Spinning Waziristan

by Joshua Foust on 4/25/2007

Famous warblogger Bill Roggio has co-written with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross a piece in the Weekly Standard on the Pashtun-Uzbek fighting in Waziristan. Much of it is what you’d expect, including proper condemnations of a lazy international media accepting Islamabad’s spin of the fighting as a success against Al-Qaeda when it is really one splinter faction of an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting the Al-Qaeda-linked Pashtun tribes.

Or is it? Missing from their analysis is a proper skepticism of just how extensive the conflict is (curious, given it is about being properly skeptical of news and analysis of the fighting). For one, tribal conflicts may have played into the fighting, but Mullah Omar (the Mullah Omar, their parlance to define him against the other Mullah Omar who leads the Ahmadzai tribe) has traditionally not considered tribal affiliations in his leadership. As Afghanistanica chided me in a comment thread:

Tribes are still a politically relevant factor in the south. But regarding Mullah Omar, he does not seem to care about tribal affiliation. His leadership council was/is littered with non-Hotak Ghilzais (including two Popalzais) and even non-Ghilzais (and not in a “token” manner). He seems to be in the historical mold of the “Ghazis” who rejected tribal leadership for religious/Jihad leaders who they saw as having legitimacy/God’s favour.

This is a much more nuanced look at how the Taliban’s leadership works, one that is missing from the Roggio-Gartenstein-Ross analysis. They also do a poor job of distinguishing between the Taliban, which is for all intents and purposes a temporary religious-political movement, and the local Pashtun tribes, which are distinct and far more permanent socio-political arrangement.

Similarly, their comparison to Italian mob families is off. Though a bigger discussion than this space will reasonably allow, the lack of an explicit religious component to Cosa Nostra should deflate any temptation to draw more than shallow analogies between the two. Further, mob families were an outgrowth of 19th century Sicilian anarchy, meant to consolidate control over large family estates. There is no such dynamic in the land straddling the Durand Line—tribal affiliations go back many centuries at least to the Safavid Empire, and the Taliban only emerged as a religious force in the 1990s, with the intention of conquering Afghanistan and reestablishing the Caliphate.

For space considerations I won’t delve into all the dissimilarities between Cosa Nostra and the Taliban and the Pashtun tribes, but suffice to say, I think it’s sheer laziness on the authors’ part. Considering their (quite necessary) caution against simplistic and false analysis of the fighting, they should know better than to throw down a clearly false metaphor for the sake of “clarity.”

Additionally, David Hoffman’s cautions must also be applied: how much of the fighting is actually happening? By whom? To wit:

Vested interests in exaggerating the IMU threat abound in the corridor that runs from Massachusetts Ave in Washington to the Pentagon across the Potomac river: from contractors, consultants and think tanks fixated on the tsunami of post-9/11 security sector funding, to USG officials sincerely worried about the IMU’s role in global terror networks, to the Uzbek embassy’s ham-fisted attempts to justify its abysmal human rights record…

Given the pitiful state of the IMU when it was last seen in active combat in 2002, and the organization’s ensuing silence, the fighting that has erupted in and around Wana has caught observers off-guard….

For example, it is curious that the fighting, while richly reported in other respects (including not only casualty counts, but descriptions of which tribesmen suffered what types of wounds in encounters with the IMU), seems to lack any actual information that could identify Uzbeks in the IMU ranks. Besides the public figure of IMU leader Tahir Yoldashev, not a single Uzbek involved in the Wana fighting has been named in any Pakistani news articles. Local tribesmen opposing the IMU are described in detail, but the Uzbeks who have presumably lived in some degree of harmony in the local communities for five or more years remain a faceless group.

Moreover, two separate sources insides Waziristan have confirmed that, in fact, they have not actually seen any actual Uzbeks, live or dead, during this latest conflagration. In battles whose casualty figures speak to its intensity, scale and duration, conventional military wisdom holds that hundreds of dead should be matched by several times as many wounded. Again, curiously – local hospitals and clinics have been unable to report the presence of large numbers of Uzbeks admitted for care. And while the press has dutifully reported dozens of captured IMU fighters, these prisoners have failed thus far to materialize. One local tribal leader, when asked about IMU fighters his men had captured, could not explain their absence, and then claimed that his men had “transferred [the Uzbeks] to the local jirga (council).” Given the public relations treasure trove captured foreign fighters would represent to a Pakistani government still stinging from accusations by Washington that it needs to “do more” in the fight against terrorism, it is hard to understand the government’s failure to produce the IMU prisoners, in order to milk them for their propaganda value. Similarly, the lack of any statements by Yoldashev (or any IMU commanders for that matter) to explain their position, rally support, or appeal to comrades-in-arms raises eyebrows, given that the organization, we are told, is involved in perhaps its climactic battle for existence. Instead, even sympathetic outlets such as the Urdu Daily Jasarat and media affiliated with the Taliban, have not been able to deliver the IMU’s standpoint. (Emphasis mine)

I recognize Roggio and Gartenstein-Ross sidestep this take by saying the violence is by the splinter faction Islamic Jihad Group. If this is the case, then it is the first time we’ve heard anything from them since 2004. As Hoffman notes, the lack of rallying cries, calls for additional jihad, funding, and weapons, and related propaganda operations is deeply curious if such a fanatical group really were under such vicious attack. Hell, even among established literature there is little evidence the IJG really exists anymore—since a limited bombing campaign against Israeli and American targets in 2004, nothing has been heard from them, in stark contrast even to the little sound bites Tohir Yol’dosh has released.

In fact, at this point I’m inclined to write off what little fighting there probably was in Waziristan as over-hyped nonsense. Furthermore, I’m inclined to disbelieve any reports that involve the Islamic Jihad Group—seeing as to how Roggio is relying on a fairly narrow set of sources at his blog for information on intra-NWFP maneuverings (including attributing the “four explanations” of the fighting to other news sources, an attribution that does not appear in his Weekly Standard piece), I remain deeply skeptical that a supposedly hyper-violent, fanatical splinter group that gained tremendous cachet by bombing the Israeli and American embassies in Tashkent would simply vanish for three years only to emerge in Waziristan fighting the Taliban and fellow Uzbeks.

Put differently, I think we’re still missing critical pieces of information about what’s going on in Waziristan. Though I think Roggio and Gartenstein-Ross fall short in the details of their analysis, the gist of it—that more caution and skepticism is needed, especially when considering statements from Islamabad—is absolutely right. Formulating policy on clearly incomplete data will only lead to bad policy, something I think we’ve had quite enough of, thank you very much.

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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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