The sudden and unexpected killing of 29-year old pro-Taliban tribal leader Nek Mohammad by a laser-guided missile on the night of June 17 is fueling speculation about a broader “secret” cooperation between US forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military operating in the tribal territory of Waziristan, hunting for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants (see EDM of June 16).
Nek Mohammad was spending the night in a tribal chief’s house in Dhog village, about 3 miles north of Wana, headquarters of the South Waziristan tribal agency. Eyewitnesses said that Nek Mohammad and five other men were sitting outside on the lawn when the missile hit them. Villagers confirmed that Nek Mohammad had been using his satellite telephone just before the attack. Locals widely believe that a drone operating overhead tracked down Nek Mohammad’s satellite telephone and communicated his location to a missile battery for the strike. Some villagers, who had been on their roofs guarding their homes, claimed they saw a bright ray of light emanating from the white drone just before the missile hit (The News, Wana, June 20).
Nek Mohammad was reported to have sustained injuries to the head, an arm and a leg He was rushed to a hospital in Wana where he died several hours later in the early hours of June 18. The swiftness of the action and the precision of the missile strike have prompted even educated Pakistanis to speculate that the US military provided technical assistance to the Pakistani military to score such a direct hit. A well-known Pakistani reporter visiting the area said that the missile strike was so precise that it did not damage any part of the building except the lawn where Nek Mohammad was seated. Five of Nek Mohammad’s companions were also killed. Later, army sources claimed that three additional “foreign militants” were killed in the attack. There is speculation that the Pakistani military do not possess the technology to track down satellite telephones such as the one Nek Mohammad was using. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had also conceded in the past that 12 to 15 US special agents and technical experts based in Pakistan were assisting the Pakistani military in tracking down suspected terrorists (The News, Wana and Peshawar, June 19).
Nek Mohammad belonged to the Yargulkhel sub-clan of the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazirs, which had been prominent in supporting the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s in the Afghan civil war. Earlier, the Wazirs, along with other tribes from the Pakistani borderland, fought with the Afghan mujahidin against the Russians in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. In a detailed profile of Nek Mohammad, carried in Pakistani magazine Herald and run in its sister newspaper Dawn on June 19, the bearded Nek Mohammad was portrayed as a man of “Byronic good looks and proud tribal mien.” Born in 1975, his formative childhood years in Kaloosha village, west of Wana, were influenced by the jihad in Afghanistan, conducted by mujahidin funded and trained by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At that time, residents of Wana teamed with CIA and ISI agents to recruit and train tribal youth. During that time, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states furnished money to establish Wahhabi-style Islamic seminaries in the region.
Nek Mohammad became a student in one of those seminaries. His father was a minor chieftain of limited means, who depended on traditional government allowances and subsistence farming on a small piece of land in Kaloosha village to support his family. Nek was the second of the chieftain’s four sons. A headstrong youth with a mercurial temperament, Nek never graduated from school, opting instead to join the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance. During the late 1990s, Nek commanded his Wazir fighters at Bagram airbase, the Panjshir frontline, Mazar-e Sharif and Badghis, sites of some of the bloodiest battles that the Taliban fought against Ahmad Shah Madood’s Northern Alliance. Nek’s reputation was built on dogged determination never to abandon his position during battle — even when the higher command ordered a pullback. However, like the rest of the Taliban, he had to retreat when US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.
Nek’s initial experiences with foreign fighters began in the spring of 2002 when US forces from the Shahikot Mountains of Paktia province uprooted them during Operation Anaconda. Hundreds of Arab, and Central Asian fighters needed an exit route and Nek was there to provide it. He soon became the foreign fighters’ chief contact in Wana. Nek had already made some money during his term as a Taliban commander and had returned to Kaloosha in late 2001 with six all-terrain pickup trucks. By December 2003, with Arab money from foreign militants, Nek possessed a fleet of 44 pickups, including several bulletproof vehicles. All these vehicles were available for use by his foreign “guests.”
When the Pakistani military launched its first operation in South Waziristan in March and closed in on his village Kaloosha, Nek reportedly spirited Uzbek militant commander Tahir Yuldashev to safety by hurling his bulletproof truck against Pakistani military forces. From the above account, it appears that Nek Mohammad did have deep ties with fighters loyal to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, in the aftermath of US intervention in Afghanistan, South Waziristan and possibly other tribal areas in Pakistan may be harboring many more militants. The real question is why the Pakistani military has taken so long to flush them out.