The Pakistani military’s six-month hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants along Afghanistan’s southeastern border has escalated into new incursions to other areas of the South Waziristan Federally Administered Tribal Area. More ominously, these new offensives are in the territory of the more numerous and better organized Mahsud tribe, which are genealogical cousins, but rivals of, the Wazirs, who so far have borne the brunt of the Pakistani military activities. South Waziristan abuts the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika, where the Taliban insurgency is in full swing.
Clashes broke out on September 8 when Pakistani troops, backed by jets and helicopters, targeted militants’ positions in the Karwan Manzai area near the Mahsud’s principal town of Kaniguram, some 25 miles northeast of the administrative headquarters in Wana.
Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan claimed that the bombing targeted a terrorist training camp in the area and killed 50 militants, including “foreigners.” Sultan told Dawn that a wanted al-Qaeda operative, Saiful Adel Al-Iraqi, and Uzbek militant leader Tahir Yuldashev (who allegedly escaped the Wana operation last May) were reported to have been visiting the camp. However, he admitted no one from al-Qaeda’s “top hierarchy” was present in the camp when it was bombed (Dawn, September 10).
On September 12, paramilitary scouts attacked the Makin area farther north. Both Kaniguram and Makin are the heartland of the 400,000-strong Mahsud tribe on the fringe of South Waziristan’s highest mountain, the 11,500-foot Preghal. The area is just northeast of the Shakai region, where previous military offensives had taken place against the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazirs in May and June.
The recent fighting apparently began after Mahsud tribal elders rejected a request by local authorities to provide safe passage through their territory for the military. The military and paramilitary scout units wanted to deploy farther north into the Razmak plateau region of North Waziristan through the 48-mile main Wana-to-Razmak road that winds through Mahsud territory.
It is reported that Abdullah Malik, an influential Mahsud tribal chief believed to have been released from the 9/11 detention center at Guantanamo Bay several months back, and his supporters blocked the road near the cluster of tribal villages in Makin. Young tribal fighters, who rejected the requests from their elders and mullahs, reportedly had taken up positions on the hilltops and other strategic positions along the road. Makin is just 10 miles from the elaborate British-era Razmak fort, smack on the border with North Waziristan (Dawn, September 13).
The air strikes were reported to have caused substantial damage to residential areas in Makin and the large-scale evacuation of families toward Razmak and North Waziristan. Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Sultan said that troops had fired on the fortress-like house of a local cleric who is suspected of harboring “foreign” militants and denied reports that an adjacent seminary run by the cleric was attacked (Dawn, September 15).
In the meantime, on September 14, the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, Iftikhar Hussain Shah, met with 300 elders of the Mahsud tribe in Peshawar, the provincial capital. The governor urged the elders to take responsibility and use their influence to stop retaliatory attacks by the tribesmen that have already caused significant casualties among the Pakistani military. Drawing a comparison to what happened to the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazirs in Wana, he warned that if the trouble in the Mahsud area is not resolved immediately, then economic sanctions could be imposed upon the Mahsuds (The News, September 16).
In another development, a fact-finding commission of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association was barred from entering the troubled area. The military stopped all three members of the commission at Jandola. However, they were able to interview displaced Mahsud families sheltering in Tank, the winter headquarters of the South Waziristan administration (Dawn, September 21).
What is happening in the Mahsud tribal territory ominously resembles what happened in May and June to the Ahmadzai Wazirs in the Wana area. The Wana Wazirs continue to suffer from a three-month-old economic blockade. On September 19, the authorities delivered a list of 200 wanted suspects to the tribal elders. The list does not contain the names of any “foreign” militants. Under the collective responsibility clause of the British-era 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation, the Ahmadzai Wazirs are bound to surrender wanted militants to the authorities.
Reportedly, the list includes the influential Ahmadzai Wazir tribal leader, Ba Khan. After the authorities demolished 200 shops belonging to his family in Wana, Ba Khan fled to Kabul. There he reportedly met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and requested political asylum (Dawn, September 19).
Historically, the Wazirs and Mahsuds have always looked toward Afghanistan as their real home, and throughout the British Colonial period, they supported Afghan kings in their wars against the British.