Trouble in FATA



Brigadier Roger Lane, the British commander heading Operation Snipe in southeastern Afghanistan, recently announced that the war against Taliban and Al-Qa’eda fighters inside Afghanistan was all but won. Good news for the Afghan government — but not so good for President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. That is because the remaining AQT (Al-Qa’eda Taliban) forces are believed to have fled across the border into Pakistan, specifically to its northern tribal belt.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, of Pakistan border with Afghanistan. The people in the FATA belt enjoy close ethnic, tribal and ideological links with the Pukhtoons across the border. They are also very conservative, heavily armed and fiercely independent. Islamabad has always had at best partial control of the area. A political agent sent by the Pakistan government carefully seeks the permission and cooperation of the local tribal leaders for any government action there. The weakness of Islamabad’s grip can be gauged from the fact that, until last month, the Pakistan army had never — in the country’s 50- plus year history — set foot in FATA.

The American war against AQT, and the shifting of the arena of battle from Afghanistan to FATA, is upsetting the delicate relationship between Islamabad and FATA. Under pressure from Washington, President Musharraf has had no choice but to allow American soldiers to carry out operations in the region. Last month US and Pakistani troops carried out a joint raid on a madrassa in Miran Shah, in North Waziristan Agency. The madrassa is one of the biggest in the region, and is owned by Jalaluddin Haqqani — former Taliban commander in the east and someone high on America’s most wanted list.

The operation failed to yield Haqqani but it aroused massive public anger. “We will not allow the religious institutions to be desecrated by US and Pakistani commandos in the guise of searching for wanted Taliban and Al- Qa’eda members,” a leading cleric thundered to a large and heavily armed audience after the raid. A local jirga condemned it and warned the Pakistan government of serious repercussions if there were any more raids. Elders also called for the withdrawal of all American troops from the area.

As if to reinforce their message, a rocket was fired at a school in Miran Shah on May Day. US soldiers sleeping inside the compound were unhurt, but that did not make it any less significant: it was the first time American soldiers have been fired on inside Pakistan. Last Saturday another two rockets were fired at the compound — though again no one was hurt. There are real fears that, should the American search for AQT members in FATA continue, there will be much more violence.

President Musharraf has tried to appease local sentiment by playing down the role of American forces — “hardly a dozen at most” were involved in the Miran Shah raid, he claimed. So far such claims have done little to convince people or calm passions.

There are signs that the religious parties are mobilising to resist US-Pakistan military operations. Pamphlets were distributed recently in Miran Shah by a group called “Mujahidin of Northern Waziristan.” They called for Muslims to “wake up, because the hypocrite ruler [of Pakistan] has challenged faith and honour by bringing American commandos to Miran Shah.” Jamiat-Ulema Islam, a strongly pro-Taliban Party, called for rallies across the North West Frontier Province on Friday to demonstrate against military operations and raids on madrassas. Jamatat-I-Islami, the country’s most powerful religious party, backed the protest call. The massive upsurge of local anger caused US commandos to call off their operations for a few days. They withdrew from Wana to a base three kilometres inside the Afghan border. But with the suspicion that hundreds of AQT fighters, including leading figures like Haqqani, Ayman Al-Zawahri and possibly even Osama Bin Laden, have taken shelter in FATA, it is only a matter of time before they return. President Musharraf could then find himself faced with a very serious local revolt.