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Afghan Report: November 7, 2006

November 7, 2006, Volume 5, Number 27
Having failed to stop militants' infiltrating into neighboring Afghanistan by military means, the Pakistani government in September opted for a deal with locals in the region along their mutual border. Islamabad has hailed its peace agreement with tribal elders and others in North Waziristan as a model for other regions along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

FATA Accompli

Frustrated at the inability of an estimated 80,000 regular military troops to bring a traditionally semi-independent region under control, Islamabad hammered out a deal in June with one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The Tribal Areas include seven agencies and four tribal areas in northwest Pakistan, specifically the North West Frontier Province. The inhabitants of these regions are predominately Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the adjacent region on the Afghan side of the border.

Under the Pakistani Constitution, acts of the national parliament are nonbinding in the Tribal Areas unless the president declares otherwise. But the president has discretionary power to order all or part of those areas to be brought under direct federal control -- provided that local views, reflected in a traditional Pashtun tribal council (jirga), are taken into account.

The introduction of high numbers of regular Pakistani military forces to North Waziristan and other Tribal Areas emerged as part of President Pervez Musharraf's counterterrorism campaign following the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban regime in late 2001.

Response To Critics

The Taliban regime was supported politically and militarily by Islamabad, while it enjoyed ideological and ethnic support in the Tribal Areas. In fact, much of the Taliban leadership grew up in refugee camps in the Tribal Areas; they also received their religious, ideological, and military training in seminaries and affiliated facilities operating in the areas.

Almost from the outset of the post-Taliban insurgency that began in 2002-03, Kabul has accused Islamabad of supporting the insurgents, or at least of failing to prevent their activities inside Pakistan. Much of the Afghan criticism was focused on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) -- which includes the Tribal Areas -- and Baluchistan Province.

Musharraf's introduction of troops to the Tribal Areas was largely a response to criticism by Afghanistan along with the United States and other countries with stakes in Afghanistan. Critics urged Pakistan to do more to control its porous border with Afghanistan.

Central military operations in the Tribal Areas have been unpopular from the start within the Pakistani Army -- Musharraf's primary support base. A military trained to confront India found itself engaged -- and losing soldiers -- in an unpopular war against locals with whom they had few quarrels. Moreover, elements within the Pakistani military regarded a counterbalance to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration -- like the neo-Taliban, with tacit Pakistani help -- as a strategic asset.

Despite the military presence, Pakistan's indigenous Taliban sympathizers began to exercise greater control over aspects of daily life in Tribal Areas, including North Waziristan.

The Peace Deal

The peace agreement signed on September 5 was a commitment by Fakhr-e-Alam Irfan, the political agent in North Waziristan and a representative of the North West Frontier Province governor, on one side, and "tribal elders,... local mujahedin, seminary students" described as "taliban," and tribal ulama on the other. Seven North Waziristan "locals" initially signed the agreement but two more have added their support. Later versions of the peace deal include the names of close to 50 representatives of North Waziristan.

Under the agreement, the North Waziristan side should "ensure" that they will not set up any "parallel administration" in the region, meddle in neighboring districts, or allow the crossing of the border with Afghanistan "for any kind of militancy." Trade, business, and meeting with family across the border can "continue in accordance with the traditions and the prevailing laws." The deal also states that "foreigners present in North Waziristan will leave Pakistan," although it also allows for those who cannot leave "because of some compulsion...[to] respect the prevailing laws and the agreement and...remain peaceful."

For its part, the Pakistani government should ensure that local levies -- enlisted or conscripted men, known as "khasadar" -- can resume their duties at checkpoints. There should also be "no ban on arms according to the tribal customs," although that "restriction would continue for the heavy arms."

Pursuant to the agreement, an unidentified local neo-Taliban spokesman said that movement has opened two offices in North Waziristan to "implement the accord, to prevent disorder, and [to take action against criminals, including masked men involved in acts of violence." An October 11 report in the Islamabad-based daily "The Nation" suggested that locals are "approaching the Taliban offices for resolution of their disputes or complaints." The paper warned that the "trend is reducing dependence of the tribesmen on political administration" of North Waziristan.

'Peace' Dividends

Six weeks after the peace agreement took effect, opinions differ sharply on its effectiveness.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz recently claimed that cross-border infiltration between North Waziristan and Afghanistan has been "reduced dramatically." Aziz said that Islamabad's satisfaction with the deal is such that talks are under way with other tribes along the Afghan-Pakistani border with an eye to reaching similar deals.

North West Frontier Governor Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai -- who has emerged as a leading supporter of the agreement -- called the North Waziristan deal a "model agreement" that should be emulated. Reports from Pakistan suggest that plans are under way to follow the North Waziristan model in South Waziristan -- where talks on a peace deal broke down in 2004 -- and in Bajaur.

Orakzai has suggested that if the North Waziristan model is replicated with tribes on the Afghan side of the border, it could represent a permanent solution to the Afghan "imbroglio."

Views From Across The Border

NATO officials have greeted the North Waziristan agreement with skepticism, but have been cautiously optimistic in their public assessments.

Before meeting with Musharraf in Islamabad in mid-October, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander British General David Richards said "with luck and good judgment" that thinks that North Waziristan deal "may set an example for how we should deal with these problems."

But a NATO spokesman in Brussels, James Appathurai, subsequently said the alliance is "looking carefully." He said NATO is "hoping and anticipating that the agreement will deliver results" by "reducing the number of insurgents crossing" the border "or [dampening] support for the insurgents and the Taliban crossing" into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Appathurai cited "concerns" within NATO that support for the Taliban was still entering Afghanistan. Less diplomatically, military sources on the ground talk of a higher volume of traffic into Afghanistan's Khost Province, which borders North Waziristan, since the agreement was signed.

NATO also appears to be trying to emulate the North Waziristan peace agreement in Afghanistan. British forces evacuated Helmand Province's Musa Qala district in mid-October. ISAF commander Richards called the deal in Helmand a "desire on our part to do what the people want." He added that he is "told [that] the arrangements in Waziristan were not a deal with the Taliban," and insisted that the Helmand deal was "with local elders principally."

Afghan officials are currently championing their own policy of convening tribal councils involving tribes on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border to curb the lack of security.

Afghans may well remember that, in 1994, the Taliban came onto the Afghan scene ostensibly to bring security and order -- something they largely achieved. Now, 12 years later, the neo-Taliban might be perceived as peace brokers. That could leave some observers wondering whether the long-term ideals of democracy are being sacrificed for the prize of peace in the short term. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistan's army announced on October 30 that it killed about 80 suspected militants in a dawn attack on a religious school, or madrasah, that was used to train terrorists. The madrasah was purportedly run by a pro-Taliban commander wanted for sheltering Al-Qaeda fighters.

An army spokesman says Pakistani helicopters fired missiles at the madrasah, in Bajaur, one of the Tribal Areas near the border with Afghanistan (see above).

The spokesman for Pakistan's military forces, Major General Shaukat Sultan, said the attack by Pakistani helicopter gunships destroyed the madrasah compound and killed almost everyone inside.

'Terrorist Training'

"We had intelligence that a madrasah in the tribal region of Bajaur was being used for wrongdoing," Sultan said. "According to our information, there were 70 to 80 militants in this madrasah who were training and were learning terrorist tactics. We have been observing them for many days. When we confirmed the information that training for terrorist activities was going on there, our security forces responded with this attack today."

Sultan said that up to 80 suspected militants were killed. He said military officials do not think any prominent militants were in the compound when it was attacked.

But security officials in Islamabad claim that the pro-Taliban commander who ran the madrasah, Mawlana Liaqatullah, was among the dead.

Mohammad Salim, an independent journalist from Pakistan, told RFE/RL on October 30 that he also has information that the pro-Taliban commander was killed. "According to my sources, there were 83 people studying in this madrasah," he said. "In this place, [pro-Taliban commander] Mawlana Liaqatullah and about 80 others were killed. Two or three people were injured."

Heavy Damage

Correspondents in the Bajaur region report that residents have been collecting bodies from the rubble of the madrasah compound -- including children as young as 6 years old. Those reports say most of the bodies have been burned or mutilated beyond recognition.

A woman who lives in the area told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the first missiles were fired just before dawn. "It was actually about 20 minutes before five o'clock when three missiles were fired," she said. "And later, we saw helicopters flying over the area along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

A mountainous region that is difficult to access, Bajaur lies opposite Afghanistan's eastern province of Konar, where U.S. troops are leading the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir noted that today's strikes were not the first such attack by Pakistani aircraft in the area.

"One year ago, the Damadola village of the Bajaur region was targeted by Pakistani forces who, at the time, assumed that senior Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was hiding in this area," Aamir said. "This latest attack on an [alleged] Taliban center -- a madrasah -- occurs at a time when negotiations for a peace council between the Taliban and the Pakistani government are under way."

Still A Haven?

Local clerics say they think the talks between tribal elders and militants to reach a peace deal similar to one reached earlier this year in North Waziristan now appear to have failed.

Pakistan's lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border has been a haven for Islamist militants for decades. A large number of Al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas are thought to be sheltering there since fleeing the U.S.-led hunt for them in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Today's attack came two days after some 3,000 militants held a rally in nearby Khar, chanting slogans in support of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan, and RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed from Prague.)

Thousands of Pashtun tribesmen and armed militants rallied on October 31 against the U.S. and Pakistani governments over a missile attack on October 30 that destroyed an Al-Qaeda-linked religious school and killed 80 people. Pakistan's army says it carried out the attack after confirming information from the U.S. military in neighboring Afghanistan that the madrasah was being used to train terrorists (see above).

Angry Islamist youths in Pakistan took to the streets to protest on October 30 air strikes on a madrasah linked to Al-Qaeda in the Bajaur tribal region that killed scores of suspected militants.

The protesters belong to Islami Jamiat-e Taleba, a student faction of Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e Islami. Carrying banners with anti-American messages, they chanted Islamic and antigovernment slogans.

Protests Held

In the Bajaur tribal region itself, more than 10,000 people gathered on October 31 as protests continued for a second day in several towns across the region. Loudspeakers blared songs in the local-ethnic Pashto language urging people to wage holy war, or jihad.

Young Islamists shouted support for pro-Taliban commander Mawlana Faqir Mohammad as he praised Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the renegade Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

"May Allah protect Sheikh Osama [bin Laden]," he said. "May Allah protect Mullah Omar. I ask you: Are there any other such warriors on the face of the earth? Answer me honestly; can Muslims of the entire world on one side compare with Mullah Omar and Osama on the other?"

There are concerns that the attack could fuel unrest in the same parts of Pakistan where there were violent protests earlier this year over European newspaper cartoons of Islamic Prophet Muhammad and over the killing of an ethnic-Baluch tribal chief in another military raid.

Blocking Off The Area

Scores of pro-government tribal police have been deployed in the Bajaur tribal region. They have been blocking roads with stones to prevent political activists and journalists from reaching the region's main town of Khar or the nearby village of Chingai where the attack occurred.

Many local lawmakers and regional cabinet ministers have resigned in protest of the attack.

At Khar, local Islamic cleric Mawlana Ruh al-Amin said the 80 suspected militants killed by the air strikes were innocent "martyrs." He called for "revenge" against the United States and against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- saying any Pakistani who is a friend of America is "a traitor."

The region's leading pro-Taliban commander, Mawlana Faqir Mohammad, rejects statements by Pakistani military officials who say they had confirmed information from the U.S. military that the madrasah was being used to train terrorists.

"There was not a single person older than 25 among those killed except for [the cleric at the madrasah,] Mawlana Liaqatullah," he said. "They were all 25, 20, 17, 18 years old. The youngest was 15. The only person older than 25 was Mawlana Liaqatullah who was 30 or 32 years old."

Meanwhile, Islamic leaders are calling for nationwide protests to condemn the air raid -- the deadliest-ever military operation launched against suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal regions.

Opinion Divided

But Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political and defense analyst based in Lahore, tells RFE/RL that the mood in areas near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan does not represent the entire country.

"There is resentment all over Pakistan -- a kind of disappointment over the incident," he said. "However, the demonstrations are limited to certain areas of the North West Frontier Province and the tribal areas. In the rest of the country we don't really have a serious kind of agitation. Maybe a few protests here and there. But in the [North West] Frontier Province and the tribal areas, there is agitation."

Rizvi says the protests over the air strike have not attracted wide enough support to constitute a serious political threat against President Musharraf.

"It's not serious because until the mainstream political parties join this protest, this will not become a nationwide protest," he said. "But at the moment, it does not appear that the nationwide parties would join the Islamist parties. It is only the Islamist parties that are demonstrating."

However, Rizvi says the attack does threaten Musharraf's efforts to persuade deeply conservative tribal leaders to support his government instead of the pro-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters who enjoy strong support in the area.

"In the Bajaur agency, the military people and the local tribal chiefs were negotiating a peace agreement which was to go into effect in two or three days time," he said. "And suddenly, this attack by the army came in -- which means that the prospects of an agreement between the army and the local tribal chiefs has disappeared for the time being. When the tempers go down -- maybe in a week or two weeks time -- then there is a possibility that they may revive talks and try to go for an agreement. But for the time being there is a lot of tension between the local population in that region and the Pakistani security authorities." (Ron Synovitz)

Tensions remained high in Pakistan's tribal regions near the Afghan border three days after Pakistan's army carried out air strikes on a madrasah, killing some 80 suspected militants. Reports on November 2 say pro-Taliban militants shot dead a local man near the madrasah and left a note on his body that accused him of spying for Pakistani and U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Taliban tribesmen in the area are continuing demonstrations against the October 30 missile attack. Many have vowed to carry out holy war, or jihad (see above).

Mawlana Fazlur Rehman, a leader of Pakistan's Islamic coalition and an organizer of protests against the madrasah attack, blames Pakistan's army for the tensions in the tribal regions.

Fazlur Rehman says residents of the tribal areas are angry at the government in Islamabad because of the October 30 air strikes on the madrasah. He says that animosity is driving them to take part in daily street protests.

Scattered Protests

"The government should understand that it cannot successfully lead the country with such hatred from its masses [caused by the bombing of the madrasah]," he said. "In the Tang district -- which is a rather small and backward area -- people came out on the streets on a few hours notice. And there was a very large protest. So you can imagine how the people in the bigger centers must have protested with such sadness and anger."

Fazlur Rehman says he expects street protests to grow in the days ahead with other political parties joining in. He also challenges the claims by Pakistan's military that it confirmed that the madrasah had links to Taliban militants and Al-Qaeda fighters before launching the attack.

"Can the government prove that prior to the bombing, efforts were made to talk to the [alleged militants]?" he asked. "Should bombing be the first and foremost resort? The government's claim is not trustworthy [about how the army] conducted the bombing. Is this how you treat your own people -- by bombing them? More than 80 people were martyred and not one of them was a foreigner. They were all our own. [The government] is just lying and misleading the people."

But in Islamabad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says it is the radical Islamist militants and their supporters who are lying about the madrasah.

President Defends Attack

"Anyone who saying that these people were innocent Taliban (students) is telling lies," the president said. "They were militants doing military training. We were watching them [for] six or seven days. We knew exactly who they are [and] what they are doing. They were all militants using weapons [and] doing military training within the [madrasah] compound."

Musharraf also has warned that Pakistan will continue to use military options -- "side-by-side with political, administrative, and reconstruction activity" -- "wherever there is militancy" in the country.

Some political analysts and observers say further attacks like the one on the madrasah could put Musharraf's government in a difficult predicament. But Pakistan's chief army spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, dismisses those concerns.

"Only one religious party out of the entire religious coalition is trying to use this opportunity for political gain," he said. "The [religious political coalition] may be able to muster some street power somewhere. There may be some odd violent activity. And that is it. Nothing more than this."

Sultan also says the madrasah attack does not endanger attempts by Pakistan's army to negotiate new peace deals with tribal leaders in the border areas.

Controversial Peace Pacts

He says a controversial peace deal reached in September with tribal leaders in nearby North Waziristan will remain in force. But he notes that such peace accords involve moderate tribal leaders -- not the most militant elements.

In the Bajaur tribal area, where the October 30 attack occurred, tribal leaders have broken off negotiations on a peace deal that they had been expected to sign that day.

Meanwhile, there are persistent questions from within Pakistan and abroad about the Taliban's continuing presence in the tribal areas. Known officially as "tribal agencies," the region is not under the jurisdiction of Islamabad and has had autonomous status since the country was founded in 1947.

But Pakistan's recent military operations in the tribal regions have changed the dynamic there, making unrest a growing concern for the government as it battles militants.

Some analysts say that tribal militants are simply defending their sovereignty. But others say tribal regions have become a breeding ground for radical Islamists -- including Afghans, Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks.

Relationship With Washington

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," insists that the Taliban's top leadership is using Pakistan as a safe haven to plan attacks in Afghanistan. Rashid tells RFE/RL that U.S. authorities need to address that issue.

"The Americans have a public position which is very supportive of Musharraf," he said. "And there is no doubt that Pakistan has done a great deal in dispatching the Arab part of Al-Qaeda. I don't think the Americans want to publicly get tough with Musharraf on the Taliban issue at the moment simply because I think American foreign policy at the moment is overwhelmed with the crisis in Iraq, the crisis in North Korea, [and] with Iran."

Hasan Askari Rizvi is an independent political and defense analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. He tells RFE/RL that Islamic political parties are fueling anti-American sentiments in Pakistan by accusing the United States of a direct role in the madrasah attack.

The U.S. has denied any direct role in the attacks. But Rizvi says many people in Pakistan think the attack was the result of pressure from the United States and NATO.

"The general assumption here in the media is that, perhaps, it is the result of the pressure that comes on Pakistan from the United States and the NATO forces in Afghanistan," he said. "That kind of feeling exists in Pakistan at the moment. Pakistani military authorities and the American military authorities in Afghanistan are coordinating. [So I think that] maybe the information came from the Americans and then the Pakistanis acted to satisfy the pressure which was coming from the United States."

Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling for an independent investigation into the air strikes. Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia researcher for HRW, says the onus is on the government in Islamabad to provide a credible account of the legitimacy of attacks that result in the deaths of so many people. (By Ayesha Khan, with contributions by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz.)