Fighting continues in North Waziristan; Shariah law declared in South Waziristan; The worst-case scenario
The Battle of Talibanistan continues to rage. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agency regions of North and South Waziristan have become de facto Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds, despite government attempts to establish control. Throughout the week a series of battles and skirmishes between Taliban and foreign “miscreants”, and Pakistani Army and paramilitary forces have occurred in Miranshah, the regional garrison in North Waziristan, and outlying towns and villages of Mir Ali, Norak and Datakhel.
The Pakistani Army claims to have killed well over 100 Taliban and foreign “miscreants” and destroyed compounds, mosques and madrassa of tribesmen supporting the Taliban. The Taliban is not the only side taking casualties; Pakistan’s Interior Minister claims “At least 120 pro-government leaders and soldiers have been killed in the ongoing operation in North Waziristan tribal agency.” The fighting isn’t as one-sided as the Pakistani Army would want you to believe.
The most disturbing element of the news trickling out from the region relates to the extent of the Taliban’s power in the tribal areas. The London Times provides an account of the fighting from Ashraf Khan, a local who fled the scene of fighting. The Taliban have instituted elements of Shariah law in North Waziristan, and the government of Pakistan is powerless to stop it. In fact, the government was the direct target of the Taliban; “The Taliban were arresting people, government employees or those supporting them, and beheading them. The Army came and we were watching them, they were fighting, they came in Jeeps and helicopters and they were bombing the area.” Ironically, the Pakistanis who fled the fighting crossed into Afghanistan for protection.
In South Waziristan, clerics have usurped the law of the tribes, and openly declared Shariah law. The Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times provides the details:
Tribal clerics announced the enforcement of Sharia (Islamic law) in South Waziristan on Friday, saying that feuds and tribal enmities would now be resolved through Islamic laws instead of the tribal jirga.
Eyewitnesses and tribal elders told Daily Times that the announcement was made during Friday prayer sermons in Wana and other towns of South Waziristan. “We are glad to announce that an Islamic judge will decide cases from now on and not the jirga,” a cleric in Wana was quoted as announcing. The announcement was made following letters from local Taliban commanders to all prayer leaders asking them to enforce Sharia here, a tribal cleric said. “We were under great pressure from the commanders to announce the enforcement of Sharia in Waziristan,” he said.
He said that the announcement effectively “buried” the role of tribal elders, vesting “hand-picked clerics” with absolute power. This will “strengthen the Taliban’s influence in the area”, the cleric said.
The Pakistani government and military can no longer hide the rise of Talibanistan, and this has serious implications for the stabilization of Afghanistan and the reorganization and revitalization of al Qaeda. In an email conversation with Dan Darling, he asks the 800-pound-gorilla-in-the-room question:
For the longest time, the U.S. has regarded (for what I think are good reasons) the problem of al Qaeda in Pakistan as an internal Pakistani issue. One of the questions that I think no one wants to ask but which we may want to is what happens if the Pakistanis are no longer able to handle the problem. While the Pakistani military (particularly the officer corps) is mostly Punjabi and probably won’t have any qualms about suppressing what is essentially an insurrection by Pashtun al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, should those efforts fail (as they did back in 2004 – note that Major General Shaukat Sultan still isn’t ruling out some kind of a negotiated political solution to this latest round of violence) there is sort of the nagging question as far as what the US does then.
None of the options are good. If Pakistan fails to reestablish control in the tribal belt, al Qaeda will have a base of operations, and a ready access to recruits and training facilities – far more so than it currently enjoys today. The U.S. would almost be forced to take direct military action to suppress the growth of al Qaeda. This could include covert and overt ground and air campaigns (I’d wager there are covert hunter-killer teams teamed up with Pakistani ‘scouts’ already).
But this creates an entire new set of potential problems: the possible destabilization of the Musharraf government and nuclear armed Pakistan falling into the hands of the Islamist parties, who are openly sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Any plan for direct military involvement in Talibanistan will need to include a plan to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, lest it fall into the wrong hands. And the United States isn’t the only country concerned about the safety of Pakistan’s nukes. India has a vested interest in assuring the same Islamist parties which fuel the terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir do not possess the power to lite the nuclear match on the subcontinent.