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Spinning the Fighting
in South Waziristan

Musharraf's government continues to promote its dangerous "peace deals."

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THE PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT has entered into two agreements in the past seven months that promise to destabilize Afghanistan and provide a haven for terrorists to plan and train for catastrophic attacks. Under the September 2006 Waziristan Accord, Pakistan agreed that its military would no longer operate in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan; since this left the Taliban and al Qaeda free to recruit, train, arm, and send fighters into Afghanistan, the security situation in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan unsurprisingly deteriorated. On March 17, Pakistan entered a disturbingly similar agreement--handing the Bajaur agency over to Taliban-aligned tribes. But recent events show that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf's government is intent on spinning both accords as successes.

There are somewhere between a few hundred to around a thousand militants from Central Asian republics in South Waziristan. On March 6, some of them were involved in a skirmish that saw a pro-government tribal leader clash with a group of Uzbeks and their Taliban supporters in a South Waziristan bazaar. The fighting left seventeen Uzbeks and a tribesman dead. Two weeks later, a local Taliban commander named Mullah Nazir entered the fray after accusations that the Uzbeks had killed a mid-level al Qaeda commander in his care named Saiful Asad. Why the Uzbeks killed Asad is unknown, but observers suggest there may have been a criminal dimension at play since Asad was known as a moneyman.

Perversely, Pakistan quickly painted Mullah Nazir's retaliatory attacks on behalf of an al Qaeda confederate as proof of the Waziristan Accord's success--and the gullible international media echoed Pakistan's claims.

Shortly after Mullah Nazir became involved in the fighting, Pakistani interior minister Aftab Sherpao told the media that the bloodshed was "the result of the agreements the government made with tribal people in which they pledged to expel foreigners and now they are doing it." The Pakistani newspaper the Nation echoed Sherpao's spin, noting that "Islamabad says the offensive by about 1,000 conservative local tribesmen will cut cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, and shows the success of a peace deal in the South Waziristan Agency that was criticised by the West." Western journalists likewise repeated the line that the fighting stemmed from the tribes' desire to eject foreign militants from Pakistani soil.

Islamabad's spin is implausible and, in fact, dangerous. This is an internal conflict fueled by tribal rivalries, the Uzbeks' murder of al Qaeda agents, a disagreement in strategic priorities, and land. It was the combination of these factors that gave Mullah Nazir the impetus to fight.

The first of these factors, an inter-Taliban power struggle, centers on the rivalry between Mullah Nazir and a Taliban commander known as Mullah Omar (but not the Mullah Omar). The two have been at odds since Mullah Nazir replaced Mullah Omar as head of the Ahmadzai tribe--both because of Mullah Nazir's usurpation and also preexisting clan rivalries.

The rivalry between the two men was inflamed when the Uzbeks, with whom Mullah Omar had aligned himself, killed Arab al Qaeda operative Saiful Asad. The Uzbeks also reportedly killed Sheikh Asadullah, a Saudi who was described as "the moneybags in the entire tribal belt," although it isn't known when this killing took place. Mullah Nazir was incensed by these killings, as both men were under his care when their lives were taken.

A third factor is that the Uzbeks had different strategic priorities than the local Taliban and their tribal allies. While the tribes are eager to engage U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Uzbeks prefer to fight the "near enemy" rather than the "far enemy": they want to engage the Pakistani government. This worried the Taliban, backed by Mullah Nazir, because attacks on the government could draw unwanted attention. They figured that Pakistan's government might only turn a blind eye to jihadist violence if that violence focused outward on Afghanistan, Kashmir, or India--not on Pakistan itself.

Fourth, the fighting may be a land grab. The tribal areas are essentially set up as a feudal society, with land serving as a key component of local power. Journalist Mobarak Ali told the Pakistani press, "I have heard of the Uzbeks and Tajiks holding large properties of which some were bought, some gifted by the local people who entered into relations with them, while some were taken forcibly." Ali said that one bone of contention between the Uzbeks and locals may be these properties, which some Uzbeks developed into model farms.

These four factors best explain the recent skirmishes in South Waziristan. The only party to argue that a general desire to push foreign fighters out of Waziristan was a factor is the Musharraf regime.