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Pakistan: Crackdown Could Pose Threat To Central Asia

Pakistan's army has little influence in Waziristan (file photo) (epa) March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While reports say that more than 150 people have been killed this month in Waziristan in fighting between Uzbek militants and local tribesmen, it is difficult to obtain precise information on events in an area where the Pakistani government has almost no presence and exerts little influence.

The Pakistani government is calling the
fierce fighting in its South Waziristan tribal area between local
tribesmen and foreign militants a successful example of Islamabad's
controversial policies there.

But not everyone is convinced the Pakistani government's version of events in Waziristan is the whole story. And in Afghanistan and the neighboring Central Asian countries, the fighting in Waziristan is of great concern as it could soon affect the security situations in those countries.

Government Agreement Backfires

"The government has very little control [in Waziristan] now," Pakistani journalist Haroun Rashid explains. "For two or three years, the Pakistani military has been staging operations in that area against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, but they did not succeed so they then resorted to [an] agreement -- and they have reached two agreements in [South Waziristan] with the main two tribes. After that the Pakistani government just withdrew...and [wherever] the vacuum was the militants came in and they took control."

Those agreements made tribal leaders responsible for expelling foreign fighters, who include supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It is the IMU that is causing problems now. Latif Afridi, a Pashtun tribal leader and former member of parliament from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, tells RFE/RL that an unlikely mediator, the Taliban, is trying to end the hostilities.

"I have heard that [Taliban] are all trying to make peace between these two rival groups," he says. "But in my opinion, as long as these Uzbeks do not stop attacking the honor of these people -- their rules and their traditions -- there will be no peace."

Reports from Waziristan say violence started because the Uzbeks killed some local leaders suspected of spying for the Pakistani or U.S. governments, and also some of the Uzbeks have become involved with local women. Local leaders then reportedly called on the Uzbeks to surrender their weapons. That offer was rejected.

Central Asian Militants

The IMU first appeared in 1999 when some 1,000 militants appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan. The group's stated goal was to overthrow Uzbekistan's government.

Kyrgyz forces kept the IMU in the mountains along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, but the next summer they returned to southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan. Their attacks were repelled and, by the summer of 2001, the IMU was fighting in Afghanistan alongside Taliban forces. They fought mainly in northern provinces not far from their homes in Central Asia.

U.S. bombings in November 2001 damaged the IMU. But apparently the survivors found a place to hide and regroup in Pakistan, in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. That is the same place where many believe Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri have found refuge.

Fighting With Taliban

The Pakistani government says its policy of relying on local leaders in Waziristan to rid the region of foreign fighters is paying off. Ahmed Rashid, author of the book "The Taliban," says that is not entirely accurate.

"I think the situation is more complicated than the way the Pakistan government is presenting it," he says. "The fact is that the local militants who are attacking the Uzbeks are also Taliban and are also linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership and this is an internal fight I think between the extremists."

Rashid had also heard the Taliban are involved in negotiating a settlement. "There are already reports that Jalaladdin Haqani, the former Taliban minister, is negotiating a cease-fire between them, and perhaps Mullah Dadullah will be coming up from [Afghanistan's] Helmand [Province] to also help negotiate a cease-fire between them and it's possible that the Uzbeks may be removed from south Waziristan and taken south into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban as a way of lessening the tensions in south Waziristan," he says.

An article in the Pakistani daily "Dawn" on March 25 said some 10,000 armed Uzbeks will move to Helmand Province to help fight NATO-led troops and Afghan government forces.

Rashid said the number is lower but noted that the Uzbeks' situation is now desperate, as there is no longer an option to disarm and live among the people of Waziristan.

"There is no way that [the Uzbeks] will be disarmed," Rashid says. "The fact is that they are a very powerful group. There are perhaps as many as 1,500 to 2,000 Uzbeks there. They know that if they are disarmed they will be wiped out by the locals, by the Pakistani Army, or by the Americans."

Frying Pan Or Fire?

Some say there are less than 1,000 armed Uzbeks in Waziristan. However many there are, the Uzbeks' choices now seem to be to stay in Waziristan and be killed, or to leave. But will they really go to Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight NATO-led forces?

Tom Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said NATO is aware of the Taliban claims but rejected their accuracy.

"I would say that it's probably part of the Taliban's propaganda effort," Collins says. "We see very few foreign fighters in this country and I'm not going to speculate on what their latest claim of sending 10,000 foreign fighters into Afghanistan might mean."

Pashtun leader Afridi says that going to Afghanistan would be difficult for the Uzbeks and maybe worse than staying in Waziristan.

"If they leave Pakistan and enter Afghanistan, they will not have any friends there. First of all, they will face NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And they will be decimated. They cannot survive. And if they go to Afghanistan, they will not receive help like they got in Pakistan. Nobody will protect them there as they were protected in Pakistan," Afridi says.

"It means they will face great dangers in Afghanistan," he adds. "And that is the reason why they say they don't want to go to Afghanistan -- the reason they insist that they will make 'jihad' only in Uzbekistan."

Ready To Go Home?

Uzbekistan, or at least Central Asia, may be the only place for these Uzbeks to run and, as RFE/RL Afghan analyst Amin Tarzi says, there is a known path back to that region.

"If the Uzbeks want to travel from South Waziristan north to Tajikistan they have a fairly straight way along the FATA, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani government does not have much control constitutionally and it's a very mountainous region. That's where basically Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other people are still there, so [the Uzbeks] have ways to go through those places," Tarzi says.

"Then they hit one area that is in Swat and Chitral, which have some of the highest mountains in Pakistan. That connects them to the Pamir area, which is the panhandle of Afghanistan. Crossing that you are right in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, which is the most inaccessible region of Tajikistan where [the Uzbeks] can regroup," he concludes.

The IMU is still active in Central Asia -- a fact shown by the number of its members still being arrested in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- and the number of IMU members there may increase if the Uzbek militants in Waziristan decide to stop fighting in Pakistan and return home.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this article.)

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