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Friday, December 30, 2005

‘Taliban’ gain sway in tribal region

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani followers of Afghanistan’s Taliban have gained sway in a sensitive border area where they have been killing their opponents with impunity despite the heavy presence of government forces.

The word of the militants, who call themselves Taliban, has virtually become law in parts of the semi-autonomous North Waziristan tribal area while the military appears loathe to intervene.

“The situation is no longer under their control,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a prominent journalist and expert on the region, said of the Pakistan Army. The government had “totally abdicated” its authority in North Waziristan, he said. “It seems it’s Taliban raj (rule) there.” Waziristan is part of Pakistan’s tribal belt that stretches through rugged mountains and deserts along the Afghan border. Many Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban members fled to the remote region from Afghanistan after US-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001 and were given shelter by militants from the ethnic Pashtun tribes that inhabit both sides of the border.

The army launched an offensive to clear foreign militants from the region two years ago and hundreds of people – militants and government troops – have been killed. The latest violence follows a December 1 blast in a house near the region’s main town, Miranshah, where officials said an Al Qaeda commander, Abu Hamza Rabia, and four others were killed.

Although Rabia’s body was not found, authorities say he died when explosives at his hideout detonated accidentally. Villagers said the blast was caused by a missile from an aircraft, possibly a US drone. While there does not appear to be a direct link between Rabia’s reported death and subsequent violence, the widespread belief that US forces attacked Rabia has added to the tension, residents say. Despite the militants’ brazen killing of more than 20 rivals this month, the government says the situation is under control. Authorities were “fully cognisant” of the situation, said military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan. “But at this moment, rather than taking hard military action, political developments are being allowed to take precedence.”

The area’s civil administrator, Zaheerul Islam, dismissed the violence as a tribal dispute. “The situation is under government control,” he said. Despite such assurances, law and order seem a long way off.

“Elements linked to Al Qaeda rule the territory and not the Pakistan Army,” the Daily Times said in a recent editorial.

British colonial rulers gave the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes a large degree of autonomy, and administered the region through officials known as political agents. Pakistan stuck with the system after independence.

But the September 11 attacks and Pakistan’s support for the US-led war on terrorism and invasion of Afghanistan threw the traditional system into question. Vowing to bring the area under the control of the government, the army sent in 70,000 troops but some analysts blame the violence on the army’s intervention. “The military has mishandled the situation,” said analyst Ayaz Amir, a former army officer, diplomat and politician. The army has made deals with some tribal leaders, while going after others seen as backing al Qaeda-linked militants.

“The result has been a lack of trust and the situation has deteriorated instead of improving,” Amir said.

About 50 tribal leaders who supported the campaign against the militants have been killed, while the army seems no closer to imposing authority. “In effect, the army is confined to fortified bases while the Taliban are filling the vacuum outside,” Amir said. The result has been brutal gun law.

The latest violence began on December 6 with a clash between the militants and rivals led by tribal leader Hakim Khan, whose men, residents said, had adopted the common practice of extorting “taxes” from motorists. Ten of Khan’s men, branded bandits by the militants, were killed in the initial clash along with five militants whose comrades mutilated and strung up several bodies of their rivals, decapitating one and putting his head on a pole.

For days the militants drove around Miranshah brandishing weapons and hunting, killing and beheading several more rivals. Emboldened, the militants have started appealing for funds they say they need to fight crime, a nervous resident said this week. Sneering at laws against displaying weapons, the militants have been accorded authority by some people who have turned to them with complaints that should be dealt with by the administration, residents say.

Military spokesman Sultan said action would be taken if things got of hand but another officer said that wouldn’t happen yet. “When two tribes are fighting we can’t take sides,” said the officer, who declined to be identified. reuters
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