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Part 1: Besieged in Shawal

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
United States 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.

The Afghan 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
Pakistan's 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.

This leaves 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.

Asia 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?

Zarma Jan: 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?

Zarma Jan:
We do not know about this.

ATol: 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 fighters.

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 us.

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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