INTELLIGENCE ANALYSTS woke up on September 5 to unsettling news. The government of Pakistan, they learned, had entered into a peace agreement with the Taliban insurgency that essentially cedes authority in North Waziristan, the mountainous tribal region bordering Afghanistan, to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Just ten days later, the blow was compounded when the government of Pakistan released a large number of jihadists from prison. Together, these events may constitute the most significant development in the global war on terror in the past year--yet the media have taken little notice.
For four years, the Pakistani military engaged in a campaign to assert governmental control over Wazir istan. The cost to Pakistan has been considerable; some intelligence sources believe this fighting has exacted a higher death toll on the Pakistani military than U.S. forces have sustained in Iraq. It is in this context that Pakistan gave up on South Waziristan last spring, abandoning its effort to control that area. Thereafter, sharia law was declared in South Waziristan, and the Taliban began to rule openly.
Yet even in the wake of Pakistan's earlier surrender of South Waziristan, this new agreement, known as the Waziristan Accord, is surprising. It entails a virtually unconditional surrender of Waziristan.
The agreement is, to put it mildly, a boon to the terrorists and a humiliation for the Pakistani government. Even the circumstances under which it was signed point to Pakistan's impotence in the face of a determined adversary. Taliban fighters searched government negotiators and military officers for weapons before allowing them to enter the meeting, which took place in a soccer stadium in the North Waziristan capital of Miranshah. According to three separate intelligence sources, heavily armed Taliban were posted as guards around the ceremony, and al Qaeda's black flag hung over the scoreboard.
Immediately after the Pakistani delegation left, al Qaeda's flag was run up the flagpole of abandoned military checkpoints, and the Taliban began looting leftover small arms. The Taliban also held a "parade" in the streets of Miranshah. Clearly, they view their "truce" with Pakistan as a victory. It is trumpeted as such on jihadist websites.
And with good reason. The accord provides that the Pakistani army will abandon outposts and border crossings throughout Waziristan. Pakistan's military agreed that it will no longer operate in North Waziristan or monitor actions in the region. Pakistan will return weapons and other equipment seized during Pakistani army operations. And the Pakistani government essentially paid a tribute to end the fighting when it agreed to pay compensation for property destroyed during combat--an unusual move since most of the property that was destroyed belonged to factions that had consciously decided to harbor terrorists.
Of particular concern is the provision allowing non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan as long as they promise to "keep the peace." Keeping the peace will, in practice, be defined as refraining from attacks on the Pakistani military. Meanwhile, since the military won't be monitoring the militants' activities, they can plan and train for terrorist attacks or work to bolster the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan without being seen to violate the treaty. Although the agreement does stipulate that there "shall be no cross-border movement for militant activity in neighboring Afghanistan," the provision amounts to mere wishful thinking since the Pakistani military has already agreed not to monitor the area.
The ramifications of the loss of Waziristan are tremendous. The region that Pakistan has ceded to the Taliban and al Qaeda is about the size of New Jersey, with a population of around 800,000.
Since the Waziristan Accord will facilitate rather than hinder the cross-border movement of Islamic fighters, security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan will be hampered. The Taliban and al Qaeda now have a new safe haven, and with it the freedom to train, arm, and infiltrate foot soldiers and suicide cells into Afghanistan with little fear of reprisal from the Pakistani government. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has admitted that the Taliban "are crossing from the Pakistan side and causing bomb blasts in Afghanistan," yet his solution is to cede government authority over the tribal areas.
Internationally, Waziristan will serve as a training base for al Qaeda operatives of all stripes, as well as jihadists who want to attack their home countries. The 9/11 Commission Report notes that catastrophic terror attacks require sanctuaries that provide "time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work." Al Qaeda has gained a new sanctuary in Waziristan.
The Taliban and al Qaeda will operate with impunity. They have already repeatedly broken their brand new agreement with Pakistan without facing consequences. Since September 5, a number of anti-Taliban clerics and tribal leaders have been shot and beheaded in Waziristan. A government official in Waziristan was kidnapped, and a reporter was murdered in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. Bombings and other attacks have taken place on military outposts in North and South Waziristan, and bombings have occurred in Peshawar and Bajaur.
Adding to the peril of this surrender, Musharraf has reiterated that the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghan istan won't be allowed into the tribal areas covered by the peace deal. "On our side of the border there will be a total uprising if a foreigner enters that area," he said. "It's not possible at all, we will never allow any foreigners into that area. It's against the culture of the people there."
Waziristan probably does not mark the end of the Taliban's expansion. Instead, an American intelligence source told us--and United Press International has since confirmed--that further talks are underway that may lead to Pakistan's ceding parts of the North-West Frontier Province. Negotiations are reportedly being held in the jurisdictions of Khyber, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, and Bajaur.
So Taliban and al Qaeda forces have consolidated great geographic gains over the past few weeks. On September 15, they also experienced a major gain in personnel when Pakistan released 2,500 foreign fighters linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda. These men, according to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, had been "detained by Pakistan after fleeing the battleground in Afghanistan."
Intelligence sources indicate that the released prisoners represent a broad cross-section of the jihadist movement, including computer ex perts, WMD experts, and low-level grunts. Some of the notables released include Ghulam Mustafa, a senior al Qaeda commander in Pakistan; Fazl-e -Raziq, a senior aide to Osama bin Laden; and several of the murderers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. These individuals are said to be gathering in al Qaeda's new safe haven in Waziristan and reconstituting the terror group there.
It seems that at this point nobody in the U.S. government knows how to deal with the situation in Pakistan. Some routine suggestions have been peddled: covert operations, pressure on the Musharraf government, and the like. Some in the State Department have even publicly defended the Wazir istan Accord, while at a Friday press conference with President Bush, Musharraf stated, "The deal is not at all with the Taliban. This deal is against the Taliban. The deal is with the tribal elders." To this, President Bush replied, "I believe him."
But neither President Bush nor the State Department officials are to be believed on this point. They aren't ignorant of the problems with the accord. Rather, it seems that their concern is Musharraf's retreat from Waziristan and release of prisoners suggest he may be losing his grip on power. And as bad as Musharraf has been of late, things would be far worse if, in a critical Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, a relatively pro-Western leader were replaced by al Qaeda-linked fundamentalists.
One intelligence source has opined that the gains of the past five years were reversed in mere weeks with the loss of Wazir istan and the release of 2,500 fighters. We urgently need solid ideas about how to cope with this problem before it grows worse. Simply overlooking the dangers of the present situation does not a solution make.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International and author of the forthcoming book My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin). Bill Roggio is an independent civilian military blogger who served in the Army from 1991 to 1995.