Taliban and Allies Tighten Grip in North of Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — 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 officials.
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 volatility.
“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 in Afghanistan.
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 have increased.
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 officials warn.
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 support.
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 say.
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 local journalists.
“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 pursued.”
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 Taliban.
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 Waziristan say.
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 say.
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 the militants.
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.”