Confederation of Terror
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
September 15, 2007
On September 6 the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan marked the first anniversary of its de facto recognition. On that day last year, the Taliban used the name when it signed a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani government. The ceasefire is in tatters, but the terror trail of the recent plots in Germany and Denmark indicates that the Emirate is doing fine.
The Emirate's writ is spreading among the mountainous areas that make up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that run along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Going by trends, the Emirate is more than just a safe haven: It is on a nightmare path of nation-building. Osama bin Laden will be its sultan; Mullah Omar its spiritual leader; heroin and smuggling its economic drivers; and terrorism its primary export. "Al Qaeda is building a mini-state, an enclave, in the FATA," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al Qaeda.
Besides the heartland of South and North Waziristan, "al Qaedastan" also encompasses a belt of tribal land going up to Mohmand and Bajaur areas. Its sphere of violent influence, says a former member of the Afghan National Security Council, includes bordering Afghan provinces like Loya Paktia and, increasingly, Nangarhar.
Three developments are feeding the growth of "al Qaedastan." One is a resurrected, more militant Taliban, which is supplanting traditional Pashtun chiefs in the border areas with its radical clerics. The second is the increasing number of global Islamic militant groups who are taking up residence there. The third is the inability of either Kabul or Islamabad to marshal a credible military response.
Over the past three decades, the Pashtun have been repeatedly mobilized under the jihadi banner: first by the Pakistani military and the U.S. to fight the Soviets, then by various Afghan warlords and the Taliban, and now by the ideology of al Qaeda. The malik, a local chief who helped keep the peace since the British Raj, and represented an older secular Pashtun nationalism, has been marginalized. The mullah now holds sway. "The Durrani tribal maliki that once dominated these areas is being physically eradicated," says Michael Shaikh of the International Crisis Group.
Some argue this is nothing more than Durrani nobility being replaced by an upstart subtribe, the Ghilzai. But the spread of Islamicism is blurring tribal distinctions. "Today's Taliban are fighting for an extremist ideology, not for Ghilzai supremacy," says an Afghan official. An example of how this ideology is taking root is how it has ended the centuries-old feuds between the Waziri and Mehsud subtribes.
The "al Qaedaization" of the Taliban can be seen in their use of suicide bombing, human shields, and bloodier kidnappings, practices abhorrent in traditional Pashtun culture. The Afghan government has no doubt this represents foreign tutelage. Says the Afghan ambassador to the U.S., Said Tayeb Jawad: "Al Qaeda is the commander, the Taliban the foot soldier. Al Qaeda provides strategic guidance."
The Emirate is not a centralized political entity. The ground situation more closely resembles a medieval confederation of warlords. Starting at the southern border of FATA is South Waziristan, where Maulvi Nazir holds sway with an estimated 3,000 Wazirs. Some months ago he bloodily drove away several hundred Uzbek militants, who then sought refuge in the North Waziristan areas held by Baitullah Mehsud, a militant commander rapidly gaining strength.
Also in this area, says Taliban watcher and Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, is Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. "He is ill and one sees his sons moving around in the area. But he is the key man in FATA. He acts as the interface between the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the tribal leaders." There have been recent arrivals: A few thousand fighters from Pakistan militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, normally focussed on fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir, moved there earlier this year. They have been called the "Pakistan Taliban" or, more accurately, the "Punjabi Taliban." The northernmost tribal area of Bajaur is home to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the anti-Soviet Afghan warlord once favored by the Pakistani military.
There are differences on how al Qaeda, centered around bin Laden and a new crop of North African Arab commanders, fits into all this. Gunaratna argues al Qaeda, which has always had to be a guest of a local host in the past, is master of its new home. Rizvi believes al Qaeda secures its position by providing money and training. Most agree al Qaeda stays atop the terror pyramid in large part because it is perceived as the fount of militant ideology.
The various parts of the confederation of terror wage their own separate holy wars. Haqqani's sights are set on Kabul. Indian counterterrorism expert B. Raman says Mehsud, who can count on the support of a Mehsud subtribe, is behind the recent suicide bombings in Pakistani cities and capture of hundreds of Pakistani soldiers. Al Qaeda, the group with the most extensive international connections, has been behind a number of attempted attacks against European targets ranging from last August's British airplane plot to this month's German peroxide plot. The main Uzbek jihadi groups look to Central Asia. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of aspiring terrorists are flocking to FATA for training and inspiration. Many fighters from FATA also make a pilgrimage to Iraq to get a taste of the war, learn new tactics and techniques.
The forces arraigned against this rising terrorist mini-state are in disarray. The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is isolated. NATO is hamstrung by a shortage of soldiers and too many casualty-shy contingents. Pakistan is heading for a year of political turmoil as military ruler Pervez Musharraf hemorrhages legitimacy and his civilian political rivals challenge his rule. U.S. policy is paralyzed by a presidential campaign, a situation exacerbated by the consuming domestic debate over Iraq. Says Shaikh: "The best-case scenario is another 30 years of low-level tribal warfare." The worst is the consolidation of al Qaedastan. In his latest 9/11 anniversary message, Osama bin Laden dyed his beard. Perhaps he was celebrating.
The author is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York City, and Foreign Editor of the Hindustan Times.