Taliban find safe haven in Pakistan's wild west

By Sultan Shahin
31 November 2001

Pakistan's tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) region hold the key to the eventual success of the United States- led coalition's war against terrorism.

Dominated by fiercely independent Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban across the Durand Line in Afghanistan that sets out the border between the two countries, these areas are known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). The FATA will constitute an almost impregnable stronghold for the fleeing Taliban and their leaders. They can run a long war against civilization from there unless the area is quickly deweaponized and brought under government control - which of course is easier said than done.

The Pakistan government has historically had little control over this semi- autonomous Pashtun territory, which is divided into zones called "agencies", dominated by rival clans where no taxes are collected and disputes are settled with guns and axes. The government writ simply does not run in this region.

Already there are reports coming from Peshawar of Taliban fighters creeping into these tribal zones. Fighters from the Taliban army beaten in Afghanistan are taking refuge in FATA, taking more than their guns, according to Afghan opposition officials. Indeed Osama bin Laden himself and the Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, too, are said to be already hiding there, though no-one really knows their whereabouts.

Pakistan began to deploy 1,000 extra troops last week along this sensitive stretch of its border with Afghanistan amid fears Taliban fighters might try to sneak into the country. The reinforcements will be backed by six tanks sent to the area around Chaman - the main border crossing close to the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

But Abdul Samad Momand, one of the mujahideen commanders who took part in the seizing of four provinces in eastern Afghanistan from the Taliban, said that supporters of the ousted Taliban regime had managed to cross the frontier. He accused the governor of Nangarhar province in i eastern Afghanistan of taking refuge in Pakistan with money from the local state bank. "The Taliban, the Pakistanis and the Arabs have left the area and they have entered Pakistan," said the commander in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. "It is difficult to give the exact figure. They are coming in small groups," he added.

FATA offers an easy opportunity for the jihadi militia fighters to get away from the troubles in Afghanistan. The tribes are mainly Sunni Muslim ethnic Pashtuns who support the Taliban, which is dominated by Afghan Pashtuns. Several thousand tribesmen are said to have crossed the border to help the Taliban in recent weeks.

The tribal agencies are in rugged mountain districts where foreigners are not welcome, and even the Pakistan government has only limited access. The main crossing is through the renowned Khyber Pass. There are some places one can only get to by helicopter. The agencies are known collectively as the ilaqa ghair - the land without laws - because, to keep the peace with the fiercely independent people, the government has been forced to follow the example of the former British empire in giving them a unique form of autonomy.

FATA are frequently the final destination of the vehicles stolen from all over the country. The tribal people demand funds for development, but do not want to pay taxes and are opposed to the integration of the tribal belt with the settled areas of NWFP.

They also do not allow the introduction in FATA of the judicial system prevailing in the rest of the country. Women rights activists complain about discrimination to which female members of the tribal society are subjected.

Commenting on the fallout of the Afghan war, senior Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, a tribal himself, pointed out that tribal, ethnic and sectarian disputes are part of life in Pakistan even though some of them turn out to be rather brutal. But the use of heavy and sophisticated weapons, as witnessed recently in the Orakzai tribal agency killings in the NWFP to settle scores is a new phenomenon. In fact, h is one of the many fallouts of the Afghan war. Most Pakistanis by now know something about the Kalashnikov, the AK-47 assault rifle named after a Russian army officer who was its inventor, because most crime stories in newspapers are incomplete without it being mentioned.

Even the Kalashnikov was unknown in our part of the world, says Yusufzai, until it was introduced in Afghanistan, first by the Red Army troops who invaded the country in December 1979 and then by the US-led Tree World", which armed and equipped the Afghan mujahideen. The Americans, as well as (he Saudis and Pakistanis, endeavoring to keep their military assistance to the mujahideen discreet, provided copies of the Russian-made Kalashnikovs manufactured in China, Egypt and Czechoslovakia to the mujahideen.

However, the US's Central Investigation Bureau and Pakistan's Inter- Services Intelligence operations remained hardly a secret after a white as more lethal and sophisticated weapons, among them the US-manufactured shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missile, were made available to the mujahideen.

There was bound to be misuse and pilferage of such a huge quantity of weapons, more so in an unstable country tike Pakistan which, under military dictator General Zia ul-Haq had agreed to become the frontline state to fight the capitalist West's war against communism in Afghanistan.

The arms and ammunition used to be stored in Pakistan before being smuggled into Afghanistan across the long and porous border. The deadly explosions in the ammunition dumps in the Pakistani towns of Ojheri and Nowshera are stilt fresh in the memory of those who became victims. It was hardly surprising that the weapons meant to be used in Afghanistan started finding their way to Pakistan, where the society had become highly militarized due to the Afghan and Kashmir wars in the neighborhood and the demand for better-quality arms was on the rise. Before long, most of these weapons were being used with devastating effects in tribal warfare in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

Tribesmen familiar with single and double barrel rifles were now able to acquire the deadly Kalashnikov and other automatic guns. The Kalashnikov and 20-bore TT pistol, also Russian-made, became status symbols, but the more resourceful in the tribal belt procured mortars, rocket-launchers and missiles. Militant groups, including those involved in sectarian battles, and tribes confronted with tribal disputes over ownership of land, forests and hills, considered it a good investment to buy whatever was on sate to deter their opponents and shore up their defenses.

The Russia-manufactured Dachaka and Zikoyak heavy guns are now familiar names in the FATA because they are often used in tribal wars. Mortars of various sizes are widely available, and so are rocket-launchers and missiles. Some tribesmen claimed that SAKR-20 missiles, also made Russia, too, were used in the recent sectarian fighting in Orakzai agency, which continued for four days and caused significant human and material losses.

These missiles were made famous when used by mujahideen groups to pound communist-held Kabul in the early 1990s. The Kabulis who abandoned the Afghan capital during this period: and: migrated to Pakistan were also contemptuously referred to as the "SAKR-20 refugees" by the pro-mujahideen Afghans who had sought refuge in the region earlier. Besides, landmines and shells and cartridges of every mortar and gun sold in Pakistani tribal arms markets are in abundance and cheaply available.

Landmines, both anti-personnel and anti-tank, have taken a heavy toll of life and limb in the tribal areas. Bajaur tribal agency is probably the most affected with Kurram agency a close second. The Peshawar-based Pakistan Campaign to Ban Landmines has been documenting the landmine explosions and the data and pictures of victims produced by it are both alarming and heart-wrenching.

The international community has done well to focus on clearing the deadly landmines that litter Afghanistan, even if the funding for this humanitarian cause is inadequate, but few people have bothered to remember the victims of these mines in Pakistan's tribal areas. As usual, Pakistanis have suffered and are still suffering from the fallout of a war which served the West's purpose and left Pakistan to bear its consequences, complains Yusufzai.

Besides live ammunition and ready-to-use guns, Pakistan also became a big market for the scrap metal from the Afghan war. Tanks that were hit and broken down, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, mortars and military vehicles, each and every weapon and equipment used by the combatants in Afghanistan, was dismantled and sold as junk and taken to Pakistan. Some of this scrap contained live shells, which have killed and maimed a large number of Afghans and Pakistanis, especially children. Some of the scrap continues to explode and kin, the latest incident happening in a Charsadda village where a man lost three of his children playing with a shell they thought was used.

Yusufzai recalls how scores of damaged Russian-made military aircraft captured by the mujahideen when they took Khost city in 1990 vanished in the course of a month after being cut into pieces and sold as scrap. The Afghans and their Pakistani business partners could have even brought whole tanks and armored personnel carriers for sale to Pakistan if they weren't too big to be smuggled across the Durand Line border.

The move to force an economic blockade of the tribes, which refuse to give up heavy and sophisticated weapons and surrender wanted men is a legitimate tactic, continues Yusufzai, and suggests it ought to be taken to a logical conclusion, even if criticized by human rights groups. The possession of such deadly weapons by groups and individuals is undesirable and a threat to public peace. The example of Afghanistan, where ownership of such weapons during mujahideen rule by non-state actors created lawlessness and paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban, is a lesson that should be learned.

In the past, half-hearted efforts have been made in the Frontier to seize the heavy and sophisticated weapons. Only a few pieces of arms were surrendered, or so it was claimed, by certain tribesmen. The result was that tribal combatants began using them more frequently, causing far more death and destruction than the Kalashnikovs or pistols could ever cause. Afghans, who fought the Soviets or among themselves, were easily available to handle the mortars and rocket-launchers for a fee in case the Pakistani tribesmen needed a trained hand. These weapons were also available on rent if someone couldn't afford to buy them.

The absence of an arms act in FATA is no excuse to own such deadly weapons as this right of the tribals ought to be restricted to smaller arms only. Until a determined effort is made to rid the Frontier of the heavy and sophisticated weapons, observers are not prepared to believe the oft- repeated government announcements regarding plans to recover illegal and prohibited bore arms.