Marching into a minefield

Print edition : May 07, 2004

Tribal families fleeing their homes, near Wana, South Waziristan, as Pakistani troops intensified their hunt for Al Qaeda members. - MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

Pakistan's military campaign in the tribal area in the northwest apparently has an important goal apart from presenting George Bush with a top Al Qaeda leader in an election year - to demarcate finally its nebulous border with Afghanistan.

PAKISTAN'S ongoing military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in South Waziristan, one of the country's seven semi-autonomous federally administered tribal areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, has a twofold objective. It is an attempt to "pay back" the United States for turning a blind eye to the revered atomic scientist A.Q. Khan's confession in February on the proliferation of nuclear equipment and secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, for which he was swiftly pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf.

But more crucially, the assault is an effort to extend Islamabad's control over the turbulent, rugged and mountainous tribal region. Populated by over six million warring Pathans, FATA has remained fiercely independent for centuries but is currently simmering with discontent.

Musharraf admitted as much in a current affairs programme on state-run television recently. He said that while the hunt for Al Qaeda was important, Islamabad's basic intention was to "integrate" the tribal areas into Pakistan.

Security sources claim that Musharraf's bold but dangerous gamble of mobilising thousands of soldiers, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships for the assault in South Waziristan is intended not only to deliver a "high value" Al Qaeda leader to the U.S. in an election year, but also to initiate the process of militarily controlling the 1,000-km-long FATA belt, with a view to demarcating eventually Islamabad's nebulous frontier with Afghanistan.

Dominating the FATA, were it ever to become possible given its violent history and seeming invincibility, would help Musharraf's besieged military regime prevent the re-emergence of the long-standing demand for Pakhtunistan, an independent Pathan homeland. This territory is broadly envisaged as consisting of the seven tribal territories, the adjoining Pathan-dominated region in Afghanistan to the north and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and portions of neighbouring Baluchistan to the south and southeast. Pakistani military officials declared recently that around 70,000 troops have been deployed in and around the FATA, the NWFP and Baluchistan with the ostensible aim of combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But the Durand Line, the unformulated demarcation between Pakistan and Afghanistan drawn arbitrarily in 1893 by Colonel Durand and casually agreed to by Afghanistan's ruler Amir Abdur Rehman, has kept alive the Pushtunistan issue which, if ignited, could become a veritable nightmare for the region. This "line in the sand" merely satisfied the colonial bureaucratic craving to define the boundaries of the British Empire so that the tribal areas formed the buffer between the "settled" British territories of the NWFP and adjoining Punjab State and Afghanistan should Tsarist Russia move on Kabul.

The Afghan Border Police patrol a stretch of road in the Checkpoint Number 4 area near Khost, 2 km from the Pakistan border on April 3.-EMILIO MORENATTI/AP

But the tenuous border failed to divide the Pathans or stifle their desire for independence, which, despite frequent intra-tribal feuds, has survived until today. Belonging to over 80 tribes, the Pathans are a semi-nomadic people with over 15 million of them living in Pakistan, including the tribal areas, and around 11 million in Afghanistan. And though Pathan tribes and sub-clans are forever in conflict with one another, they invariably unite when faced with a larger threat like the one posed at present by Musharraf's forces.

Being Afghanistan's majority community, the Pathans had dominated their country for centuries until after the Taliban's ouster following the 9/11 attacks. Thereafter, their role and power were eclipsed by the northern Tajiks, further fuelling Pashtun resentment, much to Pakistan's chagrin.

"As insurance against an unsympathetic government in Kabul, Gen. Musharraf is keen on firming up the Durand Line and establishing a military presence in the FATA as he can ill-afford a (Pathan) insurrection on his western front," a Western intelligence officer said. In the Kashmir dispute, Pakistan hopes to gain territory. But on the Pashtun issue, it eventually stands to lose it if it does not defuse the brewing crisis in time, he added, declining to be named.

Realising the seriousness of the Pashtun issue, Musharraf has bought peace with nuclear rival India on the eastern front by entering into negotiations with New Delhi earlier this year on a range of issues including Kashmir. This allowed him the tactical space to redeploy a substantial chunk of his military on the Afghan frontier. Musharraf is also concerned about the deteriorating relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and with India's burgeoning political, economic, strategic and diplomatic profile in Afghanistan.

Kabul blames Islamabad not only for foisting the Taliban upon it in the late 1990s but also for encouraging its interference once again in Afghan affairs. Security analysts feel that this long-running antagonism makes Kabul unwilling to give up its leverage in Pakistan's tribal areas and move towards defining its borders with Pakistan.

India, on the other hand, has long aimed at squeezing Pakistan by supporting Afghanistan and was one of the few countries not to have condemned the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

The military and financial support India provided to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, however, has led to handsome dividends. Other than humanitarian, medical, telecommunication, banking and transport assistance and help with infrastructural development, India had also pledged $270 million in aid to Afghanistan as part of its overall strategic thrust to "encircle" Pakistan. It is also training Afghan military and police officers in its academies and helping modernise the fledging Afghan Army. In short, India has become a major player in Afghan affairs.

The Pakistani Army's "offensive" in the tribal areas began last year, ostensibly under pressure from the United States, when the Pakistani Army stationed troops in the region for the first time to win the "hearts and minds" of the locals by building hospitals and schools in the austere, barren terrain where life is harsh and unforgiving, might is right, and violence a way of life.

After 9/11 Al Qaeda militants and Taliban members fleeing the U.S. attack settled in the region, occasionally conducting guerilla raids against American forces in Afghanistan. Earlier, over 10,000 FATA tribesmen, many of them Wazirs, had crossed over into Afghanistan and fought the U.S. forces alongside the Taliban.

Several thousand were killed and at least 2,000 were captured. But the Taliban's ouster with Pakistan's cooperation bred resentment amongst the tribal Pathans, who have remained restive ever since, causing Islamabad to reassess seriously its tribal area policy.

The Pathan homeland movement, tacitly supported by a Kabul hostile towards Pakistan for several decades now, threatened the country's existence until the mid 1970s. Diplomatic tension, following Kabul's growing relations with Moscow during this period, led Afghanistan to stress that the Durand Line was never intended to be a boundary, but merely a "delineated zone of responsibility" to help the colonial administration maintain law and order.

Afghanistan's assertion that the Durand Line was negotiable along ethnic lines was a stand Pakistan remained unwilling to concede, especially after losing East Pakistan, which broke away with India's military help in 1971, to become Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the growing Pathan discontent in the NWFP, the FATA and the Pashtun-majority parts of northern Baluchistan, was cleverly defused in the late 1970s by the astute Pakistani military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. He inducted Pathans, including those from the tribal regions, into the political mainstream, the military and the civil service, giving them a stake in the power structure that they had lacked earlier.

Fortuitously for Zia, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 and overnight the FATA, especially South Waziristan, and its ever-restive Pathans, who even Alexander the Great could not subdue, became the front line for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed and Pakistan-managed decade-long guerilla war, which ended with Moscow's withdrawal from Kabul in 1989.

During the 1980s, the border territories were the main transit point for the supply of weaponry worth nearly $5 billion to the mujahideen (Islamic warriors). Many of these weapons filtered through to the local people and are being employed against the Pakistani Army in the current stand-off in which dozens of soldiers and civilians have died.

But arms smuggling, fighting the Soviet Army and the large sums of CIA money that were distributed amongst them appeased the tribal people who continued to produce heroin from opium harvested in the region and smuggle it out with help from the Pakistani military. For the moment Pathan aspirations, which had changed little over centuries, had been met.

After the Soviet Union's departure from Kabul, the Pakistani military and the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), which jointly managed the "unholy" Afghan campaign, began pursuing a `forward' policy in Afghanistan that further underlined Pathan importance. Pakistan planned to gain "control" of war-torn Afghanistan with the aim of providing itself the `strategic depth' it lacked against India. Zia and his Islamist generals were the architects of this bold strategy, which the U.S. tacitly endorsed by "sub-contracting" Afghanistan to Pakistan after it left the region in 1989. But neither side had the prescience of how future events would unfold.

"Securing" Kabul also had the added strategic benefit of allowing Pakistan to shift the bulk of its military eastwards to the Kashmir frontier to allow the ISID to launch armed lashkars or militants in order to fuel the insurgency raging in the disputed province. Pakistan has tacitly admitted to fuelling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, which has claimed over 60,000 lives since it erupted in December 1989, nine months after the Soviet withdrawal from Kabul.

To "control" Kabul, Pakistan began nurturing the Taliban in the early 1990s in hundreds of madrassas (Islamic seminaries) across the country, which preached a militant brand of fundamentalism. Alongside, the ISID and the Pakistani Army-trained talibs (students), mostly Pathans, to form a militia. In 1996 Pakistan helped the Taliban seize Kabul through a combination of Trojan horse tactics and bribery - common to all Afghan campaigns - and limited military engagements. Thereafter, Islamabad continued to provide its surrogates all logistic support until 9/11.

Under sustained U.S. bombing after 9/11, conducted with overt Pakistani support, the Taliban was ousted by end 2001. This enraged the Pathans, who have close tribal and clan loyalties to the Taliban, besides business links that revolved around smuggling heroin, commercial and consumer goods, electronic items and hawala, the untraceable but highly efficient transfer of money around the world without using banks.

Pathan resentment mounted, making it incumbent for Musharraf to try and secure his western flank, a move security officials said was akin to "stirring up a hornet's nest" from which even the colonial administration had walked away, accepting the reality that it was impossible to either subjugate, quell or even pacify the untamed region.

As an indicator of future events, Waziri tribesmen had already launched a guerrilla campaign against the Pakistani military, ambushing convoys unfamiliar with the terrain and unused to fighting Pashtuns, and killing several soldiers. "President Musharraf is playing with fire," former tribal areas head and Pakistan's Cabinet Secretary Roedad Khan wrote in the newspaper Dawn. He blames Musharraf for "unsettling" Pakistan's western border that has remained largely peaceful since Independence in 1947.

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