The vaunted “Mountain Storm” U.S. spring offensive on the Afghan border with Pakistan and the supporting Pakistani action against tribes believed to be harboring Al-Qaeda on its side of the border in Waziristan has petered out. From “a hammer and anvil” strategy that would have trapped the terrorists between the “hammer” of the Pakistani military action and the “anvil” of the U.S. forces waiting on the other side of the border, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan has become just another routine search for elusive guerrillas, come this summer.
On the Afghan side, the U.S. army has failed to net fleeing terrorists from Waziristan because the Pakistani army, after botched operations in March in South Waziristan, has concluded truce after truce with clans of the powerful Wazir tribe for the peaceful surrender of suspected “foreign terrorists” believed to be harbored by them.
The latest news from a local Reuters correspondent in Wana, the headquarters of the semi-autonomous South Waziristan tribal agency, said that on May 10 the Wazir tribesmen had once again vowed to raise a tribal lashkar, or militia, to hunt Al-Qaeda militants along the Afghan border. This comes after allies of one of the Wazir sub-clans failed to hand over “foreign” fighters to meet a Pakistani government deadline that expired that day. Instead, it was decided by the jirga, or traditional assembly of tribal elders, to meet again on May 11 to decide when to launch their hunt for Al-Qaeda. The same tribal assembly had raised a similar militia in April. It forced local allies of Al-Qaeda to pledge not to launch attacks against the Pakistani army in return for an amnesty.
This “wait-and-see” strategy by Pakistan has frustrated Lieutenant General David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “We have concerns that the Pakistani operation could go in the wrong direction,” he said (AP from Kabul, May 3). He was referring to the frequency of attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan by militants based across the border in both the North and South Waziristan tribal agencies. These areas are peopled largely by the powerful Wazir and Mahsud tribes, who have historically been involved in the making and un-making of Afghan kings on the Kabul throne, and who now number over a million.
As a matter of fact, “frustrated” U.S. forces have crossed over into Pakistan while in hot pursuit of these guerrillas. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported on April 30 that U.S. forces, accompanied by soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA), on April 28 entered the border village of Mir Sperkay in North Waziristan, across from Afghanistan’s restive Khost province. There they distributed leaflets offering rewards for information about Taliban commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his aides. The leaflets were written in Pashtu, the local language, and reportedly offered rewards amounting to US$2,500 and more for information on the whereabouts of Maulvi Haqqani and other Taliban leaders.
There were also accompanying reports that the U.S. troops abused local tribesmen belonging to the Madakhel clan of the Wazir tribe by forcibly searching vehicles and beating up those who resisted.
Such incursions into Pakistani tribal territory in hot pursuit of militants – however practical from the point of view of U.S. troops in Afghanistan – may not bode well for continued cooperation between U.S. forces in Afghanistan and their Pakistani counterparts across the border in the joint campaign against Al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. It may well end up inflaming the volatile Wazir and Mahsud tribesmen in the region, who have been, hitherto, sympathetic to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Further, the active pursuit of former Mujahideen leaders such as Maulvi Haqqani –who valiantly fought for the United States against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — may anger the tribesmen even more. That the United States should now turn against those who fought for them against the common enemy – the Russians, or Shoravi, as they call them – is deeply disturbing to Pashtun tribesmen who value the loyalty of old friendships, even to the extent of sacrificing one’s life for preserving it, if necessary.
Survival for these border tribesman in the no-man’s-land between Afghanistan and Pakistan – through centuries of passage by conquerors from Alexander to the Mughals and the British colonials – has made them wise historically. Coupled with that, they have their social code of Pashtunwali. It includes endless revenge for perceived wrongs and eternal hospitality for fugitives, including mortal enemies. Therefore, demands from the United States or Pakistan to summarily surrender “foreign” terrorists among them is a pretty tall order. Only a compromise – one based on equal and face-saving terms – can win their cooperation in the voluntary surrender of Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders who may have sought refuge with them. That compromise could entail hefty sums of dollars being exchanged and further assurances of supporting their historical independence.