwaja because no such video of Col Imam has emerged in which he is made to say unsavoury things about the ISI.
The demands made by the group in return for the release of Khwaja, Col Imam and Qureshi also came as a surprise. Calling itself Asian Tigers, the Punjabi militants demanded release of three Afghan Taliban leaders Abdul Ghani Biradar, Abdul Kabir and Mansoor Dadullah held by Pakistani intelligence agencies. According to most accounts, Kabir hasn’t been captured. Mansoor Dadullah, who was captured two years ago by Pakistani authorities in an injured condition after a clash in Balochistan, is no longer part of the Afghan Taliban movement as he suspected the involvement of some Taliban commanders in the assassination of his elder brother, Dadullah Akhund, in a NATO raid in Helmand province. The Pakistan government is unlikely to free Biradar or Mansoor Dadullah to seek release of the two retired military officers. The British government also has said nothing about its kidnapped citizen, Qureshi. The so-called Asian Tigers group surely knows this and it could eventually agree to take ransom money and release the three men.
This incident highlighted the complexity of the North Waziristan situation. The Punjabi Taliban and other groups are able to operate there with help from local militants. Hafiz Gul Bahadur wants outside militants to get out of North Waziristan as their presence could force Pakistan’s security forces to take action against them. He appears helpless to expel the Mahsud militants who took refuge with their allies in North Waziristan after escaping the military operation in South Waziristan.
The US pressure on Pakistan Army to move into North Waziristan in a big way is mounting as it is keen that foreign militants, particularly the Haqqani network, is denied the use of Pakistani space for launching attacks in Afghanistan. Eventually, the Pakistani military would have to do something about North Waziristan to deny its use as a sanctuary for militants. For now, though, this cannot happen as 150,000 soldiers are still busy fighting a difficult battle in the tribal areas and trying to stabilise the situation in places like Swat. There seems to be shortage of troops and resources even to rid Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions of militants or maintain a sustained presence in South Waziristan. The battle for North Waziristan would have to wait. And even if it is won there is no guarantee that militancy would be overcome to win durable peace.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 27 April 2010