Is the Taliban in control in Waziristan? Pakistan’s influence in the tribal belt is tenuous at best.
Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s control of its western tribal belts has been a source of persistent concern for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The radical Taliban movement, al Qaeda’s ally and host government, was spanned in the Pakistan’s Pashtun dominated tribal belt, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Area districts of North and South Waziristan. The writ of the Pakistani government is at its weakest along the remote, rugged and mountainous border with Afghanistan.
During the American assault on the Taliban during the fall of 2001, the Pakistani government began to move forces to seal the border, however al Qaeda cleverly masterminded an assault on the Indian Parliament, which diverted the attention of the Pakistani military to the eastern border with India. Al-Qaeda nearly engineered a full-scale war on the subcontinent between two nuclear-armed nations with a long history of animosity and open warfare. They successfully created a diversion for Pakistan’s military.
In the spring of 2004, with the very real threat of war with India receding and under pressure from the United States, Pakistan initiated an offensive in Waziristan aimed at routing out al Qaeda. It is difficult to ascertain the results of the fighting or the current situation in the tribal areas as foreign journalists and Non-Governmental Organizations are prohibited from the region. By all accounts, the offensive was at best a draw and at worst a defeat for the Pakistani Army. Official casualties [deaths] are slated at around 200, while unofficial counts place them upwards of 800. Pakistan was able to kill Taliban leader Nek Mohammed, however was forced to sign a truce with the Taliban fighters. This truce has been repeatedly broken by the Taliban-friendly tribes, with little to no consequences.
U.S., NATO and Afghan militaries have had successes fighting the Taliban within the Afghan borders, however Taliban support continues to flow through the porous border with Pakistan. The United States has been relegated to conducting cross border strikes at high-value al Qaeda and Taliban leaders when intelligence arises. Haitham al-Yemeni was killed in such a strike, as were Abu Khabab al-Masri and four other senior al Qaeda operatives.
Further reports emerge that indicate Waziristan is a haven for al Qaeda. Following on the heels of Syed Saleem Shahzad’s article on the creation of the “Islamic Republic of Waziristan”, Newsday states the region is “Where the Taliban still rule.”
The recent upsurge in fighting in Afghanstan certainly lends credence to this theory. Just this week, Afghani security forces seized 700 bombs and related materials being smuggled into the country from Pakistan. A cross border strike from U.S. military mortar teams killed two Pakistani tribals in North Waziristan, and Forty-one Pakistanis were arrested in Zabul on charges of inciting violent protests over the Mohammed cartoons. The Pakistanis were led by a Saudi. And the recent video taped in Waziristan is planned on being distributed widely in Asia and the Middle East to boost recruiting for the Taliban.
However, in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri intimates that while Pakistan’s tribal belt is the main base of operations for al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistani security forces are indeed engaged in the area; “the real danger [to al Qaeda] comes from the agent Pakistani army that is carrying out operations in the tribal areas looking for mujahideen.” The arrest of Abu Farraj al-Libbi and Abu Musab al-Suri are attributed to Pakistani security forces operating in the North West Frontier Province.
Pakistan’s position in the Federally Administered Tribal Area & North West Frontier Province is probably best described as tenuous at best. It be believed the Pakistani military is holed up in forward operating bases in the cities of Wana and Miramshah, and their patrols are under constant attack. Pakistani intelligence is leveraging assets in the region (the strike in Damadola is likely the direct result of such intelligence operations) however the federal troops do not exercise real control. The situation is likely a push – with neither the Pakistani government or al Qaeda and the Taliban in complete control, which in a sense is a victory for the terrorists.
The fact that Pakistan must repeatedly address concerns with the border, and that the U.S. must conduct cross border strikes in lieu of active Pakistani operations gives a good picture of just how chaotic the situation on the border is. The U.S. would not have to “violate” Pakistan’s sovereign borders and work deals with Pakistani intelligence if the Pakistani government exercised reasonable control in the tribal belt.