Opinion and Editorial

Battleground Waziristan

Dr Shahid Masood
Filed on October 14, 2007

THE battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies. — Napoleon Bonaparte

Allah, America and the army are the factors that have traditionally balanced power equations in Pakistan. But now a fourth ace called Afghanistan, and its violent influence in Waziristan, is increasingly turning into a dangerous focal point for the country and the region. As President General Pervez Musharraf basks in the glory of a 'civilian' victory, he faces a rapidly deteriorating situation on the borders along Afghanistan in Waziristan. Since Afghanistan has often reflected Pakistan's internal political divide, the shift of action closer to home is only complicating matters further. However, it would be unwise to assume that this completes the entire picture. There are several other stakeholders in that region and some have even backed fundamentalist forces, over the years, to serve their own geo-strategic interests.

When I embarked on a visit to Waziristan recently, I had not imagined that there is a territory in my own country where bloodshed, encounters and suicide bombing have become part of the daily lives. Minutes before I reached Khajoori Post —security check-point just miles away from Mir Ali in North Waziristan —a suicide bombing had taken place. Witnesses told me that a young local boy, with mannerism and body language of a causal youth, was walking towards the post. The moment he reached near the army truck, parked near the post; he blew himself up, destroying the post in the process. As we crossed the post an encounter was taking place between the militants and the security forces for the control of a nearby bridge. The bombardment was so intense that a military vehicle fell down from the bridge. Within a matter of weeks, 250-300 Pakistani soldiers have been kidnapped in this region, many bodies have been found with their throats slit and the rest are yet to be recovered with little information emerging about who could be behind such ghastly acts of violence. The Miranshah-Mir Ali-Bannu Highway, where these horrific incidents unfolded, has now been closed.

Because of its location, the terrains dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been used by colonial powers as a battleground to play their own games, leaving the country devastated in the process. The recent turn of events indicate the return of the Great Game —the term used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British and the Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia —of which the centre of activity has always been this region. For centuries proxy wars have been staged, executed and accomplished in this part of the world. That is precisely why countries with even minor interest in Afghanistan have maintained presence there, by hook or crook, even under adverse circumstances. United States, Russia, India, Pakistan, China and Iran are some of the countries that immediately come to mind. For the US, Afghanistan is a vital front in the war on terror, for Pakistan it is a troubled neighbour that is always knocking on its doors, for India it is the other border of Pakistan where they must be kept engaged, for Iran it is a front where they must always be vigilant, for Russia it is a buffer between their home grown Chechen rebels and their sympathisers.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, subsequent to the 9/11 attacks and the crackdown on Taleban under Operation Enduring Freedom, the areas of Waziristan have become hideouts for the fleeing Taleban, Chechen, Uzbeks and other fighters. They have not just occasionally taken refuge in Waziristan but have also flexed their muscles and regrouped to keep their military strength intact. The largely porous border, across the Durand Line, divides hundreds of thousands of families. The region has its own tribal culture and its own value system. It was because of these reasons that the then government of Pakistan had to strike a deal ensuring them a special status of remaining federally administered.

The Taleban factor is not helping matters in Waziristan at all. It is clear that the Taleban have beefed up their presence in recent months and despite what Karzai and the allied forces claim, they have consolidated their presence across the country. If they survive carpet bombings for a couple of springs and still call the shots, they might as well become a potent force in the hands of those with long-term objectives in the region. The Taleban just need someone to embrace them, keep the arms flowing, openly or otherwise. More importantly, the complete elimination of the Taleban may not be in the interest of all or any of these powers. On the surface it appears that aligning with the Taleban is not an option anybody would exercise even if that gives them strategic advantage. But in a proxy battlefield nothing can be ruled out. What must be crossing the minds of several thinktanks is whether eliminating all the major forces in Afghanistan, including the Taleban, is going to serve any purpose in the long run.

Americans are also fully aware that they have had terrible results whenever they have entered into direct conflicts. The reversals they suffered in Vietnam have continued in Iraq and are continuing to a large extent in Afghanistan. So they are better off conducting proxy wars. The US effectively used pan-Islamism in the Cold War era to its own advantage, outsmarting the USSR-backed pan-Arabism of Egypt's leader Gamal Abdel Nasir. The downfall of the Soviet Empire can largely be attributed to proxy wars conducted by Washington across the frontline states which had become the torchbearers of communism. Russians, on the other hand, are well aware that the retreat from Kabul weakened its military might and contributed to the loss of hegemony it once had over the region. Waiting and watching is not an option worth taking for Russia. History tells us that a series of actions in Afghanistan led to the downfall of one major empire in the last century —the Soviet Union. Putin would be aware of this and can ill-afford to commit the mistake of ignoring Afghanistan. From another perspective, neither Russia nor Iran would be comfortable with the idea of Americans eliminating the Taleban completely and gaining complete control of Afghanistan.

However, the US and NATO assertion that Waziristan is becoming safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taleban is proving right. As the region goes on the boil, Baitullah Masud is being called the Mullah Umar of Waziristan. Irrespective of whether that is true or not, Pakistan’s army is having to resort to military option which breeds further hatred and facilitates recruitments for militancy. Moreover, the use of air power in the face of ground reversals is aggravating civilian casualties reminding everyone of the NATO troops' experience in Afghanistan. Amidst these complex set of circumstances, the forces that emerge from the theater of war in the region are likely to become more important than those that are being targeted at the moment. Musharraf's battle to evict Taleban in the Waziristan belt has entered a decisive phase and it is likely to be long-drawn battle in which both sides are set to suffer in terms of men and material. It remains to be seen whether President Musharraf's military approach towards Waziristan will change as he begins a new chapter of presidency. As far Pakistan's internal politics is concerned, it is certain that the fate of the future prime minister will be decided by a combination of these factors.

Dr Shahid Masood is the group director of GEO TV network and a prominent political analyst. He can be reached at drshahid@geo.tv

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