REVOLT IN PAKISTAN'S TRIBAL AREAS,
Part 1 Ceasefire: A lull before the storm
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
PESHAWAR, North-West Frontier Province - The ceasefire deal between the
Pakistani security forces and a leading member of the al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani
Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, brokered by two stalwart Afghan commanders who
persuaded Mehsud to stay in Afghanistan, is just the lull before a big storm
and the beginning of a new chapter of militancy in Pakistan.
On Thursday, the government officially announced a ceasefire in the restive
South Waziristan tribal area on the border with
Afghanistan. At the same time, Mehsud's spokesperson announced a ceasefire
throughout the country.
"A ceasefire has been agreed. This is why there has been little by way of major
exchange of fire in the past few days," a senior Pakistani official said on
Over the past few months, Mehsud, a hardline Takfiri - a believer in waging war
against any non-practicing Muslims - has become isolated from the Taliban
leadership, with Mullah Omar "sacking" him because of his fixation in waging
war against the Pakistan state. Mehsud has widely been accused of complicity in
the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpinidi on December
The ceasefire deal, brokered by Taliban commanders Sirajuddin Haqqani and
Maulvi Bakhta Jan, is face-saving for both the militants and the security
forces and provides them with breathing space; they had reached a stalemate in
The militants had laid siege to the main military camps at Razmak Fort and
Ladha, and were firing missiles and mortars from three sides into the camps, at
the same time cutting off their supply lines.
Earlier, commandos from Pakistan's Special Services Group launched an operation
to catch Mehsud, but the mission only resulted in them losing several score men
and the militants about a dozen.
At this point, Islamabad reached the conclusion that its only option was to
unleash an aerial assault on suspected militant camps. However, local tribal
elders intervened and assured the authorities they would get Mehsud to retreat.
Once this was guaranteed, the authorities accepted with alacrity, mindful of
the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18 and the demoralization of
their troops in the bitterly cold weather and harsh terrain.
It's not over yet
The Afghan Taliban see the ceasefire as the ideal opportunity to step up their
preparations for their annual spring offensive - they rely heavily on the
Pakistan border areas for manpower and provisions.
Acutely aware of this, the US State Department has indicated its disapproval of
the ceasefire. A ceasefire in North Waziristan in September 2006 - after
partial ones beginning in April of that year - led to the Taliban's strongest
showing in the battlefield since being ousted in 2001.
Even before Thursday's ceasefire, the Taliban's preparations in the strategic
backyard of Pakistan were well underway. This included the isolation of Mehsud
and appointing a new team of commanders in the Pakistani tribal areas. Most of
the new appointments are Afghans, to signify the importance of fighting a war
in Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan. The two main commanders are Abdul Wali
in Bajaur Agency and Ustad Yasir in Khyber Agency.
A key component of the Taliban's offensive this year will be to counter the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) plans against them and al-Qaeda.
Last year, the New York Times published a story of a classified US military
proposal to intensify efforts to enlist tribal leaders in the frontier areas of
Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This was to be part of
a broader effort to bolster the Pakistani forces against an expanding
militancy, US military officials said.
This would include pumping more military trainers into Pakistan, providing
direct finance to a tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely
ineffective, and providing funds for smaller militias to fight against the
militants. The US currently has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, according to
the Pentagon, and this number could grow by dozens under the new approach.
A contact affiliated with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online on condition of
anonymity, "Pakistan has already tried to revive an outdated tribal system to
counter the Taliban, but by killing tribal elders in Waziristan, the Taliban
effectively stopped that scheme. Now the Americans and the Pakistani government
are working on tribal elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes of Khyber
Agency, which is the main route of NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Approximately
80% of supplies pass through this route.
"But since the Taliban want to chop off NATO supplies from Pakistan into
Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have warned these tribal elders to stay away
from the conflict. However, the elders have received huge bribes [funds] from
NATO, and so they are obsessed with providing protection to the supply convoys.
Therefore, the Taliban will increase their activities in Khyber Agency, which
means a war with the elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes," the contact
The second sector of Taliban activity will be in Nooristan and Kunar provinces
in Afghanistan, where US forces are conducting huge counter-insurgency
"This year, the Taliban will focus their main attention on a new plan
specifically aimed at Kunar and Nooristan. The details of the plan cannot be
revealed at this point," said the contact.
The contact said that the al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan is convinced that American
pressure will be so strong that the ceasefire will not be long-term.
This perception is not without substance. Wana military airfield in South
Waziristan and Miranshah airfield in North Waziristan have been upgraded from
makeshift airstrips into proper runways with backup facilities, which indicate
plans for a powerful air operation.
The deployment of US forces at Lowari Mandi and Ghulman Khan checkpoints (both
on the Afghan side of the border near North Waziristan) and the construction of
a new military camp near Shawal (North Waziristan), on the Afghan side,
indicate that the US is not planning on peace for very long.
The only real issue is which side will strike first, and where.
PART 2: The next battlefield
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]