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Waziristan, a Taliban mini state: NYT

Our correspondent

WASHINGTON: Northern Waziristan, where Islamic militants recently signed a peace deal with the government, has virtually become a “Taliban mini-state”, a 2,500-word report in the New York Times said on Monday.

The newspaper quoted a recently arrested suicide bomber in Afghanistan as saying that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Gen Hamid Gul, “was financing and supporting the project (of producing suicide bombers)”. Though, it said, the claim is impossible to verify. Pakistan intelligence agencies have long nurtured militants in the tribal areas to pressure the rival government in Afghanistan, though the government claims to have ceased its support.

Islamic militants are using a recent peace deal with the government to consolidate their hold in northern Pakistan, vastly expanding their training of suicide bombers and other recruits and fortifying alliances with al-Qaeda and foreign fighters, the newspaper said, quoting diplomats and intelligence officials from several nations. The result, they say, is virtually a Taliban mini-state.

The militants, the officials say, are openly flouting the terms of the September accord in North Waziristan, under which they agreed to end cross-border help for the Taliban insurgency that revived in Afghanistan with new force this year.

The area is becoming a magnet for an influx of foreign fighters, who not only challenge government authority in the area, but are even wresting control from local tribes and spreading their influence to neighbouring areas, according to several American and Nato officials and Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials.

This year more than 100 local leaders and government sympathisers or alleged “American spies” have been killed, several of them in beheadings, as the militants have used a reign of terror to impose what President Pervez Musharraf calls a creeping “Talibanisation”. Last year, at least 100 others were also killed.

While the tribes once offered refuge to the militants when they retreated to the area in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan, that welcome is waning as the killings have generated new tensions and added to the region’s volatility.

“They are taking territory,” said one Western ambassador in Pakistan. “They are becoming much more aggressive in Pakistan.” “It is the lesson from Afghanistan in the ‘90s,” he added. “Ungoverned spaces are a problem. The whole tribal area is a problem.”

Since the September accord, Nato officials say cross-border attacks by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies have increased. In recent weeks, Pakistani intelligence officials said the number of foreign fighters in the tribal areas was far higher than the official estimate of 500, perhaps as high as 1,500 to 2,000 today.

These fighters include Afghans and seasoned Taliban leaders, Uzbek and other Central Asian militants, and what intelligence officials estimate to be 80 to 90 Arab terrorist operatives and fugitives, possibly including the al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The newspaper quoted Western diplomats as saying that 2007 will be a bloodier year for Afghanistan, with the winter expected to serve as what one official described as a “breeding season” to multiply ranks.

“I expect next year to be quite bloody,” US Ambassador in Afghanistan Ronald Neumann said in an interview last week. “My sense is the Taliban want to come back and fight. I don’t expect the Taliban to win, but everyone needs to understand that we are in for a fight.”

In recent weeks, Afghan officials say they have uncovered alarming signs of large-scale indoctrination and preparation of suicide bombers in the tribal areas, and the Pakistani interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, publicly acknowledged for the first time that training of suicide bombers was occurring in the tribal areas.

The Afghan intelligence service said last week in a statement that it had captured an Afghan suicide bomber wearing a vest filled with explosives. The man reportedly said he had been given the task by the head of a religious school in the Pakistani tribal region of Bajaur, and that 500 to 600 students there were being prepared to fight Jihad and be suicide bombers.

The bomber said that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Gen Hamid Gul, was financing and supporting the project, according to the statement, though the claim is impossible to verify. Pakistani intelligence agencies have long nurtured militants in the tribal areas to pressure the rival government in Afghanistan, though the government claims to have ceased its support.

So numerous are the recruits that a tribal leader in southern Afghanistan, who did not want to be named because of the threat of suicide bombers, relayed an account of how one would-be suicide bomber was sent home and told to wait his turn because there were many in line ahead of him.

American military officials say they believe much of the training in Waziristan is taking place under the aegis of men like Jalaluddin Haqqani, once one of the most formidable commanders of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen forces who joined the Taliban in the 1990s.

Haqqani bases himself in North Waziristan and has a host of other Taliban and foreign commanders, in particular Uzbeks, who are loyal to him, US military officials say. “Even more worrying is the continued presence of the Taliban and Haqqani leadership networks,” the diplomat said, dismayed at what he characterised as Pakistani passivity in breaking up the networks. “They haven’t been addressed at all on the Pakistani side,” he added. “They haven’t been pursued.”

The increasingly urgent question for Pakistani, Afghan, American and Nato officials is what can be done to bring the region under control. The Pakistani government’s latest attempt was the Sept 5 peace accord in North Waziristan.

Under the deal, both the government and militants agreed to cease attacks, and the militants agreed to end cross-border help for the Afghan insurgency, the killings of tribal leaders and accused government sympathisers, and “Talibanisation” of the area.

Taliban commanders sanctioned the deals, arguing that the militants should concentrate their efforts on the foreign armies in Afghanistan and not waste their energies on clashing with the Pakistani military, journalists working in Waziristan say.

“From the start the agreement was not good because there are too many concessions and no clauses that are binding,” said Brig Mahmood Shah, who served as secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) until 2005. “This agreement is not going to work, and if it is working, it is working against the government interest.”

A local politician and human rights advocate, Afrasiab Khattak, spokesman for the Awami National Party in Peshawar, also criticised the agreement. The militants rather than the traditional tribal leaders have the power now, he said. “They have imposed a new elite in Waziristan,” he said. “More than 200 tribal chiefs have been killed, and not a single culprit brought to justice.”

The newspaper said some Pakistani officials admit they have made a serious mistake in allowing the militants so much leeway, but only if they will not be quoted publicly.

Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership networks run training camps in various parts of the 500-mile length of the tribal areas, from Balochistan in the south to the hub of North and South Waziristan tribal agencies, and farther north to Bajaur, said a Western diplomat in Kabul.

A diplomat, who visited Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, said the government had almost no control over either of the Waziristans. “They are absolutely not running the show in North Waziristan, and it runs the risk of becoming like South Waziristan,” he said. “In South Waziristan the government does not even pretend to have a remit that runs outside of its compounds.”

December 12, 2006

Source: The News, Pakistan