Part 1: Besieged in
SHAWAL, Pakistan - A star
shines crystal-clear in the pitch black sky over the mud
fort of the chief of the Shawal tribes. But the people
in this remote region in the Federally Administered
Tribal Region of North Waziristan in Pakistan, 9,000
feet above sea level, are not impressed: they are
convinced that the star is in fact a US satellite, and
that it's keeping a beady eye on them in preparation for
the next battle.
This correspondent reached the
residence of Chief Zarma Jan at dusk, and was treated to
a lavish dinner in the annex of his mud fort. During the
meal, the chief's green eyes reflected an ocean of worries, and he spoke
constantly in a hushed Pashtun dialect with the senior
cleric of the area, Maulana Salahuddin, who was sitting
close to him.
Subsequently, after the conclusion
of the fifth prayers of the day (no later than 9.30pm) ,
at which time most Muslims in the area go to bed to be
fresh for the first prayers of the next day at 5am,
Zarma Jan remained huddled with the misharans
(leaders) of the Shawal tribes deep into the night. The
next morning they joined us after breakfast, but one
could see that they were still seriously preoccupied.
An accompanying friend from the area explained:
"Things are getting serious here. Zarma Jan is in deep
trouble as Islamabad has demanded that he either produce
some wanted tribesmen who are believed to be sheltering
Taliban and al-Qaeda people, and who are also believed
to have been involved in the killing of a major of the
Pakistan army, or produce himself for arrest."
Spotlight on Shawal
authorities are convinced that at least three important
"high value targets" are holed up in the Shawal area.
However, the "Shawal" the US authorities refer to is
about 10 kilometers from the Pakistani Shawal area,
across the border in Afghanistan.
Shawal area comprises about 25 square kilometers, in
which are jammed at least 17 mountains, separated by
narrow valleys. Due to its inhospitable nature, the area is in
effect a no-man's land.
It is here that US
authorities believe about 500 Arab, Chechen, Uzbek and
Chinese Muslim fighters have formed a base, from which
they carry out attacks on US targets in the eastern
Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
The last known video footage of Osama bin Laden
and his deputy Dr Aiman al-Zawahir, shot in 2003, is
thought to have been made in this Shawal area, due to
the unique nature of the vegetation shown in the video.
The masters of the Afghan Shawal are the people
of the Data Khail and Zaka Khail tribes. They have a
long history of defiance and have never capitulated to
any intruder. The tribesmen are as tough as the terrain,
and they have been known for centuries for their strong
bonds of loyalty, such that "even an enemy who requests
shelter would be given it". These two tribes are now the
protectors of the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters based in
Shawal. These tribes are also found across the border in
the Pakistani Shawal.
But the Pakistani Shawal
area, too, is under suspicion. Obviously, it is possible
to travel on foot between the two Shawals, albeit with
extreme difficulty as there are no easy routes. Officials
therefore believe that fugitives might also use the
Pakistani Shawal area as a base as it is not nearly as
rugged as the Afghan territory and offers better
opportunities to replenish stocks. Hence the ultimatum
to Zarma Jan, and the US pressure on Islamabad to
conduct military operations there as soon as possible.
Although Zarma Jan is from the Baka Khail tribe, he is
chief of all Shawal tribes and is being asked to
use his influence to help "smoke out" suspects.
Dynamics of the Shawal area
Shawal has long been a natural sanctuary for rebels.
Faqir Api, a Pashtun legend in the freedom movement
against the British Raj and later against the Pakistan
army, had his headquarters in a Shawal valley just five
kilometers from the present chief of Shawal's residence.
In the past 50 years, as the population of
Shawal has grown, the residents have turned more to
agriculture, hewing fields into the hills and valleys.
At present, Shawal produces apples, apricots and other
fruit, and its different valleys are named after fruit -
such as Mana (Apple).
After September 11, 2001,
a brigade of the Pakistan army for the first time
entered the Shawal area to secure the border against
Northern Alliance soldiers across in Afghanistan. Local
tribes welcomed them. The army even laid some
rudimentary tracks. Yet in the winter, the land still
becomes completely impassable, and Shawal residents move
to their second houses in nearby Bannu city.
Across the border, the Afghan Shawal presents a
massive military headache to the US, with its tight
valleys and numerous mountains. There is no way that US
or Pakistani troops could enter in any numbers as they
would be easily trapped. The only real options are to
saturate the area with massive "daisy cutter" bombs, or
enlist the help of local tribes. The former choice, as
proved by the US bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in
Afghanistan in 2002 in an attempt to catch bin Laden, is
not likely to succeed in rooting out fugitives from
their maze of nooks and crannies.
the tribes. On the instructions of Islamabad, a tribal
lashkar (group) was formed in Pakistan's Shawal
and given the task to arrest all Taliban, al-Qaeda and
Afghan resistance figures. However, Islamabad (like the
US) is not satisfied with the performance of the
laskhar , and the tribal leaders now feel that
the Pakistani army will take matters into its own hands.
A chief speaks out
For the first time,
the chief of the Shawal tribes, Zarma Jan, spoke to a
correspondent from outside the Pakistani tribal belt.
Times Online: The Pakistan army is now
stationed in some areas of the Shawal. Is this with your
permission, or has it been imposed on you?
Traditionally, the Shawal has been associated with
Afghanistan. Our elders
were title holders in Afghan courts. My father, Colonel
Habib Jan, was given the honorary position of colonel by
the former king, Zahir Shah, and he received the salary
of a full colonel from the Afghan court. However, I
chose to be a Pakistan citizen, and we love our armed
forces. After September 11, 2001, we felt that our
borders were vulnerable because of the Northern
Alliance, and the growing Indian influence. Therefore,
we happily allowed the Pakistan armed forces to
establish their check posts in Shawal. But this was
conditioned with a few terms, such as that they would
not interrupt the custom-free trade links between
Afghanistan and the tribal areas, and they would respect
our tribal traditions. At the same time, they were also
supposed to develop the infrastructure in the area for
schools, hospitals and communications.
ATol: What about the allegations of the
presence of foreign fighters in the Shawal?
We do not know about this.
But it is widely believed that a few tribes (Shawal
tribes on both sides of the border fall under Zarma
Jan's jurisdiction) have given sanctuary to foreign
Jan: If this is so, the
government should point out to us who has given them
protection. Then we would question these tribes. We
would investigate the matter, and then for sure take the
criminals to task. Let me make clear to you, we cannot
allow anybody to use our land for any unscrupulous
activity or any activity which would cause trouble to
ATol: The government seems
unwilling to rely on the tribal jirga (council)
system. Even for the recent military operations in South
Waziristan, they began while the local jirga was
in progress. If the government tries to do the same in
Shawal, what would be your reaction?
Jan: If the government tried to go
against the tribal code of conduct and intruded, it
would find more damage than it sustained in South
Waziristan [Scores of Pakistani troops were killed]. I
tell you, we are the most neglected people of the last
half a century. The people of Pakistan did not even know
the name Shawal until after September 11 it came into
the limelight. Now is the time that the government
should win our confidence by providing us with
facilities, and then we would extend maximum cooperation
to the government. The government should know that we
have solutions for all problems through our tribal codes
of conduct and in the jirgas . The government
should abide by these tribal traditions. As far as
foreigners are concerned, you have visited much of the
Shawal area, and you have observed for yourself that
there are no foreigners in Shawal. Yet if they are holed
up somewhere, the authorities should point them out to
us, and then they would see how we take them [the
foreigners] and their helpers to the task.
Next: The cleric and his al-Qaeda charges
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