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Local Leaders Reject Need For Ground Operations In North Waziristan

Pakistani troops on patrol in the North Waziristan region.
Pakistani troops on patrol in the North Waziristan region.
Earlier this year, the U.S. pressed Pakistan hard for a ground operation against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Six months later, it is still uncertain whether such an operation will take place.

But what is certain is the high level of fear talk of a ground operation generates among residents of the area itself. And their fear is coupled with something surprising -- a widely held opinion that the Haqqanis are not in North Waziristan and that any operation seeking them there is misguided.

That opinion is surprising because it directly contradicts U.S. intelligence reports about the Haqqani network.

In an October report to Congress last year, the White House described North Waziristan as the "epicenter of global terrorism" and "the most dangerous place on earth."

According to the U.S. military, it is a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and many other groups. And the Haqqani organization is a bigger threat to Afghanistan's security than the Taliban.

But talk to local leaders in North Waziristan and a very different picture emerges:

"The Haqqani network is not here," says Nasr Ullah Khan, a prominent malik, or tribal elder, in North Waziristan. "The Haqqanis are in contact with the Americans, so they should know where the Haqqanis are, but they are not in North Waziristan. Previously everybody, the Pakistanis and the Americans, were saying Osama bin Laden is here, too, but he was not in the tribal areas."

Khan lives in the area's capital city, Miram Shah, the same city in which Washington believes the Haqqanis network is based.

Local Disbelief

U.S. officials say the town is the meeting place of the "Miram Shah Shura," the Haqqani network's North Waziristan leadership which consists of a number of Haqqani family members and closely associated commanders.

Malik Khan is not the only tribal elder in the area who says the Haqqanis are nowhere to be seen.

"The Haqqanis were in North Waziristan during Afghan-Russian war," says another prominent tribal elder, Malik Qader Khan Madakhel. "But nowadays I swear that we haven't seen a Haqqani network here...We don't understand why everybody is saying that this-and-that is happening in North Waziristan."

Coupled with local disbelief that the Haqqanis are in North Waziristan is fear that any operation searching for them could wreak havoc on the civilian population.

Previous Pakistani military operations in other tribal areas, including neighboring South Waziristan and Kurram Agency, have sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the areas of fighting and many of them today remain scattered in camps for displaced people.

Military Action Would Be 'Senseless'

The ground operations themselves have had mixed success because militants often return soon after Pakistani troops leave. That makes many local people see military action as not only dangerous and disruptive but senseless.

"There is no need for an operation, because there were so many army operations here but no results," says Humayun Khan, a 24-year-old college student from Miram Shah. "Another thing is that there is nothing here. If there were then the government would do the operation definitely."

"We've had an operation in South Waziristan as well as in other areas, and now if the government is reluctant [to conduct an operation in North Waziristan] it means there is nothing here. They are talking about culprits in the area, but I don't see them and life goes on."

Former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen
Former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen
Fears of a ground operation in North Waziristan rose sharply in June when now retired U.S. military chief Admiral Mike Mullen said Pakistan had agreed to launch a military offensive. Mullen said "it is a very important fight and a very important operation."

At that time, Islamabad appeared to reverse its policy of refusing U.S pressure to flush out the Haqqani network from its territory.

The Pakistani military for decades has maintained relations with the network's founder, Jalal-ud-Din Haqqani, who took refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) during the 1980's Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and was an important mujahedin leader.

In recent years, Haqqani helped broker the September 2006 truce that has kept the peace in Wazir-dominated areas of the North and South Waziristan region and which today is the only peace agreement still holding between Islamabad and FATA militants.

But if Islamabad appeared to agree this summer to target the Haqqanis in a ground operation, there have been no signs of preparations.

Instead, relations between Washington and Islamabad over the Haqqani question have only deteriorated, reaching a new low point in September.

Calls To Fence And Mine The Border

Last month, Mullen told a U.S. Senate panel before retiring that "the Haqqani network...acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI)."

Specifically, he said that "with ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted" a truck bomb attack on a base in Wardak, Afghanistan, that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers, as well as an assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, among other operations.

Pakistan rejected the charges, saying Mullen's comments were "baseless" and hurt the country's cooperation with the United States.

Since then, the prospects for any imminent U.S.-demanded ground operation in North Waziristan have looked ever fainter, though Washington continues to call for one.

In North Waziristan, that is welcome news. Residents say they prefer just about any alternative to military sweeps and some elected legislators even have concrete proposals for what form the alternatives could take.

Kamran Khan, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly from North Waziristan, maintains that the answer lies in fencing and mining Pakistan's border with Afghanistan:

"If North Waziristan is the epicenter of everything, then please seal the Pakistani-Afghan border with North Waziristan or the Tribal Areas, or combine fencing with mining [the border]," he says. "After that, whatever are your complaints, grievances, or accusations, they will be solved automatically."

Fencing the border would not be easy in an area where the terrain is rugged and people on both sides traditionally cross back-and-forth at will to attend relatives' weddings, funerals, and other important events.

The so-called Durand Line demarcating the border, never formally recognized by Afghanistan, was drawn up by the British to divide the region's Pashtun population between what was then British-held India and the kingdom of Afghanistan.

Whether Islamabad would ever agree to fence the border, or is even interested in considering the question, remains to be seen.

But the fact that a leader from North Waziristan is ready to contemplate it has to be taken as a measure of how little residents want a ground operation that might disrupt their lives still more.

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