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The internal jihadi politics in FATA

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New Afghan policy & Fata politics
By Syed Irfan Ashraf & Shaukat Khattak
Tuesday, 31 Mar, 2009 (Dawn)

WHAT will be the outcome of the Obama administration’s new policy on Afghanistan and what impact will it have on the western borders of Pakistan? This is the billion-dollar question for all stakeholders in the war on terror including the Fata warlords.

The militants have already devised a strategy of ‘readjustment and relocation’ to strengthen Fata as the first line of defence. Accordingly, they wind up their makeshift settlements — from where terror emanates — in the less strategic areas of the tribal belt and relocate to their strong bases in North and South Waziristan. The warlords are united in their stand and are seemingly more focused on their target across the border.

Insiders say it took one month for an eight-member Taliban delegation from Afghanistan to reconcile with the militants in Fata and make them agree on a one-point agenda — to launch a united front against the allied forces under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and to stop activities inside Pakistan. Under the agreement, key players of the tribal theatre, Maulvi Nazir, Gul Bahadur and Baitullah Mehsud, agreed to serve the ‘larger cause’ under the banner of Shura Ittehadul-Mujahideen (Council for Unity of Mujahideen).

This significant development on the western borders went unnoticed due to tensions between India and Pakistan following last November’s Mumbai attacks.

Analysts believe that the new power adjustment alone would have served little purpose. In fact, it required ending the standoff with the security forces, at least temporarily, so that militants engaged in the north of Peshawar could be relocated to the south of Fata. In fact, as one analyst explained, the idea was to position “militants on this side [Fata] of the Durand Line before US reinforcements arrived on the other”.

For this purpose, peace deals were reached with the government and tension defused in Swat and Bajaur Agency. No deal has been made in Dara Adam Khel and Mohmand Agency because there has been no intense fighting in these areas. But Orakzai Agency, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, is close to North Waziristan and does not pose problems for militants moving across the border through North Waziristan.

Given the inter-tribal rivalries among the three militant leaders, there is astonishment at their decision to come together to work towards a common goal. Although there is kinship between the Wazir and Mehsud tribes, the latter had not been able to overcome their differences.

In the mid-1970s, tensions ran high when the Waziri ulema declared jihad against the Mehsuds after scores of Waziris were killed during a dispute. The main bazaar in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, was demolished resulting in the Waziris’ incurring losses to the tune of millions of rupees. Intermittently, the Waziris in North and South Waziristan launched a joint front against the Mehsuds in South Waziristan. These had been classified as tribal feuds.

The US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent army operation in Waziristan gave power and direction to the otherwise small pockets of jihadis, instantly changing the social and political dynamics of the area. Jihadi warlords overpowered traditional tribal power centres by playing on the anger and zeal of the younger generation.

Although nurturing a common resentment against the ‘infidels’, until recently, the Waziris and Mehsud militants did not let go of their mutual rivalry and refused to make compromises to end tribal differences. Rarely did they spare each other when it came to settling old scores.

The same was true of Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur, both warlords from the Wazir tribe and with centres of influence in South and North Waziristan respectively. However, they stuck to their tribal affinities and stood united against their rival Baitullah, representing the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan.

In 2007, Baitullah Mehsud embraced the Uzbek militants after the pro-government Maulvi Nazir flushed them out of his headquarters in Wana. Later, Baitullah Mehsud allegedly used the Uzbeks to inflict heavy damages on Nazir. In 2008, the Uzbeks killed 15 militants when they attacked the offices of Nazir in Shakai and Wana. Nazir received another blow when the Uzbeks killed his top aide, Haji Khanan. This led Maulvi Nazir to broker an alliance with Gul Bahadur against Baitullah in North Waziristan and also to seek support from the Turkistan Bitani tribe.

This tactical move cornered Baitullah. Geographically, the Mehsud warlord was de-linked from the Waziri-dominated strategic borders along Afghanistan in the south and northwest, while the routes via the eastern mainland were controlled by his opponents, the Bitani tribe. State agencies, also part of power politics in Fata, supported the Nazir alliance against Baitullah. Despite hard times, the shrewd Baitullah continued to fuel militancy in other tribal agencies through the areas controlled by the Davar tribe in North Waziristan, bypassing the Waziris in North and South Waziristan.

However, such deep-rooted differences between the Mehsud and Waziri warlords and their greed for power did not prevent the alliance that was formed in the short span of a month. As mentioned earlier, the formation of the alliance has been strongly influenced by the Taliban network in Afghanistan. This network has a considerable role in the power politics of Fata. But this hobnobbing is not limited to the tribal belt. Inner circles of the ANP also blame unknown elements for the ongoing developments in the conflict zones of the NWFP. It was under these compulsions, they said, that the NWFP government reached an agreement with the militants in Swat. Does the deadly game really cover so much ground?

Observers fear that if militants are united on both sides of the divide, it would be difficult to expect the allied forces to honour their commitment along Pakistan’s western boundaries. Predictably, Obama’s new strategy, if followed, would lead to a war in Pakhtun lands where an organised culture of militancy is ready to tackle the enemy.

The US needs to reflect on the policy before implementing it in Afghanistan. Eight years in Afghanistan has brought them no gains and they will not make any from a new misadventure. There will be only bloodshed and misery as there is no exit from this deadly war theatre. At least, that is what history has taught us so far.

shaukatkhattak@gmail.com, syedirfanashraf@gmail.com