Recent Developments in Waziristan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 5

In early February, the emir of the Taliban in South Waziristan reached a peace deal with the central authorities in Islamabad. Baitullah Mehsud promised not to shelter or support foreign militants nor attack government installations and forces. If the agreement holds, it will help pacify the situation in the Pakistani tribal areas that have been the staging ground for limited military actions since late 2003. But concerns remain, not least because not all militants have yet to lay down their weapons. And having lost much local support in Waziristan, the militants might choose to relocate to Afghanistan where far fewer troops are available to hunt them down.

A Deal of Sorts

On February 7, Baitullah Mehsud, a top commander of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, together with up to a hundred of his fighters signed a peace deal with the authorities. About 1,000 people, locals as well as government officials, attended the ceremony near the Sararogha Fort some 80 kilometers from the town of Wana. The proceedings, which were watched by only a handful of soldiers from a distance through binoculars, ended with shouts of “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great) and “Death to America.” Mehsud might have stopped harassing Pakistani government forces, but his ideas clearly haven’t changed. “We understand fighting against Pakistani security forces did not help the Taliban at all,” he told the assembled press who were not allowed to capture him on photo or film. At the same time, he said: “Pakistan has also realized that fighting tribal people is undermining it. Pakistan’s enemies are India, the Northern Alliance and Russia.” [1]

The 30-year-old commander insisted he had not surrendered to the government and made two important demands of his own: the removal of security checkpoints and the speeding up of development projects in the region. The point that Mehsud was trying to make is that he does not feel defeated. Still, defeated or not, the deal could prove important for Waziristan. As the emir of South Waziristan, he holds great authority in the region. According to one Pakistani newspaper, “top Taliban leadership” urged Mehsud to sign the deal, thus enabling the movement to concentrate on Afghanistan without having to worry about Pakistan. But apparently the senior Taliban leadership was unable to convince another senior militant, Abdullah Mehsud (no relation to Baitullah Mehsud), to sign up to the deal. [2] But given that there is near-universal support for the Taliban in the Pakistani border areas, it is unlikely that rogue elements will defy the movement by staging serious attacks in the area. The Taliban has clearly decided to avoid antagonizing the Pakistani government, in the hope that the government will turn a blind eye to any future non-violent Taliban activities in the area.

However, because Abdullah Mehsud and at least some 100 foreign militants (who are mostly Uzbeks) remain uncommitted to the deal, “attacks on military installations and convoys might [still] be happening,” according to Behroz Khan, the bureau chief of the Pakistani daily The News in Peshawar. [3] The tribe of the Wazirs also rejected the deal. In fact, there was an incident immediately after the signing of the deal: two journalists were killed and a third injured after returning from the ceremony at the Sararogha Fort. Apparently, the journalists were locals belonging to the Wazir tribe who accused them of “joining the enemy.” [4]

Old Presence, New Problem

Religious extremists, both foreign and home-grown, have long been present in the tribal areas of Pakistan – in large measure due to the acquiescence and support of the Pakistani and U.S. governments in the past, who encouraged mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The tribal areas were the natural gateway to Afghanistan. This is especially the case with South Waziristan, which was an important supply route for the mujahideen, helped by the fact that the same tribe lives on both sides of the border. After the Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001, Pakistani, Afghan and foreign militants once again ended up in the tribal areas – this time fleeing from U.S. led forces in Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that the area has been historically friendly to Islamic militants, not everyone in the region supported the influx of radicals into the area after the collapse of the Taliban. [5] In fact, in some cases the locals were coerced by the militants to obey them, says Behroz Khan. This type of mild coercion by non-state forces works in the region, because ever since the start of the colonial period in the mid-19th century, central authorities have only had indirect power in the tribal areas and thus could not hinder the militants much. “[Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf was slow to act,” says Behroz Khan; indeed Musharraf only became serious about the security situation in the region after two assassination attempts against him in December 2003.

However, subduing the militants and the tribes supporting them appeared to be a more difficult task than initially anticipated, especially forcing Pakistani authorities to mobilize 70,000-80,000 paramilitary forces in the region in order to neutralize around 600-700 foreign militants. But it is widely believed that the Pakistani army not only wanted to flush out the foreign extremists but sought – for the first time ever – to bring the tribal areas under central government control. “The War on Terror gave them the opportunity for this” says Behroz Khan. That subduing the area is at least as important as capturing extremists is supported by the fact that no important Taliban or al-Qaeda figures have been captured in Waziristan. Conversely, numerous senior al-Qaeda figures have been captured in the cities of Pakistan. [6]

Apparently, U.S. forces have supported the Pakistanis in Waziristan, especially by providing helicopters, missiles and reconnaissance drones. But Pakistani officials have been quick to deny reports that the CIA operated a base in Waziristan and that the Pakistani army has helped the U.S. military to aim artillery fire from Afghanistan at rebels on the Pakistani side of the border. These denials are hardly surprising in light of widespread anti-Americanism in Pakistan. “But things seem to point to a lot of American help,” says Behroz Khan.

IMU Remnants

The militants that remain in Waziristan are essentially comprised of Abdullah Mehsud and his fighters and the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), in addition to a small number of Chechens and Arabs. Chechen militants reportedly made use of a training camp in Afghanistan (prior to the ouster of the Taliban), not far from the Pakistani border. However the relationship between the IMU and the Taliban is much better documented.

After the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, the Uzbek Islamists Juma Namangani and Tahir Yoldashev held a press conference in the city to announce the formation of the IMU. The Taliban provided the IMU with a safe haven, which was lost with the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. Apparently, IMU forces suffered heavy losses in intensive American bombing and Namangani was reportedly killed. But Yoldashev led an estimated 250 Central Asian families over the border into South Waziristan. Of the estimated 600-700 foreign militants in Waziristan in September 2003, at least 100-200 were Uzbeks belonging to the IMU. In March 2004, during heavy fighting in which Yoldashev was reportedly wounded, the Pakistani army allegedly intercepted radio transmissions in both Uzbek and Chechen. In clashes since 2003, dozens of militants have been killed and hundreds more apparently left the area for the relative safety of Pakistani urban centers, in small groups. The 100 remaining foreign fighters are alleged to be almost universally Uzbeks – for whom it is very difficult to return to Karimov’s Uzbekistan. Arab fighters would have had less difficulty returning home or blending in Pakistani cities. “Yoldashev is still there” says Khan, but having lost his local Waziri supporters, his network is smashed and he is “on the run.”

Retreat to Afghanistan

Twenty-nine-year-old Pakistani commander Abdullah Mehsud is now also on the run. Earlier, he fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan where he lost a leg. Captured in Kunduz in December 2001, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay where he posed as an Afghan and was released after 25 months as a person of little importance. In March 2003, he returned to his native Waziristan to become one of the main leaders of the insurgents, second only to Baitullah Mehsud. Abdullah Mehsud gained country-wide notoriety by kidnapping two Chinese engineers in October 2004. One of these was killed in a subsequent army rescue attempt, thus excluding him from any possible amnesty deal. The Uzbeks, as foreigners, can not count on amnesty either, leaving them with little option but to continue fighting.

Given that the militants have now lost most local support in Waziristan, where they are hunted by up to 80,000 Pakistani forces, Behroz Khan argues that they will try to slip into Afghanistan. However, experts in Afghanistan doubt this: “Given the large coalition and ISAF presence in Afghanistan I find it hard to believe a group would look at relocating here for sanctuary,” says Scott Richards, safety coordinator with the Afghanistan NGO Security Office in Kandahar. [7] But the battered and pressured Taliban remnants in Afghanistan would certainly welcome an influx of seasoned fighters. And unless Abdullah Mehsud and the Uzbeks are offered an amnesty proposal they deem reasonable, they will continue causing trouble – either in Waziristan or Afghanistan.

Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has covered Central Asia and the Caucasus for several years. He holds an MASc in Central Asian Politics from SOAS in London and an MA in Russian and Russian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.


1. For the ceremony, see the Daily Times and Dawn, February 7, 2005.

2. The Daily Times, February 12, 2005.

3. These and other quotes of Behroz Khan come from interviews with him in Peshawar on January 24 and February 4, 2005.

4. The Daily Times, February 12, 2005.

5. Interview with Nick Downie of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, October 30, 2004, Kabul.

6. Interview with the Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert Rahimullah Yousafzai, November 24, 2004.

7. Interview with Scott Richards, ANSO South Safety Advisor (Kandahar) February 27, 2005.