Renewing the hunt for Al Qaeda in Pakistan
Pakistan announced a shakeup Sunday in the tribal force being deployed against foreign fighters.
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Three armies last week headed into the mountains of Pakistan's tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, a region where some 400 to 600 Al Qaeda and foreign militants are believed to be in hiding.
The first was a lashkar, or posse of local tribesmen, formed in response to Islamabad's demands that locals take action against the foreign fighters. To back up that demand, fresh Pakistani military and paramilitary troops moved into the tribal region of South Waziristan and took positions in the highlands around the capital of Wana.
On Friday, the lashkar returned empty-handed, and a third force made its presence known. US and Afghan troops pursued Islamic militants across the border into North Waziristan - the second incursion into Pakistan in a month. The US move, coupled with comments by Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilizad, is putting pressure on Islamabad to clean up the troubled tribal region where high-level Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawihiri, may be hiding.
Despite US impatience and increasing doubts about the lashkar's reliability, Islamabad appears committed to its strategy of working with the tribes rather than risking a repeat of March's bloody confrontation between Pakistani forces and local militants. In a new tactic announced Sunday, the lashkar will now operate secretly to avoid tipping off foreign militants ahead of operations.
"We have gained high moral grounds by involving the tribal elders and bitterly opposed clerics ... to solve the problem," says Azmat Ullah Gandapur, a top local administrator in South Waziristan. "The political process takes time and dynamics of tribal traditions like the lashkar are always at a snail's pace. If the lashkar fails to produce results then we have a military option, and [we can say to] tribal elders that we have made [ourselves] clear."
The lashkar is made up of 4,000 tribesmen from all clans, including the Zali Khel and Yar Gul Khel - two groups accused of harboring foreigner terrorists.
In last week's operation, 1,200 warriors went door to door in remote towns near the Afghan border and issued warnings of "dire consequences" for those found guilty of harboring foreigners.
One man's home was destroyed after he told villagers that it is a sin to capture Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
But the lashkar found no foreigners in its three-day search, angering Pakistani officials and prompting a change in tactics.
"We have told them that we believe in a political process, but [it must be a] political process with results. Otherwise we will be compelled to launch a crackdown against the tribesmen and then the whole tribe will suffer," says a local administration official in South Waziristan.
To make the force more effective, a new 30-member committee will be formed to use intelligence to direct the tribal force on secret missions.
"The secrecy is to avoid any possibility of information passed onto the militants," says Malik Khadeen, head of the lashkar and its supervisory body. "We want to catch the culprits by surprise," says Malik Khadeen.
But some observers doubt that the tribal force can ever be effective.
"The Arab, Chechen, and Uzbek mujahideen are powerful and committed to the cause of jihad," says tribesman Mohammad Noor. "The tribal force is compelled to take action against them due to the punitive measures announced by the authorities and cannot match the spirit of these foreigner jihadis. So the chances of lashkar's success are slim."
The Pakistani official in charge of the tribal belt, however, defends the strategy as an important step toward cutting off local support for the foreigners.
"We are successful in isolating foreign militants and to cleanse towns and villages which once served them as safe haven," says retired Brigadier Gen. Mahmood Shah. "We are trying to push them onto the mountains so in case of military operation the local population does not suffer."
"We need to be patient. So should be Washington," he adds.
Signs are evident that the US wants more direct action out of its newly minted "major non-NATO ally." In April, US Ambassador Khalilzad praised the redeployment of Pakistani troops in South Waziristan but also alleged that terrorists continue to base, train, and operate from Pakistani territory.
"We have told the Pakistani leadership that either they must solve this problem or we will have to do so ourselves," he said. His statement triggered serious protests from Islamabad, which called the reamarks "foolish and irresponsible." Pakistan also protested the latest incursion on its territory by US and Afghan troops.
"The US wants Pakistan to do more to get rid of Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants in South Waziristan as soon as possible," says Aisha Siddiqua, a defense analyst "And its actions should prove results-oriented rather than curled in centuries old tribal traditions and culture."