Eyeing Waziristan

by Joshua Foust on 4/4/2007 · 4 comments

James Robbins at National Review has chimed in on the violence in Waziristan. I shall excerpt & critique below.


This is true with all tribal societies. To operate well in them one must know and understand the patchwork of interests, and see how and when they lead to changes in behavior… It doesn’t mean groups we assist are our friends forever or we condone everything they do. It means that at a specific moment in time, in a specific political situation, interests coincide. We may not even be working together, but we seek the same ends.

All well and good. However, he uses this to illuminate a portrait of Maulvi Muhammed Nazir, a Taliban leader in South Waziristan who rose from the underground in 2004 when the Taliban reached a deal with Islamabad granting them amnesty.

Well, except that deal was inked in late 2006, not 2004. 2004 is when Pakistan’s acceptance of the Taliban’s presence became much more obvious, though not codified in any agreement. Robbins’ history of relations there is spotty as well: he rightly says many foreigners used aspects of Pushtunwali to gain sanctuary (context here), and that there has been friction in recent months.

However, the fighting is not a push against all foreigners. It is, according to local sources, specifically against the IMU. No one there much likes the Uzbeks. The Arabs have teamed up with the Taliban to fight the Uzbeks. And he doesn’t draw any larger point: the Uzbeks behaved atrociously, so everyone else kicked them out. Robbins can’t draw any larger strategic value to it other than supposing bin Laden must be apprehensive that Arabs are killing Uzbeks. I don’t get it, but unfortunately this has become par for the course over at National Review.

Robbins had a good opportunity here to make a point: cleaving the tribal elders from al-Qaeda would be a good thing. At the least, it would place Osama bin Laden on the defensive and deny him a safe haven (dealing with the issue of local radical Islamism is a far larger project). Furthermore, instead of showing how the Waziri tribal societies work and what could be done to communicate with or influence them, he thinks different ethnicities can act as analogies to tribes. He gets basic facts wrong about the political arrangements of Waziristan. And he can’t distinguish between Arabs fighting with the Taliban, Waziri elders, and Uzbeks—something that should be almost criminal if you’re trying to comment on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions.

Luckily, Robbins teaches International Relations at the National Defense University. Nice to know the U.S. military learns from the best, right?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

Vincent April 5, 2007 at 10:17 am

How does one go about cleaving the tribal elders from Al-Qaeda?

Joshua Foust April 6, 2007 at 7:47 am

For one, treating them like equal members of society instead of outcasts. Another common complaint by Waziri elders (and Balochi, for that matter) is the historic underinvestment by Islamabad. They are neglected, in other words, so they have no real reason to show loyalty toward the capital.

In addition to that, making development and investment contingent on rejecting radicals and foreign terrorists could go a long way toward denying al-Qaeda a safe haven.

jonst April 7, 2007 at 11:24 am

Robbins is another piece of the pattern we have seen the past 6 years. Anyway, leaving that aside for the moment, is your point Joshua that the most recent fighting between Waziri elders and whomever, has little, or no ideological component to it in so far as something, whatever, money, women, driving too fast, leaving the cap off the toothpaste, sparked the battle?

Joshua Foust April 7, 2007 at 11:27 am

Well, I’m pretty sure the murder of an Arab al-Qaeda member at the hands of an Uzbek had something to do with it. I say this because that’s what they said when the fighting began.

But basically, yes. In terms of ideology, they have generally similar ideas, all of which are nicely aligned under the banner of fighting the Great Satan next door. If there was no sparking action, I think it would have been appropriate to see if there are cracks forming, but I haven’t seen any indication that the Arabs and Pashtuns are fighting the Uzbeks over anything other than a revenge cycle.

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