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Return of the warlords

Recent suicide bombings clearly show that the insurgency has shifted from FATA and NWFP to the left bank of the Indus. The destabilisation resulting in Pakistan by participating in the “long war,” now threatens Pakistan’s stability and calls for immediate remedial steps in the field of security. We may recall that Pakistan made military commitments for the return of peace to Afghanistan which has now turned up as a poor decision as it has attracted the fighting away from Afghanistan towards Pakistan. Secondly, it has also pulled the Afghan warlords into our midst. The nature of the fighting with the militants has also changed by the introduction of the warlord factor that is now funding as well as arming the militants with sophisticated weapons.

The tell tale signs of the warlords first appeared in the recent Bajaur fighting. Only a few weeks ago a strong force of militants composed of Uzbeks, Arabs, Checkens, Tajiks, Wazirs, Masuds and Bajaur tribes launched a fearsome attack on government positions throughout Bajaur. The Scout and military forces had to withdraw leaving the agency headquarter Khar at the mercy of the militants; officials feared a blood bath of government officials and their families. Many thought that the first Emirate under the militants was in the making. Had the Pakistan air force not come in action on the afternoon of August 8, Khar would have been lost and the international consequences for Pakistan would have been catastrophic.

About seven hundred of the hard core militants were killed by the air and artillery bombardment in Bajaur. There were regretfully civilian deaths too. However, it is clear that Pakistan employed effective deterrence for the first time. The forceful action showed positive results when Baitullah Mahsud leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban offered a cease fire if the bombing was stopped. When this offer was refused the militants launched suicide bombers who have killed many innocent civilians in the last few days.

If the fighting in Afghanistan was based on forces other than those of the warlords then the trend of casualties there should have continued. Strangely however one finds that militant activity there has decreased significantly and it has instead increased in Pakistan. Different explanations are possible for this outcome. The answer to this riddle lies in examining the motives of the Afghan warlords.

Firstly, the violence level in Afghanistan has subsided because warlords there who are the main source of violence have begun shifting emphasis towards Pakistan to obtain control over its territory. This is a dangerous manifestation. It shows that they have new motives for shifting emphasis towards Pakistan. It fits a general pattern that is emerging in other parts of the region too. Firstly reports from Kunduz speak of Dostum the Afghan Uzbek warlord increasing his zone of influence south and westwards after waiting quietly for some time. Secondly Pakistani reports speak of the presence of mercenary soldiers coming from Khost into Kurram for the ethnic cleansing of the Shia Turis. Thirdly, new sophisticated weapons have suddenly appeared for the first time in Bajaur and Swat.

There are other changes occurring in Central Asia too. Uzbekistan has recently revised its oil export route that was previously based on transporting oil to the Caspian Sea, BTW refinery on its way to Turkey. Now it has been re- routed northwards into the Russian system. Apparently the geo strategic equilibrium is shifting rapidly and a new chapter has opened in the great game. There appears to be a new pattern of violence emerging.

The seed for the survival of the warlords after the removal of the Taliban was a result of the US battle strategy for invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. This was based on a CIA plan prepared by Tenet since CENTCOM did not have one. After 9/11 there was reluctance on the part of the US military to invade Afghanistan because of the failure of previous British and Soviet invasions. The CIA which was already under attack for failure to prevent 9/11 assault came up with an Afghan attack plan as a move to rehabilitate itself. This was based on joint operations by US Special Forces and CIA with support of Northern Alliance fighters. Reliance of the CIA on Northern Alliance revived the warlords in Afghanistan. In the south the US relied on the Pushtun warlord Sherazi and others.

The seeds of future problems lay in this policy. It relied on Afghan warlords to keep the peace – they determined the pace of change and priority of policy. In the process, nation building which ought to have been the core goal in Afghanistan suffered. On the other hand shaking hands with the warlords compromised the international effort against poppy cultivation and corruption. Pakistan too played with fire with its close links with warlords like Sherazi in Kandahar, Jalauddin Haqqani in Khost and some others.

As the recent conflict in Bajaur has shown, the warlords have now turned their attention towards weakening Pakistan. They have sensed an opportunity to expand their influence eastwards and are fuelling the militant fire in Pakistan. According to this analysis, the objective of warlords is to dominate Pakistani territory and is a most dangerous new development. Some of the details of the new configuration are that Hazrat Ali who controls Kunar and Dasht i Lilagai in Afghanistan is actively involved in the supply of funds and weapons to Bajaur, Swat, Dir and parts of Buner. Gulbadin Hikmatyar also does the same but to a lesser extent than Hazrat Ali. Secondly, the latter has an understanding with Northern Alliance warlords Fahim and Rabbani for further support. Some reports of weapon transfer from Tajikistan to the Pakistani militants in Bajaur through this nexus have also surfaced.

The theologian Rasul Sayyaf has created a niche for himself in the contested space of Afghanistan’s Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. He shares this region with Jalaludin Haqqani, and Zadran. These warlords have influence in Waziristan, Kurram, Bannu, Hangu and Kohat. This group is very dangerous and has close links with Arab-Afghans linked with Al-Qaeda. Further south we find the region under the influence of Sherazi and Akhunzada who have influence in the Pushtun belt of Balochistan.

It has been said before that the flames of militancy in Afghanistan is fanned by the warlords who have a lot to lose if peace is restored – they would not only lose money but a strong state would clamp down on poppy cultivation which is their major source of income. The opium crop this year has a value of £ 2 billion or 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP.

Support for the above assertion is provided by another co – relationship. Ever since fighting began in Bajaur, Swat, Kurram, Waziristan and other parts of NWFP, the graph of violence has dropped in Afghanistan. The reason for this is simple. Different warlords operating in south and eastern Afghanistan have shifted focus towards Pakistan. It is suspected that there are forces instigating these changes; the warlords would not risk it alone. Secondly, will it not be correct to conclude that it is the warlords rather than the Taliban who are the chief source of violence in Afghanistan?

The effect of war on the people of Bajaur, Swat and FATA is horrendous. Bajaur alone has generated more than 300,000 refugees. In Kurram ethnic cleansing of the Turis is underway with assistance of Afghan mercenaries from Khost, some of whom have been arrested recently. Their interrogation will yield proof of the role of the militants and their new paymasters.

It is clear that the US needs to recognise the new realities and examine the role of the warlords very seriously. They are a greater threat to stability than the home bred militants. The Pakistani leadership must also give priority to deal with this new threat immediately.

Article Published on The News.


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