Since the fighting between local militants and foreign guerrillas began in South Waziristan’s capital of Wana and its suburban areas on March 18, more than 160 people have been killed in the violence (Pakistan Times, March 24). The action may well have been generated by internal Pakistani political concerns since it follows the March 12 unrest generated by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to suspend the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, for alleged abuses of office. International pressure may have also been involved, as the conflict erupted following the February 26 visit to Islamabad by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney who reportedly castigated Musharraf for Pakistan’s lack of vigorous progress in its anti-terrorist campaigns in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Many analysts believe that the violence is the direct result of the government’s attempt to prove to Washington that it is serious in clamping down on militant activity in the border regions along the Afghan frontier. There is also the possibility that Pakistan may be pushing the problem of foreign militants out of its territory and into Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials said that the fighting began after pro-Taliban tribesmen discovered the corpse of Saiful Adil, an Arab fighter, who tribesmen suspected of having been murdered by Uzbek militants. “Maulavi Nazir supports the Arabs and suspected that the Uzbeks had murdered Adil,” Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said (Geo TV, March 22). MNA Maulana Mirajuddin, leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl from South Waziristan, subsequently said that the majority of Ahmadzai Wazir tribes had “withdrawn the hospitality” granted to foreign militants since they crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan in November 2001 in the wake of U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (Daily Times, March 25). The conflict erupted following reports on March 8 of the capture of Tahir Yuldashev, co-founder of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who fled to the mountainous Waziristan region following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001 (Geo TV, March 7). Where Yuldashev may have been captured is uncertain, as Kyrgyzstan’s Habar news agency placed the arrest in Afghanistan (Habar, March 8). On March 9, Pakistani Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Vahid Arshad denounced the rumors of Yuldashev’s arrest as false (Ferghana.ru, March 9).
Pakistani army units in the area stayed largely out of the war zone, according to one source, only observing the conflict through binoculars. Islamabad was not unhappy with the outbreak of conflict in southern Waziristan; an official of Pakistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said, “the current shooting means that the local elders finally quarreled with the foreign cutthroats. Without the support of the Pashtuns, the ‘Taliban’ will not last long” (Arba.ru, March 23). It appears likely that Islamabad helped instigate the conflict between the Pashtuns and the foreign Muslim extremists based in Waziristan. Earlier this year, Pakistan’s special services reportedly began to negotiate with the local Pashtun elders, promising that troops would only carry out operations against foreign Islamists. In return, Islamabad told the elders to offer the Uzbeks the option of either returning to Uzbekistan to continue their struggle with Karimov, or to lay down their weapons.
The unrest has provided a possible basis for deepening Pakistani-Uzbek ties; on March 13, for example, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz began a three-day official visit to Uzbekistan, during which he met with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Tashkent to discuss increasing bilateral trade (UzReport.com, March 14).
The military action, however, may have simply displaced the problem, and the situation may grow worse. On March 25, Massoud Ansari, a correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, reported that the Taliban had invited 10,000 IMU guerrillas trapped in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province to cross into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, where 5,000 British soldiers are increasingly besieged by Taliban and al-Qaeda assaults (Daily Telegraph, March 25). Ansari’s figures are far above other estimates of the IMU’s presence in Pakistan, with most analysts placing the IMU guerrillas in Pakistan at 1,000-2,000. If Islamabad has convinced Waziristan’s militants to evict foreign fighters westwards in return to a relative cessation of Pakistani army operations there, then all they have done is shift the problem from Waziristan to one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions, Helmand.
If the Daily Telegraph figures are accurate, then the British troops in Helmand Province, currently numbering about 5,000, are potentially about to meet a battle-hardened force twice their size. The Bush administration’s pressure on Islamabad to resolve the foreign terrorist presence in Pakistan’s northwestern provinces may cause a “surge” of militants into Afghanistan. Many military analysts cite a 10:1 ratio for dealing with guerrillas—under this formula, British resources will be severely stretched by this development, despite having the advantages of air power and better communications. Of course, such a massive redeployment would subject the IMU forces to cross treacherous terrain under ISAF’s total air superiority, decimating their ranks. Should such a movement occur, then observers can expect to see a dramatic jump in the number of press stories about aerial campaigns along the frontier.
As part of this strategy, Pakistan can deflect Washington’s criticism about its policies in its troubled border regions, while building ties to Uzbekistan’s vast natural resources. In a worst case scenario, however, Tashkent must be concerned about the possibility of even a remnant of battle-hardened IMU guerrillas surviving a “long march” back into Afghanistan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan.