Pakistan is grappling with local resistance as it presses tribesmen along the Afghan border to hand over people accused of harboring foreign militants, in an effort that coincides with a major U.S. offensive aimed at nabbing al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
The deaths in a firefight Tuesday that left 40 people dead, including 16 Pakistani soldiers, highlight the political as well as physical dangers as Pakistan pursues its full-fledged military operations in autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border.
The fight is described as the heaviest since Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf sent 70,000 army troops into the semiautonomous tribal areas in search of suspected al-Qaeda members two years ago, under US pressure.
In the wake of the battle, visiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Pakistan and said it had “picked up the pace” in the hunt for al-Qaeda members in order to “not to allow these tribal areas to be used as a haven.”
Arriving in Pakistan from Afghanistan, he said Thursday that Washington would declare Pakistan a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, a status that would come with more defense cooperation and signifies the post-Sept. 11 alliance between two countries that used to be much more suspicious of each other.
Pakistani authorities have also been quoted as saying that they had met stiff resistance from local and foreign militants when they tried to go after suspected al-Qaeda and local tribesmen said to be protecting them. Ambushes of Pakistani troops have also been reported in South Waziristan.
Musharraf himself came to Peshawar, capital of the neighboring Pakistani North West Frontier Province, on Mar. 15 to address a “jirga” or assembly of elders from the tribal areas. He told the gathering of 500-plus elders and parliamentarians that the ongoing operation in South Waziristan region must produce results at all costs.
“This operation must succeed,” Musharraf said. He urged the tribesmen to expel all foreign suspects from the region. “The number of foreign militants in Waziristan is between 500 and 600 and they should be removed from the area,” he added.
The tribal areas of Pakistan once acted as a buffer between the British Empire and Russia.
The strategic, mountainous territory has been considered a possible hideout of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden since the United States and Britain launched air strikes against Afghanistan in late 2001. This followed the Taliban government’s refusal to hand over bin Laden, held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 US terrorist attacks.
Media reports suggest a large number of foreign militants including Arabs, Chechens, Central Asians and Afghans are present in South and North Waziristan, tribal areas from which these fighters are said to have launched attacks against US troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Tribesmen have handed over more than 50 locals sought by Pakistani authorities in response to a two-pronged campaign of armed warfare and arm-twisting launched early this year and which intensified in recent weeks, also as the US forces stepped up operations in a “spring offensive” this month.
Civilians also have been killed. Musharraf has ordered an inquiry into a Feb. 28 incident in which 11 people were killed by rocket fire from soldiers who said they believed they had come under attack and were shooting back at militants in Wana, South Waziristan.
Armed warfare has been coupled with arm-twisting tactics including the bulldozing of houses and the imposition of heavy fines under laws that hold an entire tribe responsible for the misdeeds of individual members.
Tribal elders, under increasing Pakistani pressure, held a major “jirga” earlier this month and decided to form a “lashkar,” or force of armed tribesmen, to take action against six fellow clansmen who have refused to surrender to the government.
The 600-man “lashkar” has so far failed to convince the men to lay down their weapons, despite several deadlines set by the “jirga.”
The “lashkar” has its own limitations.
“There is hardly consensus among the tribal elders about the role of the lashkar. Most oppose any action by the lashkar because that would mean long drawn bloody feuds among the tribes,” says Shaukat Khattak, a local journalist.
The elders also know that the wanted men are wealthy and have men who would fight to the death to protect them, he adds.
Muzamil Khan, a tribesman from Wana, says the “jirga” has been helpless to resist government pressure and finds itself in a tricky position. “How can a tribesman fight his brother, uncle or cousin?” he says.
Notwithstanding local resentment, the government’s resolve to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban militants from the tribal belt remains unshaken.
Officials in Pakistan have so far denied that their Waziristan operations are connected to the US hunt for bin Laden. They have assured tribesmen that no foreign forces would be involved in the Waziristan campaign.
Religious groups and nationalist political parties have criticized Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The MMA, an alliance of religious parties, has demanded an end to military operations in the tribal areas.
The provincial council of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, an MMA member, has assailed the operations as conducted at the behest of the US government.
Local politicians also have defended the tribesmen sought by Pakistani forces as innocents who have provided shelter to Afghan and Arab fighters. These fighters were encouraged by Pakistani and US intelligence agencies, in the first instance, to mobilize against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, they added.
“Whose babies are they? It was the US and its regional allies who brought these people from Arab, African and Central Asian states during the Afghan war,” Mahmood Khan Achakzai, chairman of the Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, told a Mar. 13 news conference here.