The bloody six-month-long stand-off in the restive and strategically important Bajaur Tribal Agency of Pakistan has ended in a ceasefire and an agreement between the Taliban and Pakistan’s security forces. The 28-point undertaking includes a commitment by the local Taliban to lay down arms, surrender top Tehrik-i-Taliban commanders (including Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Maulvi Omar), disband militant groups, halt attacks on Pakistan’s security forces and stop cross border attacks into Afghanistan (Daily Jang [Rawalpindi], March 9). The military commander in Bajaur, Major General Tariq Khan, claims to have cleared the region of all militants with the conclusion of Operation Sher Dil (Lion Heart) (Associated Press of Pakistan, March 9). The operation started last August after a paramilitary convoy was besieged by the Taliban in Loi Sam, Bajaur. Despite the fact Bajaur has been a strategic asset the Taliban cannot afford to lose, the movement has so far been silent on the government’s declaration of victory (Aaj TV [Islamabad], March 10).
Pakistan’s military officials have admitted they faced stronger resistance in Bajaur than anywhere else in Pakistan’s tribal regions since they started military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2003. The bunkers and tunnel networks built by the Taliban gave a very tough time to the security forces. According to Pakistani officials, the majority of the militants in Bajaur were Afghans and Arabs (Daily Mashriq [Peshawar], March 9).
In the course of Operation Sher Dil, 84 members of the security forces were killed while more than 400 were injured. Local government officials claimed more than 1800 militants were killed in the fighting. 150 civilians are said to have been killed in these clashes with more than 2000 people injured and over 5000 houses destroyed. The military insists Bajaur will be cleared of all the militants by mid-March, though it had previously claimed the area would be cleared of militants by September 2008 (Daily Khabrain [Islamabad], March 9).
Strategic Importance of Bajaur Agency
Bajaur is an important hub for the Taliban and other militants. It is centrally located in regard to access routes to sensitive spots in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The volatile Swat district is located east of Bajaur while Mohmand tribal agency lies to the south. Bajaur has easy access to Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces, both hotspots of Taliban activity. Kunar is the site of some of the deadliest attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Militants in this area have established safe havens in the lush green forests and rocky outcrops with the added support of the local Pashtun tribes. Trouble in this region can easily shake the government in Kabul. The Soviets were defeated in Kunar before making their retreat from Kabul. The adjoining province of Nuristan is similarly important from a strategic point of view, being linked to easy access routes through Kapisa province to Kabul (Aaj TV, January 10).
The Militant Leadership in Bajaur
Qari Zia Rahman, a young Afghan Jihadi commander in his early thirties, rose to prominence last October when Pakistan’s military officials identified him as the leader of the stiff resistance they were facing in Bajaur. The Afghan commander made an alliance with Baitullah Mahsud, chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to resist Pakistan’s security forces in the Charmang, Tang Khatta and Loi Sam areas of Bajaur Province. Suffering heavy losses, Pakistan’s security forces claimed Qari Zia’s force consisted of trained fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and various Arab nations who were receiving assistance from unnamed “foreign countries” (Daily Times [Lahore], October 24, 2008).
Son of local cleric Maulana Dilbar, Qari Zia has close ties with Osama bin Laden and considerable influence in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces. He was raised and trained in the camps of the Arab mujahideen, and has since developed a strong hatred for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, carrying out several attacks on U.S. bases in Nuristan and Kunar. In Pakistan investigators believe that a suicide attack in Wali Bagh (NWFP) was the work of the Qari Zia group (Nawa-i-Waqt [Islamabad], October 4, 2008). In response to these activities, the U.S. government placed a $350,000 bounty on his head. He was once captured in Pakistan but was released in an exchange of prisoners between the government and Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud. Qari Zia is not only in charge of the military affairs and finances of the Taliban in Kunar and Nuristan, but also represents this strategic region in the shura (council) of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar (Daily Mashriq, November 6, 2008).
The Taliban leader in Bajaur, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, is deputy to TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud and is believed to have close links with Bin Laden’s deputy, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. He is alleged to have hosted a dinner for al-Zawahiri in January 2006 in Damadola, shortly before a US missile strike on the area which killed 18 people. Maulvi Faqir denied the allegation but has said that he will proudly host Ayman Zawahiri if he ever comes to Bajaur (Daily Mashriq, January 23). The 39-year-old Maulvi Faqir was born in the village of Sewai in Bajaur’s Mamond tehsil (county), along the border with Afghanistan. He belongs to the Mohmand tribe but has his stronghold in Bajaur. Maulvi Faqir was raised in a religious family that fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and later alongside the Taliban.
Maulvi Faqir is an expert in guerrilla warfare and has been active in the region since the late 1980’s, when he was a local leader of Jama’at-e-Islami, a Pakistani Islamist political party. He then joined Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) under the leadership of its founder, Maulana Sufi Mohammad. He accompanied Maulana Sufi’s disastrous attempt to reinforce the Afghan Taliban with Pakistani mujahideen during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Jihadi Groups in Bajaur
Unlike Swat, there exist several jihadi groups in Bajaur. Besides militant outfits like the TTP, the TNSM and the Qari Zia group, there are other jihadi groups, including the Jaish-e-Islam (JI) of Qari Wali Rahman (a.k.a. Raihan) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), a Punjabi cadre of militants headed by Qari Saifullah Akhtar. HuJI is suspected of involvement in last September’s Marriott Hotel suicide blasts in Islamabad as well as a failed assassination attempt on Pakistan’s former premier Benazir Bhutto on her return to Karachi in October 2007 (Geo TV [Islamabad], October 10, 2008). JI had some differences with the TTP but has now mended its ties with the group. Most of its members are Mamond tribesmen who come from the town of Damadola.
There are also reports that the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have a solid presence in the region. Another militant leader, Maulana Dr. Ismail, was formerly a leader of the mainstream religious political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUI). Karwan-e-Niamatullah (Convoy of Niamatullah), headed by Haji Niamatullah of Salarzai, is a once powerful group with ties to the TTP. It had several thousand followers, but has now been rendered ineffective after the losses it suffered in combat with the local pro-government tribal lashkar (militia) in Bajaur (Geo TV, February 26).
The local people of Bajaur have shown great joy over the cease-fire, the lifting of curfews and the peace agreements between Taliban and the government. The 300,000 refugees that fled from Bajaur during the six-months of fighting may now return to their homes. But the important question is whether this agreement will prove lasting? Will the local Taliban stop cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan? Will they show the will or ability to refuse safe haven to al-Qaeda and other foreign militants? Will the government be able to back up its verbal assurances that the religious views of the tribal people and local Taliban will be respected in all spheres of life? The answer to all these questions is probably “no.” Despite government claims that it has cleared Bajaur of all sorts of militants, the fact is that all the leading Taliban continue to roam there and many innocent civilians have been killed in the military operations in Bajaur.
There is great skepticism that this deal with the militants will not last for long, with fears that the militants will stage a comeback in the region. The deal will eventually reach its logical end of utter collapse and renewed fighting, as was witnessed in the past in the South and North Waziristan tribal agencies after the failure of similar deals with the government. Some observers suspect this deal is a smart military tactic on the part of Pakistani officials to give the Taliban an opportunity to assemble along the border of Afghanistan in preparation for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops. The idea is that once Pakistan’s military stop fighting them, the Taliban will start attacking inside Afghanistan. Once out of the populous cities they would be crushed along the border between the two powerful armies with a minimum of collateral damage. However, given the elusiveness of the local Taliban, the chance of such a move being successful seems minimal.