There is trouble in the North Waziristan Tribal Agency on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. This is the territory that the world thought Pakistan’s army was nursing as its post-US withdrawal launching pad for its non-state warriors to control Afghanistan. The army has attacked the warriors everyone thought were exempt from any state reaction to their presence.
The army in fact avenged a suicide-bombing against its troops at a checkpost, killing eight soldiers while they were praying, and killed “more than 30 foreign militants, most of them Uzbeks”. The targeted Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) posted a statement saying “the military responded with an air-and-ground attack after a group of frustrated fighters had bombed a military convoy.” In the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), terrorists and the Pakistan army cohabit under a compact that was broken last month.
The army said the “terrorists” were acting up since September: a total of 67 improvised explosive devices were planted around the checkposts, out of which 27 had exploded, resulting in deaths and injuries to about a hundred men. Immediately after the skirmish, however, the army said it was not an operation, meaning it was not what the world wanted Pakistan to do against elements that do cross-border mischief. Pakistanis who think the army should go in to wipe out this snakepit were disappointed.
The Taliban are there too in the NWA. After their old leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by an American drone, their new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, likely shifted to semi-tribal Dir north of Swat, meaning that, in the NWA, they were put at risk only by the Americans, not Pakistan, whose thousands of civilians and army officers, including generals, they had killed. A growing pro-Taliban community of politicians has not liked the army’s retaliatory attack and is accusing it of having killed innocent non-combatants instead of Taliban or Uzbeks.
Pakistan is juggling a lot of suicidal balls in the air in the NWA: it likes the Haqqani Network which kills inside Afghanistan. It likes militia leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur of the Dawar tribe who too kills in Afghanistan, and tolerates IMU Uzbeks.
Add to that the Taliban and the various non-state actors gathered there, conspiring to overthrow the elected government of Pakistan to proclaim a truly Islamic “emirate”. Clearly, Pakistan is worried about post-withdrawal Afghanistan and not about the coming “emirate” at home. Driven by this strategic myopia, the Pakistan army will not strike the non-state actors killing innocent Pakistanis because its strategic view is frozen on India after the American withdrawal. (Quaintly, Saudi Arabia too is strategically frozen on Iran and will not forgive the US for not invading Syria — knowing full well that Assad’s defeat would mean an al-Qaeda government in Syria determined to crush Saudi Arabia.)
With so many “friends” in the NWA, the army is ensconced in the fort of Miramshah, the capital, and comes out only to “inspect the roads” after clamping curfew — which is when it is attacked. Nearby, Pakistani and American citizens, kidnapped for ransom, cower in the hope of getting rescued by a country “strategically” focused on India.
There are four big hornets in this carefully nurtured nest: the Taliban, the Haqqanis, the Uzbeks and the Punjabi Taliban with sub-groups, all under the umbrella of al-Qaeda. The leader of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is an Afghan Taliban leader who has an “additional” Arab wife and speaks Arabic, which makes him open to Arab funding and interface with al-Qaeda — and adds the Arab factor in Pakistan’s softness towards him.
A military analyst last month explained why Pakistan will not attack the NWA: “If the state were to begin its operation in North Waziristan with the nexus between [Pakistani and Afghan Taliban] intact, the Afghan Taliban are certain to be sucked into the vortex. The state will still succeed [sic] with its immense potential, but would render itself [open] to far greater strategic injury because of the time and effort it will need to give to a resulting consequence.” A safe way of holding out the white hanky on a gun the army is reluctant to fire.
A leader of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party claimed last year the army had told the party’s leadership that an invasion of the NWA had only a 40 per cent chance of success. Pakistan has fallen out with the US because of the latter’s drone attacks on Pakistani territory, over 95 per cent of which have hit targets in the NWA. On the question of drones, Pakistan has an internal political consensus — and some traction with human rights organisations — but is completely isolated politically at the global level.
Pakistan sheltered the Afghan Taliban who have returned love with hatred. Pakistan has a very murky equation with the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda — now collaborative, now hostile — while people are pointing fingers at how the military-dominated deep state got rid of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto through Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud.
Journalist Saleem Shahzad had to die after disclosing that dozens of officers of the Pakistan navy had joined al-Qaeda and that a Kashmir jihad veteran, Ilyas Kashmiri, who had joined al-Qaeda, finally got his terrorists to attack the Mehran naval base in Karachi to get them rescued from the navy’s confinement.
There is more news about the army’s interface with the terrorists — often its strategic instrument. In his book Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (2011), Saleem Shahzad had revealed that Major Haroon Ashiq had defected to al-Qaeda because his brother, Captain Khurram, had earlier joined al-Qaeda and died fighting Nato forces in Helmand in Afghanistan. Haroon languishes in Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, after being acquitted of murdering Major General (Retd) Alavi in Islamabad in 2008 at the behest of al-Qaeda.
Haroon left the army and joined Lashkar-e-Toiba which, he told Shahzad, was an extension of the army. Alienated from the army under Musharraf, he joined Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and thus got closer to al-Qaeda. An al-Qaeda terrorist, Haroon enjoyed contacts inside the army.
Another person hiding today in North Waziristan, which the army will not invade, is an air force officer, Adnan Rasheed. His road to terrorism began with the Tablighi Jamaat, universally thought to be a harmless apolitical proselytising annual rally, and ended within the fold of Jaish-e-Muhammad, whose leader Masood Azhar was sprung from an Indian jail through a swap between him and passengers of an Indian airliner hijacked from Nepal.
Rasheed took his terrorism training at a JeM camp in Mansehra near Abbottabad but was nabbed by the army after an inquiry into the al-Qaeda conversions in the air force. The Taliban bribed his transfer from Rawalpindi jail to a less secure Bannu jail, from where it easily got him freed. This air force officer is now the biggest threat to Pakistan at the head of Ansarul Mujahideen. He broke into the Dera Ismail Khan jail and took away all the Taliban prisoners while killing the Shia inmates.
On December 30, 2013, Lahore-based Dunya TV channel showed the late chief prosecutor of the Federal Investigation Agency saying that he had got close to solving the mystery of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and was going to involve officers from the ISI and military intelligence in the inquiry. On May 3, 2013, Chaudhry Zulfiqar was target-killed in Islamabad by al-Qaeda members, one of whom was the son of a retired brigadier.
The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’