Female Squash Player from Waziristan

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khurram Shahzad, Pakistan Link

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Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Sports Pir Aftab Shah Jillani presenting Maria Toor with a cash award as her family looks on during a ceremony to reward top players on the national circuit in Islamabad.

-Photo by APP

Pakistan’s squash champion Maria Toor Pakay cut her teeth fighting boys in a tribal district synonymous with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, defying convention to become a trailblazer in her sport.

She hails from South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal belt branded by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world. It is rife with militant groups, while tribal customs often force women to remain at home.

None of that stopped 19-year-old Pakay, however, who is now Pakistan’s top-rated female squash player and the world number 85.

“I never acted like a girl and always played and fought with the tribal boys,” she told AFP in the northwestern city of Peshawar, now her home.

“My early days roaming around the Shakai streets wearing boys’ clothes and fighting against them eventually made me an independent young woman.”

Dressed in shorts and smart T-shirt, hair boyishly cut above the neck, she would stand out in her home village of Shakai, on the outskirts of South Waziristan’s capital Wana, where many women wear the all-encompassing burka.

Muscular Pakay smacks the ball against the wall almost 30 times in a minute. Face perspiring with aggression and gripping the racket tightly, she moves swiftly across the squash court.

It was Pakay’s father Shamsul Qayum, a government servant and elder of the Wazir tribe, who first noticed her athletic potential. Concerned about her days spent brawling with street boys, he decided to channel her anger into sports.

Risking the scorn of his conservative Muslim tribe, he took his daughter to Peshawar and began training her as a weightlifter.

But with few opportunities for female weightlifters in Pakistan, he was forced to disguise 10-year-old Pakay as a boy and enter her in the National Boys Weightlifting Championship under a fake boy’s name, Changez Khan.

“And Changez Khan won the championship!” Pakay says with a laugh.

“It was the first step for me, my first achievement, and then I never got scared by any pressure, restrictions or tribal tradition.”

It was a meeting soon after with former world squash champion Jansher Khan that set Pakay’s life on its current course, and in 2004 she became Pakistan’s top female squash player and started climbing the international ranks.

She has risen seven places in the world rankings in the past month, and made the semi-finals of the World Junior Squash Championship in India last year.

She is a regular player on the Malaysian circuit, and aims this year to participate in the Cayman Islands Open and the Texas Open Championship.

But her determination to defy tradition and champion girls’ sports in the conservative northwest has won her some enemies.

Taliban militants who operate across swathes of the northwest oppose co-education of girls and boys and advocate a harsh brand of law, staging bomb attacks to try and advance their aims.

“I have received some threats from unknown people who have advised me to stop playing and going out of the house, otherwise they would kill me. But they can’t detract me… I would never quit playing,” she tells AFP.

“I feel pity for other women of the area, they are confined in the walls and have no rights. I feel pity for my cousins, who don’t have rights and can’t go out, and who have to wear burkas.”

Although she is glad to be free from the restrictions of tribal customs, Pakay says she owes a great deal to her upbringing in the badlands along the Afghan border, which sit outside direct government control.

“My strong muscles are a gift from hiking the rocks of Shakai. I love the solid mountains and feel sorry that I can’t go there now,” she said.

The streets of Shakai where Pakay once fought neighborhood boys have now become a battlefield for the Taliban and Pakistan’s armed forces.

The military sent 30,000 troops into South Waziristan in October last year to try and quash Taliban strongholds, and the fighting rages on.

The instability was one of the reasons Pakay’s father wanted her to break free of the tribal region and he has nothing but pride now in his daughter’s achievements, despite the reaction from his Wazir tribe.

“They call me honorless and say you have lost pride and gone away from the traditions of Islam and the tribe,” Shamsul Qayum told AFP. “But I don’t care, I have won for my girl and her victories are my pride.”

12-17

The UN Report on Ms. Benazir Bhutto’s Death, and the Current Situation

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mahvish Akhtar, MMNS Pakistan Correspondent

The Pakistan People’s Party blames the government of that time for the death of Ms. Bhutto. They claim that the Police could have done much more than they did. Because the PPP knew proper security was not going to be provided that is why they had their own security team.

However things get very hazy when getting into the report as to the whereabouts of the security provided by PPP as well.

Here are some parts of the reports to summaries what the report says and later what is being done after this report has come out.

Parts of Executive Summary of the UN Report:

The Commission was mystified by the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources, as revealed in their public declarations. The extension of the mandate until 31 March enabled the Commission to pursue further this matter and eventually meet with some past and present members of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

Ms. Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources; these included Al-Qaida, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and potentially from elements in the Pakistani Establishment. Yet the Commission found that the investigation focused on pursuing lower level operatives and placed little to no focus on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination.

The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth. More significantly, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) conducted parallel investigations, gathering evidence and detaining suspects. Evidence gathered from such parallel investigations was selectively shared with the police.

UN Report Blames the military for all Ms. Bhutto’s dismissals:

Her first government ended after just 20 months, and her second lasted less than three years. Both times, she was dismissed by the sitting president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari, respectively, based on allegations of corruption and nepotism. While both men were civilians, each had close ties to the military. Ms Bhutto and the PPP believed that it was the military, or more broadly, the Establishment, that forced her out.

Who does the Report Blame?

Contrary to the police assertion, there was no police-provided box formation around Ms Bhutto as she arrived at the rally, and the Elite Force unit did not execute their duties as specified in the security deployment. Furthermore, the Commission does not believe that the full escort as described by the police was ever present.

According to the report a bullet proof Mercedez-Benz was supposed to be riding right behind Ms. Bhutto’s vehicle which sped off before the gunshots and the bomb blast. Riding in the black Mercedes-Benz car were the driver, PPP official Mr Faratullah Babar in the front passenger seat and, in the rear passenger seat from left to right, two PPP officials Mr Babar Awan and Mr Rehman Malik and General (ret) Tauqir Zia.

UN Report Findings on the Mercedes Benz:

96. The black bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz car was the first to leave the parking area. It is not clear how much distance there was between this vehicle and the rest of Ms Bhutto’s convoy at the moment of the blast. Credible reports range from 100 meters to 250 meters. Some of those in the car said that they were close enough to Ms Bhutto’s vehicle to feel the impact of the blast. Others at the site of the blast have said that the Mercedes-Benz left Liaquat Bagh so quickly that it was nowhere to be seen when the blast occurred. Indeed, the Commission has not seen this vehicle in the many video images of the exit area it reviewed. Despite the acknowledgement of some occupants of the vehicle that they felt the impact of the blast, the Commission finds it incredible that they drove all the way to Zardari House, a drive of about 20 minutes, before they became aware that Ms Bhutto had been injured in the blast.

They should have stopped at a safe distance when they felt the blast so as to check on Ms Bhutto’s condition, the condition of her vehicle and whether the back-up vehicle was required. Indeed, as the back-up vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz car would have been an essential element of Ms Bhutto’s convoy on the return trip even if the occupants of that car had confirmed that Ms Bhutto had been unscathed in the attack.

The nature of the crowd was not determined because it was slowing the cars down considerably. The crowd was riled up to the point where it started to worry the people inside as to why the crowd was this way and the cars were slowing down. There was a dispute on the route that was taken as well. Neither the PPP nor the Police side of this story has been confirmed.

The protective box that was promised was never formed. The police claims they were about to form the box right when the blast took place but there is no evidence of that event taking place in the videos. The video clearly shows that there were not enough Policemen to push back the crowds to form the box.

Also PPP blames the police for not giving permission for an autopsy on Ms. Bhutto’s body. The police say that that was because they wanted consent from the family which is legally not necessary. The PPP claim that situations were created which made the autopsy harder even when the body was handed over to the relatives. How strong an argument this is for PPP is doubtful since President Zardari, the husband himself refused an autopsy.

The crime scene was completely hosed off right after the event took place. The police say it was because the crowds around it were restless and they needed to be put at ease. Once the scene was cleaned off people started to leave. Also the police claim people were rubbing blood from the scene on their faces thinking its Ms. Bhutto’s blood. However later on it was confirmed that only one person was seen doing such a thing. Hosing down a crime scene is not standard practice in Pakistan.

UN Report on the Crime Scene:

127. Video footage immediately following the blast shows shock, fear and confusion among the people at the scene and little police control. The crime scene was not immediately cordoned off. The police did collect some evidence. Officers from intelligence agencies, including the ISI, the IB and MI, were present and also collected evidence, using, as one Rawalpindi police officer noted, better evidence collection equipment than the police. Within one hour and forty minutes of the blast, however, SP Khurram ordered the fire and rescue officials present to wash the crime scene down with fire hoses. He told the Commission that the police had collected all the available evidence by then. Police records show that only 23 pieces of evidence were collected, in a case where one would normally have expected thousands. The evidence included mostly human body parts, two pistols, spent cartridges and Ms Bhutto’s damaged vehicle.

The report also states that many times people were scared to speak openly. If that is the case then the question arises that if people are not speaking openly then how did the commission get any facts and how did the commission differentiate between facts and comments made out of fear?

UN Report on the Press Conference:

156. At about 1700 hours on the day following the assassination the government held a televised press conference, conducted by Brigadier Cheema, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior at which he announced that: a. Ms Bhutto died from a head injury sustained when from the force of the blast she hit her head on the lever of the escape hatch; and, b. Mr Baitullah Mehsud linked with Al-Qaida was responsible, presenting an intercepted telephone conversation between Mr Mehsud and one Mr Maulvi Sahib in which Mr Mehsud was heard congratulating Mr Maulvi on a job well-done

Un Report Says the Joint Investigation Team was not given access to the crime scene in due time:

166. Once at the scene, the investigators could see that it had been hosed down.

Despite the late hour, they spent seven hours there. They followed the water current, including wading through the drainage sewer and collected evidence from the debris.

They were able to recover one bullet casing from the drainage sewer, later established through forensic examination to have been fired from the pistol bearing the bomber’s DNA. The JIT members left the scene around midnight. The Rawalpindi police provided security for them, and the road was cordoned off during the entire time. The next day, the team returned to continue the search. Upon their request, the scene remained cordoned off and the road closed. They eventually recovered other evidence in the course of their crime scene examination, including the partial skull of the suicide bomber from atop one of the buildings near the site.

The UN Report on The Bomber:

168. The scientific analysis of the suicide bomber’s remains by the Scotland Yard team established that he was a teenage male, no more than 16 years old. According to the JIT’s investigations, this young man was named Bilal also known as Saeed from South Waziristan. This was established through the links that the accused persons admitted having had with the bomber and the ISI telephone intercept of Baitullah Mehsud’s conversation with Maulvi Sahib.

According to the report Ms. Bhutto considered (i) Brigadier (ret) Ejaz Shah, Director General of the IB at the time of the assassination, (ii) General (ret) Hamid Gul, a former Director General of the ISI, and (iii) Mr Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Chief Minister of Punjab until 22 November 2007 to be a threat to her life but these people were not questioned in the investigation. Most of key persons who were in the car with Ms.Bhutto at the time of her death refused to speak to JIT when asked. They however, deny being contacted by the police.

The UN Report’s Statemen on The Sottland Yard Report finding:   

a. although not possible to “categorically…exclude” the possibility of a gunshot wound, the available evidence suggested there was no gunshot wound; b. Ms Bhutto died of a severe head injury caused by impact in the area of the escape hatch lip as a result of the blast; and c. the same individual both fired the shots and detonated the explosives.

That report was not trustworthy for the PPP leadership since they took a lot of the information given to them by the police on ‘good faith’.

The UN Report also says that she had threats from Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. She was also under threat they say from the establishment of the time.

Other hypothesis were her family and people close to her wanting her dead however the report states that there are no basis for these allegations.

Part of Important Findings of the UN Report:

iii. Responsibility for Ms Bhutto’s security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal Government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi District Police. None of these entities took necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced.

vii. The additional security arrangements of the PPP lacked leadership and were inadequate and poorly executed. The Commission recognizes the heroism of individual PPP supporters, many of whom sacrificed them selves to protect Ms Bhutto. However, Ms Bhutto was left vulnerable in a severely damaged vehicle that was unable to transport her to the hospital by the irresponsible and hasty departure of the bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz which, as the back-up vehicle, was an essential part of her convoy.

xviii. The Commission believes that the failures of the police and other officials to react effectively to Ms Bhutto’s assassination were, in most cases, deliberate. In other cases, the failures were driven by uncertainty in the minds of many officials as to the extent of the involvement of intelligence agencies.

After the Report:

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP “Eight officials have been relieved of their duties while the service contract of a retired brigadier has been terminated. “Their names have been placed on the government’s exit control list. The Pakistan People’s Party has already asked the prime minister to take action against all those involved including Musharraf.”

Even though this seems to have satisfied many people and the government seems to be taking action against people who are mentioned in the report all does not seem to add up. There are many little things that are amiss still. It seems that there are key people in the PPP who need to be questioned and investigated on some decisions they made on that day as well.

The report mentions all of those incidents and persons but puts no blame or responsibility on them. The same is with the government. The police is being questioned for not providing boxed protection however, the Back up Mercedes-Benz sped up ahead leaving the vehicle with Ms. Bhutto behind; who is going to questions those people as to why they did that?

It is one of the common known facts that the police did not allow an autopsy after Ms.Bhutto’s death. However they cannot be held responsible when her husband refused to get it done as well. The situation goes against both parties however only one seem to be questioned.

The people of Pakistan get behind anything that gets them closer to the conclusion of any problem. However, this report brings out more problems and questions than solutions.

No one really knows who is saying what any more and who can be trusted. Everything that is presented to the people of Pakistan is wrapped in lies and confusion and in my opinion this is no different.

12-17

Lahore Shakes, with 7 Blasts in One Day

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mahvish Akhtar, MMNS

On March 12th 2010 the people of Lahore paid a heavy price for the decisions made by the leaders of the country. It was a day unlike any other. People of Lahore will never forget the events of that day. One bomb blast or even two the city and even the country is used to, but 7 blasts in one day are unheard of.

The first blast took place in R.A Market just before Friday Prayers and just a few moments after that a bigger blast shook the city. Since it is a cantonment area, the market is near sensitive military offices and installations which most likely were the targets of the attacks. There is confusion about the exact time distance between the 2 blasts. The reports were that they were only 15 seconds apart but then eyewitnesses claimed they were close to 2 minutes apart.

The reason given for the 2 blasts back to back was that after the first blast people started to gather to look at the damage and help the wounded. Another blast at this point would ensure much more casualties and it did.

According to reports around 57 people died and close to 120 were injured. However unofficial sources claim that the number of dead is up to 70.

The public was still trying to make sense of what had happened and were still trying to understand their circumstances when in the evening back to back 5, small fire cracker like, explosions took place in moon market at different times in the evening.

There were no casualties there but the scare was enough to put the whole city in extreme fear, anger and frustration. The public of Lahore could not comprehend what had happened and locked themselves in their homes for that evening.

Cantonment SP Investigation Umer Saeed said the bombers apparently came from the Northern Areas or Afghanistan, he also said that the suicide bomber’s fair complexion suggested that he was probably from South Waziristan. He said fingerprints of bombers would be obtained to verify them with NADRA record.

In a connected effort to hunt down people attached to these bombings 40 people from the same areas were arrested for not having ID Cards.

Even though many people did not come out on the streets that night as Lahoris do on a Friday night the roads were still filled with cars and people.

Seeing that many of the people did not stay at home and were out and about the very next day the media claimed that the people of Pakistan are brave and are not letting terrorists win by canceling their plans.

However, the area around R.A bazaar was closed on Saturday and people were in fear and grief along with shock.

All of the leaders of Pakistan condemned these attacks and said that the people of Lahore and Pakistan were brave and were crushing the plans of the enemy by resuming normal life right after the fact.

However when we spoke to people of Lahore there was a different view point. Shahbaz a father of 2 who works in a government office said that he has no choice but to get out because of work. He fears for his life but at the same time he cannot lose his job by staying at home.

Samina who works at a maid 50 minutes away from her house says the same thing. She told us that she works in Model Town, which is the area that was hit with the previous blast. However she has no choice but to leave the house and go there every day. Her children worry about her she says while she is gone but what can she do. Wiping her tears with her shawl she says, “I hate leaving my children behind because I don’t know what catastrophe might befall them that I cannot save them from”, but there are no other options for her.

So, it would be wrong to say that people of Lahore are coming out and ignoring these events because they are resilient. Of course the fact that the people of Pakistan have become immune to guns and bombs most are getting out of their homes because of necessity rather then courage.

Again I repeat that this is not to claim that people are not courageous in these parts of the worlds because to live here every day and to move on from events like these requires a lot of strength which the people of Pakistan have.

However, with that said it is important to keep in mind that this courage comes from the need to survive as well. If getting out in these situations where there are more than one bombs exploding all over town is dangerous, staying in and losing one’s job is even more dangerous for these people.

In short the people of Pakistan are stuck between bomb and striving to fill their stomachs.

12-12

A New Battle Begins in Pakistan

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD – Despite serious reservations, Pakistan’s military at the weekend began an all-out offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

The deployment of about 30,000 troops in South Waziristan, backed by the air force, shifts the main theater of the South Asian battlefield from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

That Pakistan has become a focal point was underscored on Sunday when six Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders were killed, as well as 37 other people, in an attack in Iran’s restive Sistan-Balochistan province.

Iranian state television said the Foreign Ministry summoned a senior Pakistani diplomat in Tehran, saying there was evidence

“the perpetrators of this attack came to Iran from Pakistan”. The Pakistani government was asked not to delay “in the apprehension of the main elements in this terrorist attack”.

The attack has been blamed on the group Jundallah, which is believed to operate from Pakistan’s Balochistan province and which recently established a link with al-Qaeda. (See Al-Qaeda seeks a new alliance Asia Times Online, May 21, 2009.)

On Monday, clashes between the Pakistan military and the militants continued for the third day in South Waziristan. Islamabad says that 60 militants have been killed, with 11 soldiers dead.

The army had serious reservations about sending ground troops into South Waziristan, firstly for fear of a strong militant backlash in other parts of the country and secondly because there is no guarantee of success. However, under pressure from the United States, and with the carrot of US$1.5 billion a year for the next fives years in additional non-military aid, Pakistan’s political government has bitten the bullet. The timing might have been influenced by a string of militant attacks in the country over the past few days.

The offensive is concentrated in the areas of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, which is also the headquarters of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In preparation for the assault, the army made ceasefire deals with several influential Taliban warlords who run large networks against coalition troops in Afghanistan. They include Mullah Nazir, the chief of the Taliban in Wana, South Waziristan, who operates the largest Taliban network in the Afghan province of Paktika. Mullah Nazir is neutral in this Pakistani conflict and agreed to allow passage to the army to enter Mehsud territory.

In North Waziristan, two top Taliban commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Moulvi Sadiq Noor, also agreed to remain neutral. They are members of the Shura of the Mujahideen and a main component of the Taliban’s insurgency in the Afghan province of Khost.

This leaves a few thousand Mehsud tribal fighters along with their Uzbek and Punjabi militant allies to fight against the military. Thousands of civilians have fled the area.

However, Hakimullah Mehsud of the TTP, according to Asia Times Online contacts, has apparently adopted a strategy that will not expend too many resources on protecting the Mehsud area. Instead, he aims to spread chaos by attacking security personnel in the cities. Hakimullah was the architect of successful attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s supply lines in the Khyber Agency, which began in 2007.

The same contacts say that when thousands of people left South Waziristan last week under the military’s directives, a majority of the militants melted away to the Shawal region, situated at the crossroads of South Waziristan, Afghanistan and North Waziristan, besides going to Pakistani cities.

A very limited force is entrenched in the Mehsud tribal area, and by all accounts it is putting up fierce resistance.

In the cities, the TTP will be assisted by Punjabis, who will aim to replicate the audacious and well-planned attack on the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10.

This attack and subsequent siege in which a number of hostages were held exposed loopholes in the security mechanisms of the armed forces as well as the deep penetration of militants in the security forces.

A transcript of the militants’ calls, intercepted by the security forces and read by Asia Times Online, shows that the militants had noticed a damaged wall at General Headquarters Rawalpindi. They therefore engaged security personnel at the main gate, while at the same time sending about 10 men through the breach in the wall. These militants were given support by insiders.

The attackers made directly for the barracks of Military Intelligence and took several senior officials hostage, including the director general of Military Intelligence. They then presented a list of demands. According to some reports which have not been authenticated by independent sources, six prisoners were released on the militants’ demands before the hostages were released after a commando operation on October 11.

Washington has been keen to extend the war into Pakistan since early 2008. To reflect this, this year it coined “AfPak”, and even appointed a special representative, Richard Holbrooke, to handle this portfolio. The focus in Pakistan was to be the militant bases in the tribal areas which feed directly into the insurgency across the border.

The aim was to create breathing space for coalition troops in Afghanistan and eventually pave the way for an honorable exit strategy after initiating talks with sections of the Taliban.

This year, the US also stepped up its presence in Pakistan by acquiring new bases and the Americans developed a joint intelligence mechanism with Pakistan to hit al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan with Predator drones. These missile attacks have proved particularly successful in taking out key targets, including Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP leader.

The US also coordinated ground military operations such as Lion Heart, which saw coalition troops on the Afghan side working with Pakistani troops on the other side to squeeze militants. (Asia Times Online documented this last year – see US forces the terror issue with Pakistan September 16, 2008.)

There are parallels in what the US is doing with Pakistan to what happened during the Vietnam War, when that war was extended into Laos and Cambodia.

Beyond the South Waziristan operation

Washington is watching developments in Waziristan with keen interest. Both General Stanley A McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, and US Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, are currently in Pakistan.

They will be pleased that Pakistan has committed its biggest-ever force for such an operation – 30,000 troops with another 30,000 in reserve. Yet the chances of a decisive military victory remain remote.

Given the nature of the opposition and the tough territory, there is a high probability of extensive casualties in the army, with resultant desertions and dissent. There is also no guarantee that if the conflict drags on, the warlords with whom ceasefires have been agreed will not go back on their deals.

At the same time, there are signals that the Taliban in the Swat area in North-West Frontier Province are regrouping after being pushed back by the army this year. It is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground in the Swat Valley. By marching into South Waziristan, the military has taken something of a gamble as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation. By the same token, the militants don’t have the capacity to permanently control ground beyond their areas in South Waziristan and North Waziristan.

In this situation, in which the militants and the military can’t defeat one another, and if the fighting continues, a political crisis could be provoked. This would weaken the state of Pakistan and its institutions. Alternatively, the authorities could accept the fact that Pakistan is a tribal society which always operates through bargains and deals, and move quickly to contain this conflict.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief.

12-9

Taliban to Execute US Soldier if Aafia Not Released

February 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mushtaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR: The Afghan Taliban on Thursday demanded the release of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist who has been convicted by the US court on charges of her alleged attempt to murder US soldiers in Afghanistan, and threatened to execute an American soldier they were holding currently. They claimed Aafia Siddiqui’s family had approached the Taliban network through a Jirga of notables, seeking their assistance to put pressure on the US to provide her justice.

“Being Muslims, it becomes our religious and moral obligation to help the distressed Pakistani woman convicted by the US court on false charges,” said a senior Afghan Taliban commander. The commander, whose militant network is holding the US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, called The News from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan and threatened to execute the American trooper if their demand was not met. He claimed AafiaSiddiqui’s family had approached the Taliban network through a Jirga of notables, seeking their assistance to put pressure on the US to provide her justice.

“We tried our best to make the family understand that our role may create more troubles for the hapless woman, who was already in trouble. On their persistent requests, we have now decided to include Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s name in the list of our prisoners in US custody that we delivered to Americans in Afghanistan for swap of their soldier in our custody,” explained the militant commander.

He claimed family members of Dr Aafia told the Taliban leadership that they had lost all hopes in the Pakistan government and now Allah Almighty and the Taliban were their only hope. Later, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also called The News from somewhere in Afghanistan and owned a statement given by the Taliban commander.

The militant commander alleged that the US soldier, whom his fighters kidnapped from Afghanistan’s Paktika province near the border with Pakistan’s troubled South Waziristan in June 2009, had admitted his involvement in several raids in Afghanistan. “Since he has confessed to all charges against him, our Islamic court had announced death sentence for him,” the Taliban leader claimed.

The same Taliban faction released a video of the captive US soldier on Christmas Day. Taliban said they had been shifting the soldier all the time due to the search operations by the US and Afghan forces. He said the only way Americans could save life of their soldier was to release 21 Afghan prisoners and the “innocent” Pakistani lady.

Most of their prisoners, he claimed, were being held at the Guantanamo prison. “We believe that like the Israelis, the Americans would be ready soon to do any deal for taking possession of the remains of their soldier, but it would be late by then,” he stressed. Dr Aafia’s family could not be approached for comments on the Taliban claim.

12-7

Taliban Reward Fighter for Shooting Down US Drone

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Malik Mumtaz Khan & Mushtaq Yusufzai, TheNews.com

MIRAMSHAH/PESHAWAR: Taliban in North Waziristan Monday rewarded one of their fighters with a new model car for shooting down the US drone on Sunday evening.

Also, government officials in the restive tribal region finally confirmed the downing of the US spy aircraft by Taliban militants. The militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur had claimed on Sunday shooting down the drone in Hamzoni village.

Tribal sources in Miramshah said the militants congratulated each other on Monday for shooting down the drone, known as `bangana’ locally due to the thundering sound of the pilot-less aircraft.

The militant was given a new car by the Taliban leaders as reward to shoot down the drone. The militants from adjoining villages thronged Hamzoni to have a look at the wreckage of the drone. Such drones have claimed lives of many militants and are considered the most fatal weapon.

The militants wanted to meet and congratulate their fellow fighter who accurately fired and hit the spy plane to the ground. Taliban sources confirmed that the man behind the downing of the drone had been gifted a car, but declined to name the fighter. They said he would be remembered as a `hero’ among the Taliban.
“The shooting down of the drone has lifted the morale of our fighters. It’s a huge success for the poorly armed Taliban against a powerful enemy,” remarked a senior Taliban commander, but pleaded anonymity.

He also claimed that four missiles were fitted on the drone when it was hit and shot down, but the missiles did not explode. Taliban said friends of the six tribal militants killed in the US drone attack on January 19 in Deegan village of Dattakhel tehsil had taken a vow to avenge the killing by shooting down the spy plane.
“Since then, a group of four well-trained militants had been waiting to hit the drones. They had also installed an anti-aircraft gun on their double-cabin pickup truck,” a Taliban source said.

The sources said six militants were killed on that occasion when the drone had struck a house and a car, which was about to enter the building. “They honoured their commitment made after the killing of their friends by the US drone,” said a Taliban fighter. Meanwhile, government officials in Miramshah said five spy planes were seen flying over various villages of South Waziristan Monday evening.

12-6

A War That Can’t be Won: Pakistan Creates Its Own Enemy

December 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

On the day I arrived in Peshawar a few weeks ago, the evening stillness was broken by nine loud explosions, each preceded by the sucking sound of a projectile as it arced into Hayatabad, the suburban sprawl west of the city. Their target was a Frontier Constabulary post guarding the fence that separates the city from the tribal region of Khyber.

When I lived here seven years ago, Hayatabad hosted many Afghan refugees; those with fewer resources lived in the slums of Kacha Garhi, along the Jamrud Road to the Khyber Pass. Many established businesses here, and dominated commerce and transport in parts of the city. Some temporarily migrated in summer to Afghanistan, where it was cooler. But Peshawar was a sanctuary, as Afghanistan was perpetually at war. Now, many Afghans are leaving because Afghanistan feels safer. There are checkpoints all over the city, many kidnappings, and in the past month, there have been at least three suicide bombings and four rocket attacks, most targeting Hayatabad.

This war began in 2002 under intense US pressure, with piecemeal military action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region of seven agencies along Pakistan’s north-western border. The Afghan Taliban were using the region to regroup after their earlier rout: veteran anti-Soviet commander Jalaluddin Haqqani headquartered his network in North Waziristan; Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami had a presence in Bajaur. However, the military, reluctant to take on pro-Pakistan Afghans, whom the government sees as assets against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, instead marched into South Waziristan to apprehend “foreigners” (mainly Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs). Following the regional code of honor, the tribes refused to surrender the guests and were subjected to collective punishment that soon united them against the government. Disparate militant groups coalesced into the Pakistani Taliban, distinct from and less disciplined than its Afghan counterpart. Ineffectual tribal elders were marginalized or assassinated. The leadership shifted to individuals such as Nek Muhammad, 27, a charismatic veteran of the Afghan war, a sworn enemy of the US presence in Afghanistan.

Although FATA had been a transit base for rebels and weaponry during the anti-Soviet struggle, this did not undermine the tribal structures or the political administration. There were no insurgents, according to Rustam Shah Mohmand, an astute analyst of frontier politics, “because the policy of the government and the aspirations of the people converged”. He suggests three causes for the present impasse: President Pervaiz Musharraf’s decision in 2001 to join the US “war on terror”; the use of indiscriminate force to support what was seen as an American war; and the disappearances and rendition of suspects, many innocents among them, given into US custody for money.

These combined to create a gulf between public opinion and government policy, and in 2002 led to the protest vote that brought the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, an alliance of religious parties opposed to the “war on terror”) to power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The evisceration of established institutions, particularly the office of the Political Agent, which since the days of the Raj had served as the federal government’s liaison with the tribal maliks (chiefs), worsened the insecurity. Traditional tribal structures and the concept of regional responsibility also suffered.

In 2004, after two attempts on Musharraf’s life, the government ordered 5,000 troops supported by helicopter gunships into South Waziristan. The military suffered heavy losses and the government was forced to sign a peace treaty with Nek Mohammad that briefly ended hostilities. The ceasefire broke when, on 18 June 2004, the young amir was assassinated in a US drone strike for which, in the first of many such incidents, the Pakistani government claimed responsibility, rather than admit its sovereignty had been breached by the US. Two more peace deals followed, but both ended when in August 2007 Pakistani forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by militants sympathetic to the Taliban, an operation that killed many innocents.

A sustained terrorist campaign followed, and the blowback began to hit Pakistan’s major cities. In response, the military expanded its operations into other agencies including Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber. The fighting was intense, and neither side gave quarter. Millions were displaced, and anger against the government grew.

Phantom enemy

On the bus to Peshawar I’d met a youth, studying English literature at the University of Punjab, who was returning home to evacuate his family from the Khyber Agency. I asked him who the Taliban were, and he replied dryly “we all are”. A taxi driver showed me the flood of refugees from Khyber’s Bara region, and said the Taliban were a “phantom enemy” invented by the Pakistani establishment to justify foreign aid. He warned the government’s actions were actually creating the enemy that it claims it is at war with.

Around the time of the mosque siege the war also spilled into the mainland. Tensions had simmered since 2007 in Malakand’s Swat valley and culminated in the Pakistan army’s incursion this year into the region. The operation followed the failure of a peace settlement, the Nizam-e-Adl, that the government had signed with the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), a local movement committed to the restoration of the region’s old legal order. Until the early 1970s, the three districts of Malakand – Swat, Dir and Chitral — were independent princely states, each with its own legal system — in Swat, a variant of sharia. Following Swat’s accession to Pakistan, the old system was superseded by Pakistan’s legal framework; however, no legal infrastructure evolved to cope with the change. Cases languished in district courts and justice was often indefinitely postponed. From the late 1970s on, this led to calls for the restoration of the old order, and in 1989 Sufi Muhammad established TNSM to formally pursue this cause.

The movement twice took up arms in the 1990s, but the governments of Benazir Bhutto (1994) and Nawaz Sharif (1999) made concessions to defuse hostilities. However, by 2002 the TNSM had all but disappeared after Sufi Muhammad led a contingent of 10,000 men into Afghanistan to fight US forces, most of whom were killed or captured. Sufi Muhammad’s credibility suffered and on his return he was whisked off to a prison in Dera Ismail Khan.

In 2005 Muhammad’s son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, was able to revive TNSM, with a more radical edge. The group was further strengthened by the arrival of militants fleeing US drone attacks in FATA. After the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan, TTP) was established in December 2007 with Baitullah Mehsud as its leader, Mullah Fazlullah changed his organization into a local chapter of the movement. With its populist rhetoric, its swift justice and opposition to the old feudal elite, it found favor with the underclass and attracted many disaffected youths. This, observed Asif Ezdi, a political analyst, was “because the state has failed [the youth], massively and comprehensively: the wellspring of Islamic militancy in Pakistan is to be found in the alienation of the mass of the population by a ruling elite that has used the state to protect and expand its own privileges, pushing the common man into deeper and deeper poverty and hopelessness”.

Rule of justice

With unemployment, easy access to weaponry and training, and rising political consciousness because of a vibrant private media, there was no shortage of angry young men to swell the Taliban ranks, especially when the war was also seen as a struggle against the entrenched elite. “In some areas at least, it has pitted landless tenants against wealthy landlords,” Ezdi notes. This, he says, was “in a country where ordinary people have little chance of overcoming status barriers, with the government, the political system and the elite all arrayed against them. It is this combination of revolutionary and religious zeal which makes the Taliban such a formidable force.”

However, as more power accrued to the TTP, petty criminals also joined. This not only granted them immunity from the Taliban’s brutal justice, but access to weapons and a powerful support network. They used these immediately, terrorizing rivals and ordinary people alike. Following their own narrow interpretation of Islam, they banned female education; more than a hundred schools were bombed. Whatever initial support the Swat Taliban had enjoyed evaporated quickly; even the TTP dissented when its spokesman Maulvi Omar urged Fazlullah to reconsider the decision to ban girls’ education.

Eager to check the growing power of the TTP, in 2008 the Pashtun nationalist government of NWFP released Sufi Muhammad, who had renounced violence, to negotiate peace with the militants. These efforts culminated in the Nizam-e-Adl (rule of justice) legislation of February 2009, which briefly ended hostilities after the government agreed to establish sharia courts and the militants agreed to disarm. After much delay, the legislation was ratified by the central government on April 14, 2009 and, although both sides failed fully to meet obligations, some normalcy briefly returned to the valley.

Western commentators and their local allies were quick to denounce the legislation as Pakistan’s “surrender to the Taliban”. The country, they said, was on the verge of collapse, its nuclear arsenal about to land into the hands of the Taliban, who were within 60 miles of the capital. Pressure mounted on the Pakistani government and in May, when a group of TTP militants rode motorbikes into the neighbouring Buner valley, the incident was presented by the media as a prelude to a march on the capital. The tanks rolled.

While the operation succeeded in dislodging the militants, nearly three million citizens were displaced, and of those who remained, many were killed in the bombing of civilian neighborhoods. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) declared it the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, and the capacity of the international aid organizations was seriously stretched. More than 80 per cent of the refugees were absorbed by families, friends and well-wishers; the UNHCR conceded it was only able to provide 33 per cent of the relief assistance needed for the rest. The Pakistani government failed to provide assistance and much of the foreign aid money lined the pockets of corrupt officials. The unaffected eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab restricted entry to the refugees; this highlighted the ethnic dimension of the conflict, since the Pashtuns see themselves as primary targets.

Yet, unlike the military operations in FATA, the operation enjoyed relatively high popular support among Pakistanis (41 per cent). It was hailed as a success by politicians, the military and the media. Everybody recognized that it was imperative to counter militancy and criminality in Malakand but not all agreed that force was the only way to do it. “I think [the war] was avoidable,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and the most respected analyst of frontier politics, “but Pakistan is not a free and independent player. There was much pressure from the US and other countries, and for a variety of reasons the government couldn’t resist.”

Yusufzai dismisses the idea that the militants were a threat to the country or its nuclear assets. “The government itself is saying that there were no more than 5,000 Taliban; they were controlling Swat, they had entered Buner — how many men could they have spared to march on the capital?” Pakistan is a country of 173 million, with a million under arms and an advanced air force.

“The Taliban had neither the capacity nor the intention to invade the capital. They were only interested in the Malakand division, and even there their influence was limited to three of its seven districts.” The Nizam-e-Adl encompassed the same concessions that two previous, secular governments had made, and Sufi Muhammad’s influence could have defused hostilities and marginalized the radicals. Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary and political commentator, queries whether all political options had been exhausted.

“There never was a more unnecessary war… a war more difficult to justify and harder to win. No one can be bombed into moderation and, given the unconventional methods of the insurgents, force alone has a slim chance of success since the militant doesn’t have to win, he just has to keep fighting.
“Mohmand has questions. “If the aim of the operation was to confront the elements challenging the writ of the state, it should have targeted only them. Why did the government have to invade the whole territory? By using air power and indiscriminate bombardment the government ensured that common people would suffer.”

Although the government has declared victory in Swat, he argued, the success could prove pyrrhic if “the social, economic and political causes that led to the emergence of the Taliban are not addressed and comprehensive reconstruction doesn’t follow.”

Tribe against tribe

In yet another act of political myopia, Pakistan diminished its options when in September it invited members of the Taliban shura (advisory committee) for negotiations and then arrested them. The policy of arming militias to counter the Taliban (along the lines of the Iraqi “awakening councils”) is equally dangerous. In a region where blood feuds last for generations, Yusufzai points out, this means perpetual violence, pitting tribe against tribe. The government’s policy of home demolitions ignores the fact that in the frontier region a single house is shared by an extended family, and when a home is demolished for the sins of an errant son, the state creates more recruits for the insurgency.

An uneasy peace prevails in Swat today, and militant violence has declined. However, more than 200 suspected militants and sympathizers have been killed in extra-judicial executions by security forces and local vigilantes since the end of major combat operations. The population remains in a permanent state of fear: “If, earlier, people were terrorized by the Taliban, today they live in fear of the army,” says Yusufzai. “Anybody can be labelled a Talib”, he notes; some locals have chosen to settle scores by falsely accusing rivals of being Taliban sympathizers. “Your house is then demolished, you are taken into custody, and next day your body is found dumped in a field. People are very scared, they are afraid to talk, and the media” — which mostly cheered on the military — “is compromised.”
The Taliban attacks continued, accelerating in October in anticipation of the new military incursion in South Waziristan. Under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, a campaign of bombings began which, with calculated cruelty, hit targets in Hangu, Kohat, Shangla and Peshawar, killing mostly civilians. The attacks got more audacious as the government escalated the aerial bombing ahead of the ground invasion. Punjabi allies of the Taliban even managed a successful attack on military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s vulnerability became even clearer when a wave of attacks hit the heavily fortified capital.

Meanwhile the US drone attacks in the FATA region continue. Of 701 citizens killed in 60 strikes between January 29 , 2008 and April 8, 2009, only 14 were suspected militants according to one investigation; the brunt is borne by civilians. Public opinion is incensed: according to an August 2009 Gallup poll, 59 per cent of Pakistanis see the US as the biggest threat, compared with 18 per cent for traditional rival India. Only 11 per cent see the Taliban as the biggest threat (although that number is growing). While the poll also revealed 41 per cent support for the military operation in Swat, a higher number (43 per cent) favored a political resolution. The insecurities of the Pakistani defense establishment are worsened by US assistance to India, including the transfer of advanced military and nuclear technology.

With the inducement of aid dollars, Pakistan with its poorly equipped army is trying to achieve what the US and Nato have failed to accomplish in Afghanistan. But the longer the military operations continue the more regions are likely to slip from under its control as the numbers of the aggrieved multiply, the military stretches thin and vulnerabilities increase. Already the insurgency has spread to parts of Punjab. Yet a form of military metaphysics prevails among the Pakistani elite and western commentators, who continue to hope that militancy can be bombed out of existence. Anti-war voices are denounced as Taliban sympathizers.
The recent entry of 28,000 Pakistani troops into South Waziristan has precipitated yet another mass exodus; a third of the population has been displaced. Though the Pakistani Taliban have few supporters left, Associated Press (AP) found refugees venting their anger at the government with chants of “Long live the Taliban”. Instead of winning hearts and minds, the government is delivering them to the enemy. If the Pakistani Taliban are disliked, the government is disliked more. Despite the best efforts of the elite to take ownership of the war, the notion persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war, a view that will be harder to dispute following reports that the attack on Waziristan is being assisted by US drone surveillance.

According to the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the military has again taken a gamble marching into South Waziristan “as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation”. Already the Taliban are regrouping in Swat, and “it is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground” . Yet the media and western commentators remain sanguine. The day the rockets hit Hayatabad the featured article on Foreign Policy magazine’s AfPak Channel was headlined “Everything’s coming up roses in Pakistan”. The attack was attributed to Mangal Bagh Afridi, leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam and a former ally of the government who not long ago was credited with driving out fugitives and petty criminals and providing protection to Nato convoys. Alliances remain transient, yet another reason to refrain from arming militias to fight proxy wars. The morning after the rockets I walked to the local market to buy tandoori bread. Once sold for Rs 2, it now sells for Rs 15. Wages have stagnated and inflation and unemployment are high. On the street there was no talk of the threat to lives. Everyone complained about the impossible cost of living.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.orgThis article appears in the current edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.

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Pakistan Lashes Back at Clinton

November 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Farhan Bokhari

The controversy could overshadow Clinton’s first visit to the country as Secretary of State, especially as her remarks will be seen questioning the sincerity of the influential military, Pakistani officials said.

“If we are going to have a mature partnership where we work together” then “there are issues that not just the United States but others have with your government and with your military security establishment,” Clinton was quoted telling senior Pakistani journalists in Lahore. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they (al Qaeda leaders) are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she said.

Pakistani officials said Clinton’s remarks on the “military security establishment” probably referred to the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the counterespionage agency.

In the past, Western officials, including U.S. officials, have claimed that the ISI has nurtured Islamic militants to stage proxy insurgency campaigns on the country’s behalf in India’s mountainous Kashmir region and in Afghanistan.

A senior Pakistani government official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity late Thursday night said, Clinton’s remarks will likely provoke some reaction from key military leaders who increasingly see the U.S. as insensitive to the army’s ongoing campaign against Taliban militants in the south Waziristan region.

“How can the U.S. at this time be so insensitive for Mrs. Clinton to speak out in public in this way,” asked the Pakistani government official. “These remarks suggest a very high degree of insensitivity.” However, Western diplomats said Clinton’s trip following the recent Kerry-Lugar bill passed by the U.S. Congress which triples U.S. aid to Pakistan to an annual of $1.5 billion over the next five years, was likely to enhance U.S. influence in the country.

“The U.S. position will become stronger if the money begins flowing in. While there will be heart-burning among segments of the Pakistani government, the U.S. will remain a very influential country,” a Western diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News.

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Pakistan Preps Attack

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Pakistan prepares offensive on Taliban stronghold

By Rohan Sullivan, AP

2009-06-13T204536Z_01_AAL110_RTRMDNP_3_PAKISTAN-VIOLENCE

A policeman stands atop Punjab University, keeping guard over a crowd of thousands attending funeral prayers for Muslim cleric Sarfraz Naeemi in Lahore June 13, 2009. Naeemi was attacked by a suicide bomber in his mosque complex after leading Friday prayers a day earlier. Pakistani warplanes struck a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday in retaliation for the killing of the anti-Taliban cleric, the military said.   

REUTERS/Adrees Latif

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s army launched airstrikes and ferried in tanks and artillery as it confirmed Tuesday that it was preparing a major offensive against insurgents in al-Qaida and the Taliban’s safest haven along the Afghan border.

The highly anticipated military operation in South Waziristan is seen as a potential turning point in the yearslong and sometimes half-hearted fight against militancy in Pakistan. It could also help curb Taliban attacks on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
But the offensive in the lawless tribal region will also be the toughest yet for Pakistan’s military, testing both its fighting capability and the government’s will to see it through, analysts said.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the military had received executive orders from the government to begin operations against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, whose base is in South Waziristan.

“The necessary measures and steps which are part of a preliminary phase of the operation, the preparatory phase of the operation, that has commenced,” Abbas told a news conference.

But Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira stressed that the operation “has not been officially started.”

They declined to give more details, citing operational secrecy.

Convoys of military trucks carrying tanks and artillery were seen Tuesday in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, near South Waziristan. Intelligence officials said they were part of the buildup for the operation against Mehsud.

In recent days, the military has shelled and launched airstrikes in both South Waziristan and neighboring Bannu, although so far there has not been large-scale fighting with the militants.

On Tuesday, the army shelled suspected militant hideouts in three villages in South Waziristan in response to attacks on two military checkpoints, and helicopter gunships targeted Mehsud hide-outs in the region, intelligence officials told The Associated Press.

One official called the attacks “surgical strikes” ahead of the main operation.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose information to the media.

The military buildup comes as the army says it is entering the final stages of a major operation against the Taliban in the northwestern Swat Valley, which has triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks by militants across Pakistan that have been blamed on Mehsud.

More than 100 people have died since late May in suicide bombings on targets including police and security buildings, mosques and a hotel catering to foreigners. The attacks have fueled anti-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan that in turn has emboldened the politically weak government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

A military assault in South Waziristan would likely trigger an escalation in the attacks — something the government is bracing for.

“The risk of lives is there — we have to give sacrifices, we have to pay this price and the nation is ready to give this price to get rid of this menace,” Kaira said.

The slow start to the offensive may indicate the government is talking it up before launching it to allow civilians time to flee. The Swat offensive displaced more than 2 million people.

Thousands of residents have already fled Waziristan, local officials and refugees say, and are most are staying with extended family. Aid agencies have warned that the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan’s northwest could worsen if fighting spreads in the tribal belt.

The armed forces may also need more time to mobilize for a full-scale battle in Waziristan, a hard-scrabble, mountainous area where well-armed tribes hold sway and the government’s influence is minimal.

Many Taliban and al-Qaida militants fled to the region after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. It remains a base for cross-border attacks on Western and Afghan forces and a training center for militants operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. South Waziristan is also a possible hiding place of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.

Militants have had years to dig in and store arms and ammunition in bolt-holes that include concrete bunkers and tunnel networks, said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier and former intelligence chief for the tribal region.

Battle-hardened fighters from Afghanistan, Swat and elsewhere will rally to join the fight, he predicted.

“This is going to be their final battlefield because the prominent leaders of al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, the local Taliban and our own terrorist jihadi organizations, they are all here,” Munir said. “They will defend this place, which has acted as a sanctuary for them.”

U.S. missiles fired from unmanned drones have repeatedly struck South Waziristan, most recently on Sunday, and militants would become far more vulnerable to airborne attacks if they are forced out of their strongholds by Pakistan’s offensive. The military has launched repeated operations in the past, only to later back off as the government has pursued failed peace deals instead.

Abbas said Tuesday there were unconfirmed reports that al-Qaida-linked Uzbek militant leader Tahir Yuldash was injured in a Pakistani air force strike Sunday in South Waziristan. He gave no further details.

Yuldash leads the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and has survived numerous Pakistan military operations to trap him in the tribal regions.

___
Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Masud in Dera Ismail Khan, and Munir Ahmad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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