The challenge of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal region is no longer confined to the North and South Waziristan regions along the Afghan border. After establishing their strongholds in Waziristan, militants have recently made deeper inroads in the erstwhile peaceful Mohmand tribal agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. Pro-Taliban militants, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, seem to have made a spectacular surge in Mohmand Agency, where they have tried to force people to pledge to obey Islamic law. Under the Taliban, barbers are threatened not to shave beards, music is banned and women are barred from receiving an education. Worse, like their mentors in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, these fundamentalist militants have also taken the law into their own hands by providing speedy and severe justice in the name of cleansing society from social evils (Dawn [Karachi], October 12, 2007).
More importantly, militants have recently geared up a guerrilla-style war against Pakistani security forces by adopting hit-and-run tactics. Ambushes, remote-controlled bomb explosions and long-range rocket attacks on military checkpoints and government installations have become a routine matter (newsline.com [Pakistan], August 2007). Recent developments clearly indicate that Mohmand Agency is fast becoming another front in the country’s war against terrorism. If not effectively and immediately tamed, there is a growing fear that Mohmand Agency could pose even more serious and dangerous challenges to the embattled Pakistani forces than Waziristan.
On January 14 a convoy of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC)—on its way to regional military headquarters at Ghalanai—came under attack from local militants near Qandharo. Seven soldiers were killed by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as at least six Taliban insurgents, including local commander Faqir Hussain (Dawn, January 14; The Nation [Pakistan], January 15). The ambush came days after the launch of a major FC offensive on January 10. An estimated 100,000 people were driven from their homes in Mohmand Agency by government artillery fire (Daily Times [Lahore], January 10).
Mohmand Agency derives its name from the Mohmand tribe that inhabits this rugged mountainous region with barren slopes along the Afghan border. It is one of the seven tribal agencies that form FATA; the other six are Khyber, Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, South Waziristan and North Waziristan. Mohmand Agency was part of Khyber Agency until 1951 when it was given separate status in FATA; it shares borders with Afghanistan to the west, Khyber Agency to the south, Bajaur Agency to the north, and the Malakand, Charsadda and Peshawar districts of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the east. For administrative purposes the agency is divided into Upper and Lower Mohmand. The latter area is rather fertile, whereas the Upper Mohmand region is comparatively less productive. The entire region has few resources and little infrastructure.
Surge of Militancy
Mohmand Agency has long been known as the calmest and most moderate region in FATA. Over the past few years it has successfully managed to avoid political violence and “Talibanization.” Locals admit that the area has been notorious as a den for criminal outsiders and car thieves because of the absence of police and other law enforcement agencies, but the sudden appearance of gun-brandishing militants on the streets was a rare phenomenon. Unlike other conservative areas of the tribal belt and FATA, women in Mohmand tribes would even work in the fields with the men. All in all, Mohmand remained a peaceful part of the troubled tribal areas until last year (newsline.com, August 2007).
Despite the relative peace that had prevailed until recently, a blend of religious conservatism, a history of struggle against British imperialism and a deep-rooted anti-Americanism makes the area ripe for jihadi recruitment. Banned militant organizations have been actively working in Mohmand and the nearby Charsadda district town of Shabqadar. Two young suicide bombers, Bahar Ali and Aminullah, both hailing from Shabqadar, attacked U.S. and Canadian NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2006 (Inter Press Service, September 15, 2006). The phenomenon has gained currency lately; a young man estimated to be 12-13 years old killed only himself in a futile attack on a FC post at Kapakh Kandao in Mohmand Agency on January 15 (Pakistan Times, January 15; Daily Times, January 16). Two days later a teenage suicide bomber killed twelve in a blast at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar (Daily Times, January 19).
The current wave of militancy in Mohmand Agency is closely linked to the bigger problem of the entire tribal belt, where a tide of Islamic militancy is spreading across and beyond its boundaries, despite the presence of more than 70,000 Pakistani troops and unlikely official claims of progress of flushing out militants from the region. Like other parts of the tribal belt, Mohmand Agency was an inaccessible area for Pakistani troops until June 2003, when Islamabad deployed its soldiers there for the first time to halt the incursion of al-Qaeda fighters from across the border (Dawn, July 1, 2004).
Many analysts believe that Waziristan has been the heart of Islamist militancy since 9/11. However, in order to enlarge their operation zones and escape the military operations of the Pakistan Army in turbulent South Waziristan, local militants and foreign fighters allied with al-Qaeda first took refuge in the rugged Shawal mountains of neighboring North Waziristan. This soon also became another battleground. As a result the main towns of North Waziristan—Miran Shah and Mir Ali—and the surrounding areas witnessed large clashes between Pakistani security forces and militants. Despite this, the militants finally succeeded in establishing a mini-Taliban state in North Waziristan.
The self-styled Taliban operation against bandits in Miran Shah in late 2006 encouraged them to expand their activities in the lawless tribal belt. Mohmand Agency was the next base for local Taliban: a porous frontier with Afghanistan apparently being the main attraction for the militants. The growing influence of the local Taliban was first felt early last year when a group of local militant groups calling themselves Taliban started policing and forcing people in Mohmand to adopt a strict version of sharia. Government silence has exacerbated the situation in the Mohmand region. Local journalists say that the government had ample warning against the looming danger of militancy in the wake of Taliban activities in Waziristan and neighboring Bajaur Agency. All of these fell on deaf ears and the local tribesmen were left with no option but to enter into a so-called peace deal with militants (ANI, May 20, 2007).
Though tribal elders justified the peace deals as an attempt to prevent the Taliban’s interference in their local customs and traditions, the fact remains that such “deals” proved poisonous and provided further chances for militancy to fester in Mohmand Agency. The tribal elders suffered the brunt of the growing influence of Taliban militants, who threatened the elders with death if they continued to cooperate with Islamabad. Militants targeted a jirga of local elders with a bombing in June last year. A note was found at the site of the explosion, warning the tribesmen against supporting the government or holding jirgas against militants. The note, addressed to the tribal elders, read: “You people are infidels and hypocrites. If you don’t stop negotiations with the government and meetings against the Taliban, then explosion(s) will occur in your homes” (Dawn, June 14, 2007).
In late July 2007, at the end of the bloody Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) military operation in the capital of Islamabad, more than 200 militants in Mohmand Agency seized the occasion by storming the shrine of famous anti-British freedom fighter Haji Sahib Turangzai and taking over the adjacent mosque in the Ghazi Abad village, some 25 miles north of Ghalanai, Mohmand Agency headquarters. The militants re-named the mosque Lal Masjid in a show of solidarity, noting that Ghazi Abad was the place Haji Sahib had started his anti-colonial jihad. The group, identified as local Taliban, was led by one Umar Khalid, a previously unknown figure who suddenly grabbed the attention of local as well as international media when he declared: “We want to take forward the missions of Haji Turangzai and the Red Mosque’s slain khateeb (preacher), Ghazi Abdul Rashid” (Daily Times, July 29, 2007; BBC Urdu Online, July 31, 2007).
Leadership and Objectives
So far, Umar Khalid continues to be the dominant Taliban leader in Mohmand Agency. There are no other prominent names in the rank and file of the militants operating in the area. Umar Khalid, in his early thirties, is a local tribesman of Qandharo town; he also belongs to the Qandharo sub-tribe of the Safi, a Mohmand Agency tribe closely related to the Mohmand tribe. Khalid received his early education in his ancestral village and then could not continue further studies. In his early youth he became connected with the banned militant organization Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, where he underwent military training and also participated in the Kashmir insurgency. Khalid is said to have stronger connections with Kashmiri jihadi groups than with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. However, as a veteran of the Kashmir jihad, he went to Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight alongside the Taliban and hundreds of other fellow tribesmen against the U.S. invasion. Locals say that he was waiting for the right time to strike back and the Red Mosque operation gave him the chance to rise to prominence.
Like most of the militant commanders operating in the tribal region of Pakistan, Khalid is media-friendly, with a spokesman, Abu Nauman Asakar, to release his statements and contact the media regarding developments taking place in Mohmand Agency. Surprisingly, he is always happy to be photographed or filmed—something most of the militant commanders operating in the tribal region avoid in the fashion of reclusive Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Umar. Khalid has made his objective very clear: implementation of sharia in Pakistan, no matter the cost (BBC Urdu Online, July 1, 2007).
Khalid is representing his agency in the newly formed Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan), headed by Baitullah Mehsud, the most dangerous militant commander in South Waziristan. He claims to have more than 3,000 fighters with him. Local journalists say that most of his fighters are either young men from the area or outsiders from other parts of the country, mostly belonging to banned militant organizations operating in Kashmir.
On the surface, the rising militancy in Mohmand Agency may not yet be as big a crisis as in Waziristan, but Mohmand Agency is also not as remote as Waziristan; Peshawar is only 30 minutes from the border and reports are beginning to emerge of insurgent activity extending toward the NWFP capital. In an alarming development earlier this month, five missiles struck the army barracks at Warsak, a suburb of Peshawar. Officials determined that the rockets were fired from the Michni area of Mohmand Agency (Pakistan Times, January 8; Dawn, January 9). There are few signs that decision-makers in Islamabad understand how dire the situation has become. The steady march of pro-Taliban militants in Mohmand Agency could easily spill over into the heart of the NWFP. For this reason there are growing concerns that Taliban activities in Mohmand Agency might only be the early symptoms of yet another serious threat to the internal security of Pakistan.