A top expert on the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism, author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, says Pakistan's military operations near the Afghan border appear to be the result of enormous international pressure on Islamabad to capture Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But the hunt is complicated by domestic politics and tribal law in Pakistan
Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan announced yesterday that 18 suspected terrorists have been captured in a military operation that began last week in a mountainous tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
But Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat says it remains unclear whether any of the suspects are "important figures" being sought by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. Hayyat said authorities remain uncertain about links between the suspects and Al-Qaeda -- the terrorist network blamed for the 11 September attacks in the United States. He said all of the suspects are being questioned to determine their identities and nationalities.
Ahmed Rashid, an author and Pakistan-based journalist, is a leading expert on the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism. He told RFE/RL it has been difficult for correspondents to get into the area to confirm what is happening there. "Clearly, this is a very heavily censored operation that is going on," he said. "The journalists are not being allowed to report it [from the ground] and whatever is coming is coming out of the public relations side of the [Pakistani] military. And there are very conflicting reports about how many they are chasing, how many they have arrested, how many they want to arrest. And it's not even clear exactly who they are after. Are they after just locals? Is it Al-Qaeda? Is it Taliban? Are these Afghans or Arabs?"
A week ago, Pakistani soldiers raided homes in the border town of Wana after receiving intelligence reports that Al-Qaeda fugitives were being sheltered by residents there. Wana is in a semi-autonomous area, or tribal agency, called South Waziristan.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali says about 65,000 active troops are now deployed along the country's border with Afghanistan to stop militants from crossing over. Hundreds of Pakistani commandos have taken part in the operation at Wana. But initial reports from military officials said a score of Al-Qaeda operatives managed to escape into the rugged mountains of South Waziristan. Later, the military said it had detained some members of the Wazir tribe, but had released most of them.
The army then began to pressure local leaders in South Waziristan by issuing a list of tribesmen accused of sheltering Al-Qaeda operatives.
The central government in Kabul has charged repeatedly that the tribal agencies of Pakistan are used as hideouts by Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants being hunted in Afghanistan by U.S. and Afghan forces.
Rashid says senior Western diplomats in Islamabad also told him recently they think Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden himself is hiding on Pakistan's side of the border. "Senior Western diplomats told me in Islamabad last week that there is enormous pressure on Pakistan right now to deliver Osama bin Laden following the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq," he said. "Western diplomats seem to be convinced that he is in the South Waziristan-Baluchistan border region. That is quite a large region. But they have been able to pinpoint him there for some months now. So I think this operation is a reflection of this huge amount of Western pressure -- American, British, and French."
Speaking during a visit to Kabul earlier this week, Prime Minister Jamali denied the operations in the tribal areas are the result of pressure from the United States or any other country. Interior Minister Hayyat says he has no information on the whereabouts of bin Laden and his associates or whether they are hiding in Pakistan. But he said the latest operations are "limiting time, space and options" for them.
Rashid says he suspects the tight media controls in South Waziristan are aimed at preventing embarrassing stories about the failure to catch Al-Qaeda operatives. "I think the army has been embarrassed by the fact that these people got away, that clearly they were either pre-warned or the military's intelligence wasn't good enough," he said. "Despite the fact that they were using helicopters and gunships, and there was supposed to be the element of surprise, the fact is that they have not been able to kill or capture any sizable number of these militants."
Rahul Bedi is an Asian subcontinent correspondent for the London-based journal "Jane's Defense Weekly." He told RFE/RL the complications faced by Pakistan's military in the tribal agencies stem from an agreement that dates back to the British colonial era and which remained in force after the formation of Pakistan in 1947. "Tribal chiefs, who are called maliks or khans, control the area. The Pakistani authorities -- particularly the military and the police -- are only allowed with the permission of the maliks and khans to travel on the roads through the tribal areas. They are not allowed to go off the road," he said. "This is a peculiar territorial deal that has survived over 60 years and continues to do so. Any attempt to abrogate this is likely to result in a huge backlash and a bloodbath because the local tribes are very protective and fierce about maintaining their identity. They do not want any interference from the outside."
Bedi explained that the local code within the tribal agencies near the Afghan border makes it complicated for Islamabad to use military force to hunt down suspected Al-Qaeda fugitives -- including Osama bin Laden. "The army has to really operate not through an offensive measure, but through a series of deal making, bartering, economic handouts -- that kind of thing. Force doesn't work because this opposes the local code of hospitality," he said. "The local code declares that once they provide hospitality to a guest, even if he is an enemy or a bad person, they are honor bound to protect him and fight to the death to keep him safe."
Bedi concludes that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also has to be cautious not to upset six Islamic fundamentalist parties in parliament, with which he recently brokered a political deal to ensure his own continuation in office. That group, called the MMA, derives much of its popular support from the tribal agencies and other border areas of Baluchistan Province and the Northwest Frontier Province. "[Musharraf] is not anxious to upset this group because if he does upset them, then it is really a slide back. And also, he loses face with the Americans. He loses face within the military, and he also loses face within the political system of Pakistan as it exists," Bedi said.
Rashid says these domestic political concerns also are the reason Islamabad continues to deny that U.S. Special Forces are working on Pakistan's side of the border. Rashid notes that local residents and journalists have seen the soldiers. "It's confirmed that U.S. Special Forces are involved. There are very small numbers of them, but they have been involved. But they have a very limited role. I don't think the Pakistanis are allowing them to run around on their own. I think they have a role in coordinating such operations with American troops on the Afghan side of the border. They have a communications role. They are probably delivering American intelligence to Pakistani forces on the border. So I don't think they have a role in the sense of actually chasing down Al-Qaeda. They have more of a backup role. But they are certainly there," Rashid said.
It was in the wake of the 11 September attacks against the United States that Pakistan officially ended its support for Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, which had harbored Osama bin Laden and other senior members of Al-Qaeda. Since then, Pakistan has arrested and handed over more than 500 suspected terrorists to the United States.