A Last Stand?

Over the past 10 days the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of South Waziristan is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Afghanistan has remained in turmoil even after the fall of the Talibaan in November 2001, the US led Coalition-imposed Hamid Karzai Government failing to impose its authority anywhere in the country except the city of Kabul and a few outlying towns. Hamid Karzai himself is protected by a security detail of the US Diplomatic Corps, his Presidency subject to the sufferance of late Ahmed Shah Masood’s Northern Alliance. Dostum’s Jumbish militia troops continue to face off Atta Mohammad’s force in Mazar-I-Sharif, in recent fighting several hundreds were killed before Kabul could manage a ceasefire. The Afghan Aviation Minister, son of the Governor of Herat Ismail Khan, was recently killed when the Karzai-appointed commander of the regular Afghan forces in the city tried to overturn Ismail’s authority over his fiefdom. The Afghan regulars were soon routed and the commander has taken to the hills, fate still unknown.

In the Pashtun belt extending adjacent to the Durand Line from Kabul to Kandahar, Talibaan guerillas have been frequently attacking US forces. For their part, US military commanders believe that the remnants of Al-Qaeda and Talibaan use Pakistan’s tribal belt as a safe haven to attack the US Forces at will. US Commanders have been giving broad hints about crossing the Durand Line in hot pursuit. This would violate our sovereignty and territorial integrity besides causing widespread domestic turmoil, the US has done well to act with restraint. However, the absence of action against the Al-Qaeda will turn South Waziristan from a safe haven into an autonomous military stronghold for expatriate guerillas.

For several months now the local Administration has been encouraging the tribals not to allow foreign fighters to take refuge in South Waziristan, given tribal tradition this is easier said than done. Pakistan Federal or Provincial forces normally do not enter FATA, the tribals having a mandate since independence to secure the country’s frontiers. Inhabited mainly by the Ahmedzai Waziris who have nine sub-tribes, Zalikhel is one of the Waziri sub-tribes. The recalcitrant Yurgikhels are a Zalikhel sub-tribe. From time to time government and tribal emissaries have gone to the Yurgikhels requesting that the mainly Arab and Chechen guerrillas of Al-Qaeda not misuse their age-old Waziri tradition of hospitality. Retribution was promised if these foreign guerillas used their territory for hit and run attacks in Afghanistan. The tribal elders from the other eight sub-tribes were repeatedly requested to intercede. This cut no ice with the three main accused/culprits Sharif, Nek Mohd and Noor Islam, under whose leadership the Yurgikhels are refusing to hand over the foreign nationals present in their area. There are credible reports that some Waziris criminal elements are also bearing arms alongside the foreign fighters. No government in the world can allow armed groups within its borders refuse not only to accept central authority but bar access of government forces trying to apprehend/evict to foreign elements within their area. That would be like accepting a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by the Yurgikhels.

On the basis of credible information, a relatively small unit of the Frontier Corps (FC) engaged in a probing raid on 8 Jan 04 against a small mud hut compound near Wana but was not successful. On 24 Feb 04 a similar action by another FC unit was also unsuccessful in nabbing any of the militants. Alarming intelligence reports of mud hut clusters being heavily fortified came pouring in. The Political Agent called on the elders at a Tribal Jirga to hand over those on a wanted list, a Tribal Lashkar was formed but the Yurgikhel still refused to hand over the wanted men. As is customary for the Frontier, the FC then launched a routine search operation on 18 Mar 04 but the miscreants were well entrenched with fortified mud huts and communication tunnels. Ambushed on the way between Jandala and Wana, the FC Commander had to bring in reinforcements of about two FC Wings and two rifle companies. Before the ambushed FC unit could be extricated the FC took quite a few casualties, about 16 dead, a small section of about 10-12 men were encircled and captured by the guerillas, their fate is still unknown. While withdrawing the FC came across 25 dead bodies of the guerillas but could only bring back two of the dead, identified as of Arab and Chechen origin. In subsequent operations over a 100 suspects were arrested by government forces. The artillery support available with the FC could not be used as the guerillas were occupying the fortified mud houses and using civilian inhabitants as human shields.

With FC heavily outgunned by well trained battle-hardened highly motivated guerillas having excellent tactics and wonderful fire control, the Army moved a Brigade plus with Artillery and helicopter support to shore up the FC. The Corps Commander, Lt Gen Safdar Hussain, barely six days in a three-star office, set up shop to control the situation. An area 10 kms in width and 6 kms in length (about 60 sq kms) has been cordoned off and a ceasefire for 4 hours given on Mar 25 to enable the families of the tribals to move to safer places. The supporting Cobra helicopter gunships have (uptil now) only returned fire when fired upon, artillery has still not been used, giving time to the tribal elders to arrange release of the FC personnel taken as hostages during the Mar 18 ambush.

Guerillas never stand and fight, they go by the adage, “he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day”. Mostly Chechen and Arabs with a small group of Uzbeks among them, this lot of guerillas are choosing to stand and fight. This has led to speculation that there could be senior Chechen and Uzbek leaders among them, for some reason a few cannot be moved quickly cross-country, that is why this stand is against every principle of guerilla warfare. At the outset rumours pointed to a major Arab Al-Qaeda leader among them, maybe even Osama Bin Laden, another an intelligent guess was that his No 2 Al-Zawahiri was cornered and he had been wounded while making a futile attempt to escape in an ambulance. Intelligence estimates are that Al-Qaeda men number in the area 300-400 and are augmented by about 100 or so locals, mostly Yurgikhels. The President’s mention about a “high value target” was obviously based on field intelligence, communication intercepts as well as the strange behaviour of the guerillas in opting not to make a break for it. Cobra gunships are keeping a vigil to ensure that no vehicles do not break the cordon.

There has been reaction, a number of incidents have taken place elsewhere in NWFP including three rockets landing in Peshawar City. Obviously the locals are not pleased, there is however greater resentment against the guerillas than the Federal troops. There have been sporadic attacks in different places, a diversionary attempt to somehow loosen the chokehold the Army has got in the besieged area. Things may become much worse before they become better but it does not help if the Corps Commander acts gung-ho. You cannot “wipe the tribe out”, they are Pakistanis and must be coerced and cajoled into seeing the light of day. One does not see the hardened guerillas walking out with their hands up and being herded to Guantanomo Bay. It will take some doing to eliminate this festering threat in the body politic of Pakistan, this has to be done before the streets catch fire on the misinformation being dished out by some politicians who should be expected to exercise more maturity. Pakistan will expect that as a non-NATO military ally as announced by US Secretary at State Colin Powell our Armed Forces will get the necessary weapons and equipment, particularly helicopters for good mobility as well as communications and surveillance equipment, including the use of UAVs like the Predator etc vital for counter-guerilla operations. A token 2500 flak jackets have already been airlifted in by the US on an emergency basis for the troops at Wana. Make no mistake, if we do not come down upon the guerillas like a ton of bricks now, our house of cards will come falling down like many tons of bricks, sooner than later.