What’s the Real Story in Waziristan?

by Joshua Foust on 4/7/2007 · 12 comments

Wana Fighter, circa 2004The fighting in South Waziristan is a complete mystery. At first, I was in line with Bill Roggio in thinking it was an Uzbek v. all fighting, though he has since changed his stance to a more nuanced take (basically, varying coalitions, perhaps sparked by the murder of a prominent Arab and a split within the IMU). While Roggio’s analysis is pleasing in that it plays into our deepest hopes of the Taliban collapsing on its own, his sources are problematic: he presents one unsourced story and another that relies on local government sources, who, in addition to having their own vested spin on the story, are accusing the Uzbeks of a form of colonization “just like those Jews in Palestine” and which are now being violently resisted.

Sean Roberts, on the other hand, posts a provocative take by David Hoffman:

In short, while the Pakistani press continues to produce an enormous amount of front-page coverage on the situation in Wana, it is far from clear what exactly is being reported. No hard evidence has emerged to point to the presence of actual Uzbek IMU fighters in the recent fighting. Pakistani media accounts of the fighting have been incestuous and uncorroborated, and trace back to the same small number of government sources of questionable reliability. And inside Waziristan itself, no one thus far has been able to produce any actual Uzbeks – live or dead – to tell the “IMU’s” side of the story. Given the very substantial vested in interests in having a foreign boogeyman to blame for the violence plaguing Pakistan’s lawless FATA region, it may be the case that the IMU brand has been dusted off for one more marketing campaign.

In other words, whole portions of this may be made up. I am also sympathetic to this stance—a few weeks back I was speculating that Pervez Musharraf, badly weakened by the Chief Justice scandal and the recent spate of female madrassa violence, would use this to play up hiw War on Terror credentials, which he basically has done.

But even Hoffman’s take misses the full extent of what’s going on, even though he quite properly says no one knows. That’s the problem—we don’t know, and we might not be able to know until it’s over. It seems likely there is conflict between non-Pashtuns and Pashtuns, but there also seems to be conflict between different groups of Pashtuns (tribes, maybe, though their importance isn’t nearly what it once was, especially in the Taliban), and between different groups of non-Pashtuns. That being said, no one can get close enough to find out.

I highly recommend Hoffman’s post, if only so you can develop a proper skepticism over any sort of triumphalist attitude. (As a mild side note, I made a flippant comparison to Akromiya, a group whose influence and size was blown out of proportion by the Uzbek government after Andijon. How ironic that Uzbeks once again might be involved in an official exaggeration of a truly violent event involving Islamic radicals.)

I still don’t see any grander strategic implications here. Even if it is as “red on red” as some people are crowing, that still just means the locals don’t like the foreigners—it has little to do with the Taliban, its support from Pakistan, or the epicenter of al-Qaeda activity further north. If it is actually teams of Taliban, broken up by tribe, aligned with Arabs and Uzbeks, the picture is a complete mess, with no grander implications aside from hoping that fighting distracts them from fighting in Afghanistan.

But what if there’s no fighting, or not nearly as much? Hoffman notes that the hospitals don’t seem to have the number of patients the hundreds of reported casualties would indicate. Remember how some government sources compared Waziristan to Palestine. Could the fighting be a repeat of the Battle of Jenin?


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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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{ 12 comments }

smirnoff April 8, 2007 at 12:11 am

Are these happenings somehow connected to Pakistani minister’s visit to Uzbekistan? He just made fake promises to clean up IMU.

Bill Roggio April 8, 2007 at 6:03 am

Joshua

You have completely misrepresented what I wrote. I have never said this was an indication the Taliban is imploding. Far from it. I NEVER said this was an Uzbek vs all fight. If you read my initial post on the subject you can see this. I’ve stated this is a internal fight with one group of Taliban that backs Uzbeks vs Taliban that backs Arab al Qaeda. Multiple open source reports back this up (Dawn, Daily Times, The News, Asia Times, The Nation, AFP, etc.) I’ve cited all the reports.

From the beginning of the fighting in Waziristan I have said this is not an Anbar like situation as EVERYONE else has portrayed it. I have repeatedly stated it is highly likely the Pakistani government is inflating casualties. I have repeatedly stated the media is misrepresented the fighting much to the Pakistani government’s pleasure.

I’ve been very clear the Pakistani government is manipulating this situation for their own gain. I am very careful not to rely on reports that only cite Pakistani military, government or intel sources. The Pakistani government cannot be trusted in this situation.

I agree The News article on comparing the situation in Waziristan to Palestine was repulsive, but the basic facts in there are what I am interested in. That article did not only use a Pakistani intl official, but Taliban, tribesmen, etc.

On the AKI/Dawn story, that was written by Syed Saleem Shahzad, who is very credible on Pakistan and specifically the FATA & Taliban. The points in that article match other reporting sourced in prior articles I wrote about the situation.

T he reports I wrote on the situation can be found in my Pakistan Tags. The readers can decide for themselves.

http://www.billroggio.com/cgi-bin/cms/mt-search.cgi?tag=Pakistan&blog_id=1

Joshua Foust April 8, 2007 at 6:34 am

Bill,

I’m not sure where the anger comes from. I haven’t insulted you, or even said you’re wrong—in fact, in one of your early posts on the subject, you mentioned the murder of a prominent Arab AQ at the hands of an Uzbek, and speculated that it could be an indication of Uzbeks losing their welcome. I thought the same. I also linked that your analysis had deepened to a far more complex picture of what’s going on, and I find that also 100% credible, but that I wasn’t sure it’s a complete picture. The purpose of the post was that we’re still not sure what’s going on, and that it’s obvious we’re not getting the whole story from Islamabad. That’s why I linked to Hoffman’s post—I found its case for deep skepticism of current reporting persuasive.

In fact, I think we’re in agreement that we’re probably being taken for a ride.

Nitin April 8, 2007 at 7:15 am

Joshua, Bill,

First off, no analysis of the current fighting in Waziristan is complete without considering the history of the region. Intra-tribal wars are part of the culture, the wars being over land, women and wealth. This is the canvas on which we should analyse the current situation.

Second—while we don’t know about the war in Waziristan itself, we do know from several sources—Bill Roggio himself has written about it—that the Taliban are imposing their ‘government’ in places such as Tank, in “settled” NWFP. The objective reality, therefore, is of a Taliban on a political-military ascendent.

Who’s behind this? From what we know about the public position of the Islamist politicians of the MMA, they are sympathetic bystanders. Importantly, the MMA leadership does not even pretend to be in control of events.

That leaves Hamid Gul & Co, former (and perhaps serving) members of the establishment who have commercial and political interests in the region. Not to forget that the Jamia Hafsa business is also controlled by Khalid Khawaja, another member of the Gul & Co club.

So here’s my hypothesis: that this game is being directed by a faction of the Pakistani military establishment that has had enough of Musharraf. The fact that he could crush the Baloch rebellion so easily, but can’t do much about the Taliban one supports the argument.

These folks are not against Musharraf because of his allegedly pro-Western policies. They are against him because he’s monopolised power for too long. My guess on how it will play out? The new Musharraf will ride to power selling Washington his ability to face down the Taliban.

Bill Roggio April 8, 2007 at 7:28 am

Josh,

No, I’m not angry or insulted in the least. It’s just that I’ve been saying that what is being reported is not what it seems, then you’re saying I’m following the narrative given by the press. That is very frustrating.

I think Mr. Hoffman is not accurate about the Pakistani media’s presentation. The Pakistani press is providing skepticism of what is going on in the FATA. The international media on the other hand is swallowing the Pak gov’t position hook, line & sinker.

The news that Nazir is backing al Qaeda ISN’T something the Pak gov’t wants to promote. And only the Pak press is saying this. And they are not relying solely on gov’t sources. The Pak press has repeatedly reported that their sources in the FATA claim the casualties are far lower. In one post, I devoted 1 or 2 paragraphs on that. It’s a difficult situation when you have to weigh the Pak gov’t vs the Taliban for veracity of statements. And that I take the Taliban/Uzbek’s side on this (that casualties are lower) makes me ill. But there we are.

Here is what I said in my very first post on the subject, where I was very clear this wasn’t just Uzbeks vs locals:

The Pakistani government is more than content with portraying this fight as a battle between pro government forces and the ‘miscreants,’ as the government calls al Qaeda. Since the signing of the Waziristan Accord, the Pakistani military is in no position to get involved even if it wished, as it withdrew troops from the region and promised not to enter the tribal agency. The Pakistani government views this as a win-win situation, a positive step in the development of the Waziristan Accord as locals are fighting foreigners.

But this ignores the very reasons for the fighting – which is the presence of both foreigners and Pakistani and Afghan Taliban in the tribal regions. Siraj Haqqani, the son of the military commander of the Afghan Taliban, and a Taliban leader himself, is coming from Afghanistan to mediate the dispute.

From the beginning I was clear there was far more to this than could be seen, then in follow up posts on the subject, I outlined the Afghan Taliban’s involvement (the distinction is virtually useless at this point but it is useful to make it to refute the Pak gov’t’s position), Nazir’s involvement with al Qaeda (it is very real, I’ve been contacted by my own intel sources who confirmed what I have written on the subject), etc.

Again, no hard feelings on this end. I just want the readers here to understand my positions on the subject.

Joshua Foust April 8, 2007 at 10:34 am

Bill,

I still don’t see how I misrepresented your views (unless I dramatically misunderstood all the “red on red” talk). But that’s fine – I still think we’re in agreement that we’re not getting the whole story, that Pakistan has a vested interest in spinning it a particular way, and that there really aren’t any larger implications.

Not even, Nitin, a move against Musharraf. While I am sympathetic to the argument of tribal warfare, the Taliban at least has been fairly a-tribal in composition. Writing off what’s going on as simply the latest round of tribal friction is simplistic, as it involves multiple ethnicities, and multiple groups of foreigners.

Afghanistanica April 8, 2007 at 10:49 am

Hi all,

I think all of you plus some of the sources cited are correct in the sense that the Uzbek presence is being exaggerated. A few years ago the Christian Science Monitor put the number of Uzbeks at around 200 (as opposed to the “thousands” that some unfortunate reporter claimed recently). And there have been reports of the Pakistani army fighting them a few times since then. I imagine their numbers are dwindling.

I know as little as most when it comes to what is actually happening in Waziristan but I do know that Uzbek linguists are not being sought by any part of the US government/military now or in the last 2-3 years. I’m guessing that’s because the US knows that there is no significant Uzbek presence. But also maybe because the Uzbeks are chatting to each other over the radio in Russian (perhaps they are not the simple Ferghana kholhoz/dekhon boys that we are led to believe they are). That radio chatter in turn leads to even sillier reports of Chechens being everywhere. More confusion. Yay.

Nathan April 8, 2007 at 11:42 am
Afghanistanica April 8, 2007 at 2:46 pm

Whoops. I was referring to DoD contractors, CIA and the military. I didn’t know about the FBI. I wonder if their focus is mainly on drugs and crime? I shall investigate.

What I know about private contractors is that they are not hiring for Uzbek. Although they do have at least one clueless recruiter who was asking for resumes for Uzbek linguists (and then sitting on them). And I heard that the CIA has told the kiddies at IU that Uzbek will not get them hired.

Fars tilini o’rganing! That’ll get you a job ASAP.

Joshua Foust April 8, 2007 at 3:01 pm

Yeah, but I’m not even sure how knowing Uzbek will help you much in drug interdiction—if I’m not mistaken aren’t most of the drug runners are Pashtuns and Tajiks?

Bill Roggio April 8, 2007 at 3:02 pm

Josh,

Please don’t read any emotions into this. Again, I am not angry about this. I just want to set the record straight. I won’t belabor the point, but just want to be clear about how I think you attributed arguments to me I did not make:

“At first, I was in line with Bill Roggio in thinking it was an Uzbek v. all fighting…”

I never said that in the ‘red-on-red’ posting. The quote I cited above shows this.

“though he has since changed his stance”

My stand on this never changed, since I never made the argument in the first place.

“While Roggio’s analysis is pleasing in that it plays into our deepest hopes of the Taliban collapsing on its own…”

From day one I was clear this is not evidence of the Taliban collapsing on itself. I’ve made the (admittedly imperfect) argument that this is akin to an internal mafia war. When all is said and done, someone comes out on top and the mafia still exists. Often it emerges more powerful as there is a consolidation effect.

The larger implication here, as I’ve stated repeatedly, is the Pakistani government is making the case the Waziristan Accord is a Good Thing. That is dangerous, and American policy makers and the media are influenced by this. The Pakistani government caved in Bajaur, after 7 month of a clearly failed policy. Expect further agencies and districts in the NWFP to get their own “Taliban Accord.”

Afghanistanica April 8, 2007 at 4:46 pm

Joshua,
I would say that it is fair to say that the vast majority of smuggling out of AF is done by Pashtuns, Tajiks and Baluchis. No one has been able to quantify it but I’m assuming that the Uzbek and Turkmen smuggling route is small and confined to a limited mafia/government involvement. I don’t know if the Hokim’s Mercedes is still being waved through the checkpoint on the Friendship Bridge without inspection or not. They would look in his trunk if they actually cared.

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