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Afghanistan redux?

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Mar. 24th, 2006 | 08:41 pm

The Asian Times tells of a storm coming in Afghanistan.

Revolution in the Pakistani mountains

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The Taliban have established a foothold in the Pakistani tribal areas of North and South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border, but it is not simply a question of their having marched in and established their writ.

Their ability to impose themselves, which is the result of a virtual revolution in the region, has far-reaching consequences for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

News reports tend to focus on the renewed capabilities of the Taliban, in terms of their reorganization, their base in Pakistan, improved weaponry and their mass of suicide bombers. What is overlooked in the troubled tribal areas is an astonishing change in local dynamics, which neither the British Raj nor successive Pakistani or Afghan governments had been able to engineer, the ramifications of which threaten the existing order of the whole region.

The seeds of a revolution

The seeds of the revolution were sown by former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif in the late 1990s, who introduced electoral colleges in the tribal areas based on adult franchise. Previously, the tribal areas had representation in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, but the delegates were chosen by the jirga (tribal council) system.

In terms of this, a few tribal chiefs sat together and chose representatives from their ranks. As a result, the tribal chiefs held all the political clout, and they grew rich and powerful.

The electoral system broke this supremacy, and in the most recent general election, in 2002, the power and base of the tribal chiefs were destroyed. For the first time, downtrodden clerics, many of whom owned no more than an old bicycle or a mud house, were elected as members of the Senate and the National Assembly.

This coincided with the re-emergence of the Taliban, driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, and in effect the centuries-old tribal order was no more. Youngsters in their teens and early 20s became the new "chiefs", and even took over the jirgas. More than 100 tribal chiefs were killed; the remainder either fled to the cities or began a new life under the rule of poverty-stricken but highly religiously motivated youths.

Tangled tribal identities

Three major tribes live in North Waziristan, which has become the Taliban's prime stronghold outside of Afghanistan: the Wazirs, the Mehsuds and the Dawar.

British soldiers referred to the Wazirs as wolves, and the Mehsuds as panthers of the mountains. The Dawar have traditionally been peace-loving, preferring shopkeeping to guns and towns over mountains.

The Mehsud and Wazir tribes, though, have been arch-rivals for centuries. Traditionally, the Mehsuds have been part of the Pakistani establishment, and as recently as the past few years they supported the military's actions against Wazir tribes, who are mostly Taliban.

In today's North Waziristan, though, Maulana Sadiq Noor and Maulana Abdul Khaliq are the unbending leaders of the Taliban-led resistance. They are both Dawar and, even more startling, the Wazirs and the Mehsuds are under their command. The man in charge of launching mujahideen raids into Afghanistan is Maulana Sangeen, an Afghan from neighboring Khost province.

In South Waziristan, Haji Omar, a Wazir, is the leader of the resistance against Pakistani forces, while Afghan operations run from the area are taken care of by Abdullah Mehsud, of the Mehsud tribe.

"Nobody has seen such an arrangement in centuries, where the Mehsuds and Wazirs are fighting side-by-side, and more, under the command of the Dawars," said a local bureaucrat in Waziristan who spoke to Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.

Command and control system

The revolution that is sweeping across Waziristan is not confined to the region. It is on the march, with the eventual targets being Kabul and Islamabad.

The overall command center is in South Waziristan, where al-Qaeda No 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri calls the shots, while Tahir Yaldevish, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and a key figure in the Afghan resistance, moves around Paktika province in Afghanistan.

Well-placed sources in the Taliban movement who spoke to Asia Times Online claim that the Taliban communicated "final messages" to Afghan and Pakistani officials, warning of direct attacks across both countries against top army and civilian officials. As a result, according to the sources, Pakistan stopped military operations in North and South Waziristan that were aimed at rooting out Taliban and foreign forces.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban strategy is to terrorize Afghan officials and prevent them from cooperating with foreign forces. And once the allied forces are alienated, attacks on them will be intensified.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, skirmishes have already reached some settled areas: Ghazni and Helmand have suffered direct Taliban attacks in the former, while in the latter Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan in Northwest Frontier Province have seen attacks recently. On Sunday, six security personnel and two passers-by were killed and six others injured when a remote-controlled bomb hit a police van in Dera Ismail Khan.

At the same time, the administrations in the capitals of the two countries are becoming increasingly isolated. The US-backed ruling royalists in Kabul are now threatened by Islamists who completely dominate parliament after recent general elections.

There is no doubt that radical Islamists, whether those of the Hizb-i-Islami, the Ittehad-i-Islami led by Professor Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the alliance led by Yunus Qanooni or dozens of independent former Taliban, are now at the helm of political affairs in Kabul.

And the US-backed ruling and nominally secular officers of the Pakistani army are more on their own than ever before. A silent alliance of religious elements and religious parties is keeping a sharp eye on developments in the mountains, waiting for its chance to join in the revolution as it rolls off the mountaintops.

The Taliban have only changed location, nothing more. When the UN, with their dubious will to intervene, takes over responsibilities in Afghanistan, look for the black turbans to reappear en masse. Murders have been on the increase, unabated by Coalition Forces. Schools are being burned down and teachers beheaded in increasing numbers. We may be able to rebuild the structures, but our war for the hearts and minds of the people is lagging. Threats of torture and murder, not just for yourself, but for every member of your family, just does not equate with electricity, clean water, education and inoculations. What good are the benefits brought by the West, if you are dead?

In our game of whack-a-mole, we look every bit the paper tiger. As in Fallujah, we are destined to pay more than once for ground that we take. From our positions in Afghanistan, our troops can view the rolling stormcloud in the mountains as well as any villager. We should ask ourselves: If we lob a few missles into the midst of that thunderhead, will we finally rid ourselves of UBL? When the fighting heats up again, will we (or even should we) put our lives as squarely on the line for a constitutional government that mandates killing Muslims who convert to Christianity?

It has been said that there are many more women's lives at stake which are worth more than one Christian. Who would you defend - half the population who are Muslim and agree that a Muslim convert must be killed, or the Christian?

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