Following the assassination of President Perez Musharraf’s political rival Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, Al Qaeda- and Taliban-related terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s South Waziristan have torn apart the northwestern tribal region, according to news reports. Tribal fighters attacked two military forts in the region this month, and Pakistani forces, fearing a third attack, abandoned another stronghold.
Both the Pakistani government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believe that the man responsible for Bhutto’s assassination, Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud, is hiding in the area.
Musharraf downplayed the danger posed by tribal terrorists.
“There is no Taliban offensive being launched. These are pinpricks,” Musharraf said.
The government of Pakistan sent 100,000 soldiers into the unstable region early in January to quell tribal violence.
Mamoona Yousaf, a Liberty student from Pakistan, doubts that Taliban leader Mehsud would be welcome among the tribal groups.
“I’ve been there with my father, who is a cop,” Yousaf said. “For them, a man who kills a woman is not considered a man,” referring to Mehsud’s connection with the assassination of Bhutto.
“The area is ruled by tribal lords. They have their own way of dealing with things,” Yousaf said
He is from Lahore, in the central state of Punjab.
“Democracy at least brought them to the negotiation tables with the government, but the current army rule is just making them more rebellious.”
Democracy has been slow in coming to Pakistan, which has been under military rule for over half of its history.
South Waziristan belongs to Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and borders northeastern Afghanistan. The area is named for the Wazirs, a Pakistani tribe claiming to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. Since the mid-1800s the area has been a hotbed of religious extremism and political insurrection.
Musharraf’s administration is often accused of ignoring tribal conflict in the FATA.
“Pakistan leaves (the tribes) alone,” Liberty government professor Dr. Thomas Metallo said.
Metallo stated that the tribal groups resent the government of Pakistan for harassing them when the country’s capital moved from Karachi on the Arabian Sea to Islamabad in the north.
South Waziristan harbors bitterness towards the West and the Pakistani government. Prior to Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the British Indian Army engaged in several large-scale conflicts with the northern tribes. The British Indian Army used the tribal regions as a training ground, according to a Britannica article.
Metallo said that the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, which strongly encourages followers to engage in violence toward non-Muslims, probably originated in the tribal regions of Pakistan during these decades of mistreatment.
“It’s natural that the Taliban would be established in that region,” Metallo said. “They have familial ties there. It is a rugged, wild place where people can easily stay out of sight.”
Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri are believed to be sheltered in the FATA. Musharraf, however, said that his soldiers did not enter the area to find either of the Al Qaeda leaders.
“The 100,000 troops that we are using are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, frankly,” Musharraf said. “They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly.”
International leaders worry that Pakistan’s nuclear armaments could be seized by the increasingly aggressive terrorist groups operating within South Waziristan, according to Associated Press news reports. Musharraf denies the possibility of such an event, and he has expressed confidence in the Pakistani military’s ability to handle the tribal violence.
Many, however, question Musharraf’s confidence in his army.
“The terrain does not lend itself to military action,” Metallo said. “That has caused problems in hunting down Osama bin Laden. It is believed that only U.S. Special Forces would be able to operate in that kind of territory, but even they would have great difficulty blending in with the tribes.”
“After Benazir (Bhutto)’s murder, most Pakistanis think that things are too out of control for the army to handle,” Yousaf said. “People from that region are very strong in terms of the latest arms or even money. They used to be confined to their area but now (the army) is just going to make things worse by turning a whole region against rest of the country.”
Contact Stan Barringer at firstname.lastname@example.org.