The cause, death toll, and final outcome of the clashes involving Uzbeks and tribesmen were all unclear more than a week after the violence began. Accounts by international news agencies and Pakistani media agreed that the fighting started on March 19 near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the southernmost of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; it pitted a group composed largely of IMU-affiliated Uzbek militants against local Pashtun tribesmen.
Most sources linked the outbreak of fighting to the death of an Arab affiliated with a local Pashtun leader named Mawlawi Nazir. Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper, for example, described Nazir as the leader of "local Taliban" and painted a picture of mounting tension between pro-Taliban local tribes and Uzbek militants after Uzbeks killed an "Al-Qaeda-linked Arab" (identified as Saiful Adil). But AFP reported that clashes broke out "after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf's moves to expel foreigners from the area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant [and IMU leader] Tahir Yuldashev to disarm."
Whatever lit the fuse, the official death toll continues to climb.
Reports this week suggested a local cease-fire, but at the same time fierce fighting was reported just a few kilometers away. And reports emerged of overnight fighting in South Waziristan on March 29-30.
A tribal elder and opponent of the Uzbek presence in the region, Haji Khannan, has cautioned that "the only durable solution to the problem is to ask Uzbeks to leave the area." He claimed that Uzbeks' "continued presence would cause friction with the local tribes."
The official death toll now stands at around 170, with most of the dead ethnic Uzbeks affiliated with the IMU. Local sources told a Pakistani newspaper, "The News," that the fighting had claimed far fewer lives, with casualties split evenly between local tribes and Uzbeks.
A journalist in North Waziristan, Saylab Mas'ud, estimated to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21 that "there were "about 2,000 to 2,500 Uzbek militia in the [immediate] area."
The highest estimates to have emerged are of more than 10,000 "foreign" fighters in the Tribal Areas, although there is little evidence to support such claims.
The confused chain of events makes more sense if one considers in turn the three groups of actors involved -- Pakistan's central authorities, local tribesmen in South Waziristan, and the IMU -- and the interests they are pursuing.
'Government Tribesmen Strategy'
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been pressed by the United States to do more to contain militant activity in the tribal provinces bordering Afghanistan, and he has faced hostile demonstrations after his suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Against that backdrop, he is eager to claim success for his policy of encouraging tribal leaders to deal with the problem of foreign militants. A Pakistani military spokesman recently described tribal leaders in South Waziristan as "patriots" for their efforts to evict IMU fighters, Pakistan's "Daily Times" reported on March 27. As early as March 20, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad called the fighting "a success of the government tribesmen strategy," Reuters reported. The spokesman claimed "the tribesmen are fed up with [foreign militants] because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business."
Nevertheless, comments by the leader of a local family described by "IThe News" as supporting the eviction of Uzbek fighters from South Waziristan hardly inspired confidence that the central government's policy will do much to reduce the militancy that is fueling violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Haji Sharif vowed that his people would "continue [their] jihad [in Afghanistan] if that is against America, the Russians, British, or India as long as [they] have souls in our bodies." Sharif shrugged off the fighting with the Uzbeks as a distraction from the larger conflict in Afghanistan. He said his group's "activities across the border have been affected by [the] crisis with the Uzbeks," adding, "We have enemies in our home."
What's more, Pakistan's army may have taken sides in the recent clashes in South Waziristan, although Pakistani military spokesmen have consistently denied any involvement in the fighting. "The Asia Times Online" on March 28 quoted "independent sources" as saying that Pakistani special forces aided Pashtun leader Nazir in clashes against Uzbek forces and carried out raids in an attempt to arrest the IMU leader, Yoldosh. Reuters reported on March 22 that local residents said "some shelling aimed at Uzbek positions appeared to be coming from a military base."
According to "The Asia Times Online," the involvement of the Pakistani military "pits the 'coalition' of Nazir's Taliban and the Pakistani military against the leaders of the 'Islamic State of Waziristans.'" The latter refers to leaders in North and South Waziristan who are bitterly opposed to central government involvement in the tribal regions and support the presence of foreign militants.
As for the local tribesmen, a former British military attache in Islamabad, Brigadier Johnny Torrence-Spence, told a briefing in Washington on March 26 that Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal regions are not a "single, homogenous group because they are divided along distinct tribal lines," the "Daily Times" reported. Reports from the region confirmed this, suggesting that some tribesmen object to the Uzbek presence in South Waziristan and are amenable to central government inducements to evict the Uzbeks, while others stand with the Uzbeks. "The News International" noted, for example, that Haji Sharif supports the eviction of the Uzbeks while his brothers, Haji Omar and Noor Islam, have been fighting alongside the Uzbeks.
Caught In The Middle
Where does this leave the IMU? Reports in Pakistan's press indicate that they have both supporters and enemies among local tribesmen. Pakistan's central authorities publicly oppose the Uzbeks' presence. Most estimates put the Uzbeks' strength at around 1,000, although some, such as the journalist quoted above, say they could number as high as 2,000, and a March 26 report in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" spoke of 10,000 Uzbek fighters led by Tohir Yoldosh.
The "Daily Telegraph" reported that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have offered the Uzbek force a way out of its problems in South Waziristan in the form of "safe passage" to Kunar, Paktia, or Helmand in Afghanistan to take part in a spring offensive against NATO troops. In comments to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Colonel Tom Collins, dismissed the report as "Taliban propaganda" and said that there is no evidence IMU militants are headed for Afghanistan.
But experts queried by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service were less skeptical. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively on the Taliban and IMU, told RFE/RL that the ongoing events are difficult to interpret. But Rashid noted that "in order to deal with a difficult situation in Waziristan, foreign fighters may go to the south, to Afghanistan." The editor in chief of Pakistan's "Daily Mail," Makhdoom Babar, told RFE/RL that with conditions in Pakistan becoming less and less hospitable, he thinks the Uzbek force "will leave for Afghanistan." But Robert Birsel, a Reuters correspondent in Pakistan, suggested that Uzbek militants might be able to hammer out a truce with the local tribesmen in whose midst they have now lived for years.
Interestingly, the fighting in South Waziristan also drew comment from the global jihadist media apparatus. One group that regularly posts statements from jihadist insurgent groups in Iraq to pro-Al-Qaeda Internet forums, Al-Fajr Media Center, put out a press release in Arabic on March 21 on "what is happening in Waziristan." It claimed dismissively that "the Pakistani Army, its crusader overlords, and their apostate allies over the past five years have been unable to stand up to the holy warriors, whether in North or South Waziristan." Charging that the recent clashes were inspired by Pakistani intelligence agents, the Al-Fajr Media Center claimed that "the fighting is taking place between exiled holy warriors and their allies and some pro-government tribes, or the Pakistani army and intelligence services dressed as tribes." It argued that the combat does not pit Uzbeks against "tribes," as some are saying.
In sum, reports from Pakistan's tribal areas indicate that while the IMU retains some fighting strength, it is now a bit player in a complex game far removed from the organization's origins in Uzbekistan and its onetime goal of unseating Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamist state in Central Asia's most populous country. Trapped for now in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the IMU is caught up in the shadowboxing between Pakistan's central authorities and the leaders of Waziristan's various Pashtun tribes-- and in the larger efforts of global jihadists to continue their fight in and around Afghanistan.
It may not be the end of the road for the IMU, but it is a road that has led far from home, with few prospects for a return in the foreseeable future.