The Taliban’s internecine war in Waziristan

Tahir Yuldashev in 2006, with al Qaeda’s al rayah, or black banner, in the background.

The Uzbek-Taliban fighting isn’t what the Pakistani government wants you to believe

The Pakistani government continues to push the fiction that the fighting in South Waziristan is between tribes loyal to the government and ‘foreign fighters’ – namely Uzbek al Qaeda. We’ve noted from day one that the fighting is actually an internecine war over land and power between Uzbek al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, and Taliban who support al Qaeda. Two articles, one in Adnkronos International and another in The News provides further evidence the battles in Waziristan are related to an internal power struggle, and not indicative of the success of the Waziristan Accord, as the Pakistani government would like for you to believe.

First, it is instructive to look at how the Pakistani government is characterizing the fighting in South Waziristan. The Nation echoes the standard Pakistan line concerning the meaning of the fighting in South Waziristan,which has promulgated throughout the Western press. “Islamabad says the offensive by about 1,000 conservative local tribesmen will cut cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, and shows the success of a peace deal in the South Waziristan Agency that was criticised by the West… Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told reporters in Islamabad that the clashes are ‘the result of the agreements the government made with tribal people in which they pledged to expel foreigners and now they are doing it.'”

The Pakistani government has also been inflating casualties from the fighting in South Waziristan. “Forty-four Uzbek, Chechen and Arab militants were killed on Wednesday along with seven tribesmen in heavy rocket and mortar clashes, the mountainous region’s top administrator Hussainzada Khan,” told AFP.” The death toll grows daily. “‘Around 200 foreign militants have been killed since the start of the fighting and the overall figure including local tribesmen is around 250,’ Sherpao said, updating an earlier toll of about 200 dead overall.”

Yet the Pakistani press has been cautious and is mentioning the casualties cannot be confirmed. It is interesting to note that both the Uzbeks and Nazir’s Taliban claim the casualties are far, far lower than what the government reports. An earlier report by the Pakistani government of over 50 deaths was knocked down to 11 by the Taliban and Uzbeks. A problem here is none of the actors are reliable for information. The number of Uzbek casualties alone should ring an alarm, as an estimated 500 Uzbeks are believed to have settled in South Waziristan.

Why They Fight

Adnkronos International and The News present the reasons for the fighting between the Uzbeks (backed by the Taliban) and the Taliban (backed by Arab al Qaeda). This is essentially an internal conflict fueled by tribal rivalries, the Uzbek’s murder of al Qaeda agents, a disagreement in strategic priorities, and land. The combination of these factors gave Mullah Nazir the green light to fight.

A Taliban power struggle: A Taliban commander known as Maulavi Omar (or Mullah Omar – but not the Mullah Omar) assumed command of the Ahmadzai Wazir after the death of Nek Mohammed in 2004. Mullah Omar supported the presence of the Uzbeks. Last year, Omar was replaced by Mullah Nazir, who currently opposes the presence of the Uzbeks. There is an intra-tribal rivalry between Omar, who belongs to one of the most powerful subclans, and Nazir, who belongs to the weakest.

The Uzbeks began killing Arab al Qaeda: When the Uzbeks began to target al Qaeda operatives in the region, the “The Taliban and their supporters in Waziristan had begun to realise that Uzbeks were turning into a liability because of their alleged involvement in target-killings,” notes AKI. “The most prominent name to come up was that of Saiful Asad.”

Another Arab killed by the Uzbeks was Sheikh Asadullah, “a widely respected Saudi” who was described as “the moneybags in the entire tribal belt.” Asadullah replaced “Ahmad Saeed Abdur Rehman Khadr Al Kanadi, an Egyptian-born Canadian known for being a conduit for finances to al Qaeda affiliates,” who was killed in 2004. Asadullah’s “tribal companion,” or liaison, was one of Nazir’s lieutenants, and he claimed Asadullah was murdered by Uzbeks.

To put Al Kanadi into perspective, he had worked with al Qaeda since 1988 and was said to have been Osama Bin Laden’s closer associates. “Mr. Khadr is a key figure in the Canadian al Qaeda network. He uses the alias al-Kanadi, or the Canadian, and is designated by the United Nations as a high-ranking al Qaeda member. He has not been seen since the Sept. 11 attacks but two of his Canadian sons, Omar and Abdul, were captured in Afghanistan, where they were fighting with al Qaeda.” Al Kanadi was operating with Nazir prior to being killed in 2004.

Uzbeks want to fight near enemy, Taliban the far: “The Uzbeks, particularly the ones led by Qari Tahir, were seen as a liability in view of their reluctance to fight the Taliban’s “jihad” against the US forces in Afghanistan” notes AKI. “The tribal militants soon realised this group was more interested in fighting Pakistan on its own turf. The argument used by the Uzbeks was that ‘jihad against hypocrites’ [the Pakistani government] takes precedence over ‘jihad against infidels’ [the West in Afghanistan].”

The Taliban, backed by Nazir, who adamantly supports fighting against the West in Afghanistan and elsewhere, began to realize the Uzbeks attacks against the Pakistani government would draw undo attention on the Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens in South Waziristan. The Pakistani government, much like the Saudi government, has been more than happy to turn a blind eye on the activities in the tribal areas just as long the energies are directed outwards towards Afghanistan, Kashmir or India.

A Land Grab: The tribal areas are essentially set up as a feudal society, with land being a key component to local power. The News explains. “A senior journalist, Mobarak Ali, who has been interviewing Taliban and Mahsud/Wazir elders over the weekend in Tank and Waziristan, said: ‘I have heard of the Uzbeks and Tajiks holding large properties of which some were bought, some gifted by the local people who entered into relations with them, while some were taken forcibly.'”

“The properties they acquired were gradually developed into model farms. This became the bone of contention between the settlers and the locals. The locals, including those dealing with the foreigners, played protectors of the Uzbeks and Tajiks against those who were allegedly trying to malign them.”

“Bad Uzbeks” are the target; “Good Uzbeks” and al Qaeda are free to operate in the tribal areas

As we noted on April 3, while “Wazir tribesmen have declared a ‘jihad’ against Uzbeks and their local supporters in South Waziristan. Arab al Qaeda are not included.” The News echoes this sentiment. “One needs to understand that it is an Uzbek-only tribal campaign, targeting the so-called ‘Bad Uzbeks’. The ‘Good Uzbek’ are clearly not the target. The same goes for other foreign militants.”

While the reporting is indicating the fighting is against all the Uzbeks led by Tahir Yuldashev, the commander of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), this is not accurate. There was a split within the IMU in 2004, when the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) broke free under the leadership of Najmiddin Jalolov, yet the two groups are being lumped together. This can largely be attributed to the local Pakistani tribesmen and Taliban who do not distinguish between the Uzbeks, Chechens, Tajiks, Turkmen and others of Central Asian heritage who make up the IMU and IJG.

The Yuldashev faction of the IMU has closely aligned itself with al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yuldashev himself is believed to sit on the Mujahideen Shura Council, maintains tactical control of forces in Pakistan and his fighters serve as members of the Black Guard, Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguard. He has close relationships with both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. The “Good Uzbeks” consist of Yuldashev and his IMU, who are adhering to the strategy of fighting the ‘far enemy’ in Afghanistan. The IMU is estimated to have approximately 500 fighters [page 200].

The Islamic Jihad Group, which like the IMU is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity, are primarily focused on fighting the ‘near enemy’ – the local governments in central Asia, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and others. The IJG are the “Bad Uzbeks” being hunted by Nazir’s Taliban and tribal Lashkars.

Far from Anbar

The Pakistani government has masterfully seized upon this opportunity to claim Nazir’s Taliban are actually pro government tribals, much like the Anbar Salvation Council has emerged as a force in Iraq’s violent Anbar province. This argument has been accepted uncritically by the Western press, and has begun to filter into certain factions within the U.S. government.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As Nazir’s relationships with Arab al Qaeda operatives Saiful Asad, Sheikh Asadullah and Khadr Al Kanadi demonstrates, Nazir is in bed with al Qaeda. He does not seek to eject the Arab contingents from his tribal areas. Nazir and other Taliban are accepting Pakistani government support to fight a tribal war and eject a small faction of the Islamic Jihad Group from the tribal areas. The very fact that senior Taliban commanders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Sirajuddin Haqqani were called in to broker a ceasefire shows who is respected and holds sway in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government is gladly providing the aid and political cover to promote the fiction that ‘peace deals’ like the Waziristan Accord are working. In doing so, they are backing the Taliban, which is in league with Al Qaeda.

While there is value in the infighting between the Taliban tribes and the Uzbeks – the fighting will weaken the organizations in the short term – the reality is the long term impact from the Taliban and al Qaeda’s perspective is insignificant. This fighting is the equivalent of an internal mafia war – in the end a family rises to the top and the criminal enterprise continues.

The real danger is that this fighting will be viewed as proof future Waziristan Accords are sustainable, and remove Western pressure on the Musharraf regime not to make these deals. More ‘peace agreements’ will then be cut and will provide the Taliban and al Qaeda with more safe havens to train, arm and operate, and allow them to establish a firmer foothold in the nuclear armed Pakistani state.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • ECH says:

    The covenant signed by the tribes of the Anbar Awakening in September, 2006, states that killing an American in Anbar is no different then killing a tribal member.
    The Anbar Salvation Council actually has more moderate leadership then much of the Sunni Arab leadership in parliment.
    To compaire Shiek Sattar’s organization with these scum is laughable.

  • RTLM says:

    Looks like a civil war to me.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 04/06/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • Looks like a great opportunity for a combined SOF/ANA Pashto-fluent pseudo-gang to start a red on red bloodbath. Badal could be made to work for US for a change.
    At least some Pashtuns have become less hospitable to their “guests,” which means melmastia can be circumvented under the right circumstasnces.
    There are fissures here that could be widened into breeches by fluent and culturally-sensitive snake-eatin’, knuckle-draggin’, airborne ethnologists.

  • crosspatch says:

    There still seems to be a major piece missing out of this puzzle. I don’t think things are as the Pakistani press would portray them to be, neither do I think that Bill has it exactly right either, though he does expose more of the pieces in play than the press seems willing to. There is still a major “something” missing out of this picture that I can’t quite put my finger on but it isn’t adding up.
    My gut instinct, though, is that major something that is missing out of this picture may not be a bad thing. I don’t see these developments as scary, really, but more in the “interesting” category. Of course there might not be one overall “big” piece either, it could be a lot individual small pieces having to do with unique problems with individual tribes. That would be a good thing to if we (and by ‘we’ I mean anyone not Taliban) are finally approaching each of the tribes and groups as individuals with their own set of problems, needs, wants, personalities, etc. rather than approaching them as one overall group.

  • The Taliban’s internecine war in Waziristan

    Courtesy of The Fourth Rail:
    The Uzbek-Taliban fighting isn’t what the Pakistani government wants you to believe
    The Pakistani government continues to push the fiction that the fighting in South Waziristan is between tribes loyal to the govern…

  • Thanos says:

    Bill’s right about the government overplaying this, but the fight is real, and it wasn’t originally started by Nazir, however he’s been very adept at twisting the form and taking the lead as Al Qaeda always has been. From my counts in various stories and collating, there are between 150 and 200 Uzbek / Taliban fatalities, and 30 – 50 Taliban / Tribal fatalities.
    Sherin Jan was killed in the fighting overnight Friday in Pakistan after calling for government support. The Army has moved in, I suspect they will stay bivouaced to protect the villages while the Taliban led tribals do the real hunting of the Uzbeks over the border, closest being Afhanistan to the East.
    While this is bad, it’s not all bad. Note: I tend to have more optimism than most.

  • Thanos says:

    Crosspatch: the thing missing is leadership from Musharaaf — in the background the political infighting in Pakistan is just as active. That’s why we see a few long buried feuds erupting, such as the Sunni / Shia incidents in Kashmir last month, and the Parachinar incidents yesterday.
    Musharaaf’s got the Chief Justice thing going on, delicate peace talks touching on Siachen with India, the elections looming in October, and the Jamia Hafsa / Lal Masjid problem. Musharaaf’s keeping a very low profile atm, and eventually this will get to the point where indecision becomes a decision in itself.

  • RE: The number and make-up of the IMU
    I’m quite skeptical of the sources that claim that IMU elements in Waziristan include some Chechens and Turkmen. Although the fact that the Pakistanis are picking up radio chatter in Russian (lingua franca in Central Asia) probably means that not everybody associated with the IMU is an Ferghana valley Uzbek farmboy.
    My guesstimate is under 200 IMU fighters in Waziristan.

  • The Pakistan Paradox
    The Islamic conservatives, who tend to be pro, or at least neutral, towards Islamic terrorists, are needed to keep the generals in power (and safe from prosecution during those years when elected officials are allowed to run, and plunder, the country). But the madrasses continue to turn out new Islamic terrorists, who want to turn the country into a religious dictatorship.


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