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Pakistan's Tribesmen Have Nowhere To Turn

Waziristanis caught in the middle
Waziristanis caught in the middle
There is a Pashtu proverb that says, "Water usually breaks the weaker bank." This bit of folk wisdom captures what is happening in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal agency, where the government and its security forces -- after months of futile struggle to eliminate the Taliban -- are now forcing displaced Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen either to hand over the militants or face the government's wrath.

Ironically, the government's ultimatum to the displaced tribesmen comes at a time when officials of the political administration (a colonial-era legacy to suppress the unruly tribal people) don't dare venture into the area despite all the resources at their disposal.

But the poor Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen -- like the residents of the other tribal areas generally -- have been caught between a rock and a hard place for years. Following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the land inhabited by the tribal people was essentially leased out to Al-Qaeda and other foreign militants who had fled Afghanistan. These militants subdued the locals and later suppressed them by means of a homegrown version of "the Taliban," who claimed to be defenders of religious purity and the honor of the land.

Long Beleaguered

In fact, since 2001, the Wazir and Mehsud tribesmen of the South and North Waziristan tribal agencies have been virtually enslaved by, on the one hand, Al-Qaeda and their Taliban supporters and, on the other, the security forces and the state political administration. People who were once fully independent to live under their own tribal customs and traditions, including the resolution of disputes through jirgas, had now lost their liberties even in personal matters because of the oppressive presence of foreign and local militants carrying out the most barbaric acts on tribal lands.

Clearly, no sane person could imagine that these people -- uprooted and bullied for years by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- would be able to capture the militants and hand them over to the authorities. Obviously if they had such power, they would never have allowed the militants to take over their homes, take them hostage, trample their traditions, and so on.

Officials of the political administration -- the office responsible for controlling the situation in the tribal areas -- are asking the tribesmen to do what they themselves -- with all their money and other resources -- have been unable to do: Face down the Taliban.

Under Article 40 of the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a tribesman may be kept in jail indefinitely by the Political Agent and a whole tribe or sub-tribe may be held responsible for any disorder in its area. But even this outrageous law was only applicable when the institutions of the jirga (assembly of tribal elders) and of malaks (nominated elders) was intact and able to regulate events.

Blood And Chaos

Now, however, tribal elders are being killed or silenced, while the jirga has been taken hostage by the Taliban and their foreign "guests." According to the best estimates, more than 700 malaks, elders, and influential tribal leaders have been shot, beheaded, blown up, or tortured to death since these "guests" (Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, and others) arrived in the Wazir and Mehsud areas and other tribal agencies.

In addition to the targeted killings of malaks and other tribal leaders, there have been many instances in which jirgas were targeted by explosives and suicide bombers. In a July 9 attack in the Mohmand agency, several key tribal leaders, including local jirga head Malak Sahibzada (along with scores of ordinary civilians) were brutally killed in a massive bombing.

This, of course, has created a vacuum in the tribal areas, paving the way for the domination of Taliban commanders such as Nek Muhammad (now dead), Baitullah Mehsud (now dead), Hakimullah Mehsud (reportedly killed, not confirmed), Abdul Wali (alias, Omar Khalid), Mullah Toofan, and many others. To make matters worse, since the beginning of military operations in the region, the office of Political Agent has been virtually paralyzed.

The result has been chaos that was fully exploited by the militants to strengthen their hold over locals who were already frustrated by decades of neglect by the state. Instead of rescuing the tribesmen from this nightmare, the authorities have subjected them to drone attacks, artillery barrages, and aerial bombing.

Now the government is insisting that the tribesmen hand over the militants. And they are supposed to do this while living in tent cities and standing in endless queues for food aid from the UN and other agencies.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL