Pakistan is experimenting with the Taliban yet again. The primary focus of the effort is to de-link the Taliban from al-Qaeda and bring them back into the Pakistani sphere of influence. Uzbek militants have been the first “casualty” of this re-alignment. Potentially, remaining Arab militants will be next. Tribal forces in South Waziristan under the leadership of Maulvi Nazir are at the forefront of this “movement.” Extremist notions of religion remain their bread and butter, but new political objectives also guide their activities on the ground. This, in short, defines the neo-Taliban phenomenon. It is critical to understand the background, motivations and alliances of Maulvi Nazir to fully comprehend what is transpiring in the region.
Maulvi Nazir (also known as Mullah Nazir), is 32 years old, a dual citizen of Pakistan and Afghanistan and is married with a son and daughter (The News, May 4; Boston Globe, April 21). Although he presently resides in South Waziristan, he is a frequent traveler to Afghanistan’s Paktika province and Kandahar where he owns some property (Boston Globe, April 21). Common to the area, his extended family lives on both sides of the Durand Line. He belongs to the Kakakhel tribe, which is a sub-clan of the Ahmedzai Waziris (who dominate parts of South Waziristan) . Intriguingly, his first association was with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, a favorite of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the days of the anti-Soviet jihad (The Friday Times, March 30). His battle experience and guerrilla training are not that of an amateur. He later joined the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and remained politically aligned with Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI party (Daily Times, January 9).
He moved back to South Waziristan when the Taliban lost their ground to U.S.-led coalition forces in November 2001. During this political vacuum, al-Qaeda funds started pouring into the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt and Nazir vied for this treasure with other competitors including Nek Mohammad, brothers Mohammad Sharif and Noor Islam, Maulvi Nur Abbas and commander Javed (Dawn, June 19, 2004). It took the Pakistani military and intelligence leadership some time to realize what was happening in the region because, at the same time, the Indian military was amassing on Pakistan’s eastern border in 2002-2003, creating a time-consuming distraction. When they finally started confronting Taliban and al-Qaeda elements militarily in 2003, Nazir was already prominent on the most wanted list. When he surrendered to the authorities in 2004 as part of a deal with militants, he got cleared and was soon released by the military (The Friday Times, March 30). Apparently, he kept a low profile for the past couple of years—possibly at the behest of his handlers in the ISI.
When he was reincarnated in late 2006, he was supported by the Pakistani segment of the Taliban led by Mullah Dadullah. He also received approval from the Taliban Shura that includes Siraj Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran mujahideen and an important leader of the Taliban. Nazir first established his credentials as a new amir of the Taliban by enforcing rigid Sharia law in South Waziristan—apparently unhindered by government forces. He also directed his supporters not to confront the Pakistani military. He was supported in this endeavor by: 1) about a dozen independent pro-Taliban groups of the area; 2) Punjabi Taliban (mostly members of banned sectarian and Kashmiri militant groups); and 3) his tribe members.
After establishing some degree of control in a matter of months, he challenged “immigrant” Uzbek militants operating under Tahir Yuldashev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an action which led to an ensuing bloody battle. The Uzbeks lost around 200 people in the conflict—about a fifth of their total strength in the area (The Guardian, April 5). The Pakistani army provided medical cover to Nazir’s forces and also helped him secure the bases vacated by the Uzbeks. Major General Gul Muhammad, the commanding officer of Pakistani troops in the region, was quick to appreciate this development by saying that “Wana will become a model for the entire Waziristan region as far as the campaign against foreign militants is concerned,” while also emphasizing that Maulvi Nazir had not joined the fight against Uzbek militants as a Taliban amir, but as a member of the Kakakhel tribe (Daily Times, April 12). It is interesting to see a very similar theme postulated by Nazir when he addressed a press conference in early May: “I invited you to see for yourself, the changed environment here after the expulsion of foreign militants, who had made the area volatile for its own people. Let the world know that Wana is now free from foreign militants” (The News, May 4). The above two statements explain the relationship between Nazir and Pakistani army. It is not an ideal scenario for Pakistan, but it has arguably opted for the lesser evil.
It is necessary to explore Nazir’s motivation behind his campaign against the Uzbeks and foreign militants. Besides Arab militants in the area, there are some Chinese Uighurs (from Xinjiang) and Chechens as well (UPI, April 11; The Pakistan Times, June 16, 2004). In the words of Nazir, the charges against Uzbek militants relate to their involvement in “killing and robbing tribesmen besides imposing their self-styled Sharia upon them” (The News, May 4). Uzbeks reportedly became enmeshed in local rivalries and were blamed for increasing not only crime, but also brutal assassinations of pro-government elders (who were often dubbed by Arab and Uzbeks as U.S. spies). In addition, economic interests are also playing a part in this power matrix. Uzbeks started coming to the area during the late 1980s and early 1990s; however, the major influx began after key developments in 2001. Uzbek families managed to acquire large properties, some of which were bought, and some of which were offered as gifts by the local people who entered into relations with them. The Uzbeks worked hard and gradually developed some lands into model farms. This became the bone of contention between the settlers and the locals. Some locals partnered with the Uzbeks in business and also acted as their protectors. Others naturally developed a grudge. On the other hand, Nazir has always looked for economic opportunities, and soon after his first victory over Uzbek militants he publicly urged the Pakistani government to initiate development work in the area and specifically asked mobile phone companies to start their services in the area.
It will by no means be smooth sailing for Maulvi Nazir, who leads a group of no more than 3,000 fighters—mostly Waziris. Family and friends of the assassinated leader Nek Mohammad, a legendary figure, are still supportive of Uzbek fighters and al-Qaeda elements. Mehsud tribesmen (the largest tribe in terms of numbers in the area) under Baitullah Mehsud are also resisting Nazir. Haji Omar, a senior pro-al-Qaeda Taliban commander in South Waziristan and an arch opponent of Nazir, while being interviewed by a BBC correspondent about Nazir’s anti-Uzbek drive, gave a stern warning to the Pakistani military: “Do not become a party to the conflict, otherwise we will sign out from the peace agreement we reached with the government [in November 2004]” (Daily Times, March 24). It is in this context that Nazir’s recent pro-Osama bin Laden statement should be interpreted . Contrary to Western media assessments, it is likely that this assertion is a mere public relations effort to win support of many in the region who are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. The statement should not be construed as blind support for all things al-Qaeda. For similar reasons, Nazir had to declare Uzbek leader Tahir Yuldashev an agent of the CIA, KGB and Mossad before attacking his forces. Such slogans work wonders in the region.
To succeed, Nazir still faces serious challenges. Uzbeks, as indicated above, have supporters among the Mehsud tribesmen in South Waziristan, and some Uzbeks have now shifted to North Waziristan, which is largely out of range for Nazir. Secondly, the Punjabi Taliban component of Nazir’s forces may restart their sectarian killing business as a night job as soon as they succeed in their current task. Moreover, there are no guarantees about how Nazir will start behaving once in complete control of the area. If recent history is any indicator, Maulvi Nazir may be a passing phenomenon, but this overall strategy may open up an avenue for Pakistan to reclaim some of its lost territory.
1. For details about the dynamics of the Wazir tribe and its sub-clans, see Ilyas Khan, “Pakistan’s Tribes: Who is Killing Who?”, BBC, April 5, 2007.
2. Nazir said that although he has never met bin Laden, “if he comes here and wants to live according to tribal traditions, then we can provide protection to him because we support oppressed people.”