A new book is packed with much informationabout the rise of extremism and militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Is Beithullah Mehsud dead or alive? Is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan unraveling? Will the Pakistan Army launch an operation in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan? How will the current turmoil in the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban impact the American-led war in Afghanistan?
A new book, to be launched on Friday in New Delhi, may not provide the answers to all the questions that are being asked these days about the fanatic militants who pretty much have the run of Pakistan’s border tribal regions. But it is packed with much information about the rise of extremism and militancy in the border regions commonly known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) an ironic title for an area over which the Pakistani state can claim little control.
The Al Qaeda Connection (Viking/Penguin), by senior Pakistani journalist Imitiaz Gul, takes us through developments in FATA from about the time Pakistan joined the American-led “war on terror”, to the present intricate and bewildering web of alliances between Taliban militant commanders with disparate interests, their internecine rivalries, their links with Al Qaeda, and the great churning it has caused in the entire region for nearly a decade.
For Gul, the turning point for Pakistan — more precisely, the point at which it began to lose control over events in FATA — was in March 2004, starting with an incident in Kaloosha in South Waziristan. Tribesmen of the Zillikhel clan, outraged at the rumoured killing by security forces of an Uzbek militant who had become a local hero, gunned down between 40 and 80 security personnel. In retaliation, the Pakistan Army along with a local force known as South Waziristan Scouts, launched the Kaloosha operation that ended for them in spectacular failure.
Recalling this incident in some detail, Gul describes it as the “catalyst for FATA’s Al Qaedaisation,” sowing as it did the seeds of animosity among the local tribesmen against the Pakistani state and its army, and for their banding together under the leadership of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The book also talks about the close ties between the Taliban and Punjabi militant groups raised for the jihad in Kashmir, such as Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba, known as the “Punjabi factor” in FATA.
Mohmand tribal agency provides a good case study of the linkages. Two rival groups operated in the area. The one led by Omar Khalid was the stronger group with its affiliation to Beithullah Mehsud. Another led by Shah Khalid Sahib was affiliated to the LeT, and was also considered by Beithullah as any ally.
In mid-2008, the two groups were involved in a bloody battle for supremacy during which Shah Khalid was captured and executed by the Omar Khalid group on the charge that as he was affiliated to the LeT, a group linked to the ISI, he was working at the behest of intelligence agency in Mohamand.
But Beithullah Mehsud lamented the death of Shah Khalid as a “big loss” and a week later, the head of the Harkatul Mujahideen, Fazlurrehman Khalil, landed up in Mohamand to broker a peace agreement between the two groups. Under the peace agreement, the followers of the dead Shah Khalid, following approval from the LeT leader Hafiz Saeed, agreed to abide by the rules of Omar Khalid and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Gul writes that the role played by the HuM chief as peacemaker between a Taliban-affiliated group and another linked to a Kashmir jihadi group in a tribal area of the North West Frontier Province “underlined the fact that activists of the all important organisations that had fought in Kashmir and were banned by the Pakistani government in January 200, had settled down in the tribal areas”.
The book contains a useful chapter of brief profiles of the various militant leaders in the tribal areas, including a more detailed one of Beithullah Mehsud. It also examines the “ISI Factor” in militancy. Gul describes the ISI’s quest for “strategic depth” and its overarching role in the affairs of the state, relating his own experience of being blacklisted by the intelligence agency as a “security risk” in 1997. In interviews with ISI and Army officials, he is told that while the agency supported various Kashmir jihadi groups and Taliban in the past, since the Kaloosha operation, the outlook had changed now.
“Why would we support forces that have become a direct threat to our own existence?” one unnamed official asks him. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief, tells him in a meeting in January 2009 that he could not wish for Afghanistan “what we don’t want for Pakistan”. Gul writes that Kayani’s implication was that regardless of past relationships, the ISI must move on in the national and regional interest. And, that it had.
There were also officials who told the author that the ISI could not be prevented from doing what, according to them, other agencies, such as the CIA, the MI6, Mossad and Indian intelligence were doing in the region. There is a chapter on who funds the militants. Pakistan is awash with all kinds of theories on this, and Gul mentions all of them, but cautiously enough with a question mark on each.
Drawing from his first-hand reporting experiences, including conversations with several key actors, Gul has put together a very up-to-date book — it covers events until April 2009 — about a subject in which there is massive interest, but little expertise. The downside of the book’s current feel is that it seems too much culled from news reports, rarely venturing beyond the reported, with the author underplaying his own vast knowledge of the subject, his Pashto roots and connections in the area that he has written about.