May 23, 2002

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Pak tribals warn of war against US forces

Amir Mir in Lahore

The Musharraf regime's decision to conduct joint operations with the US forces in the tribal areas of Pakistan, primarily to root out the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network, has angered local elders, who have declared that they are ready to do battle if the American soldiers don't leave 'soon'.

American intelligence circles in Pakistan say a 100-member team of US special forces commandos landed last fortnight at the Meeran Shah headquarters of the Kurram Agency in the tribal area of Pakistan, primarily to hunt down Osama bin Laden's deputy, Dr Ayman Al-Zawahary, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation got a tip from intelligence quarters that he was in the area.

The sources added that Osama's associate may have been under treatment there as he was seriously injured when US forces bombarded former Afghan interior minister Jalaluddin Haqqani's hideout in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda.

Though General Pervez Musharraf claimed that the US deployment consists of hardly a dozen communications specialists, the tribal leaders insist that dozens of special forces commandos are involved in the searches, with the main zone of operation apparently being the southern end of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies along the Afghan border.

While refuting the general's claim, they pointed out that the Meeran Shah area of South Waziristan agency was full of "invisible" American commandos. The US soldiers are everywhere, according to the small talk among the tribal areas' residents where Al Qaeda operatives are assumed to be hiding.

According to the government sources, the Pakistani and American troops conducted their first joint operation last fortnight when they raided several religious seminaries, including one that was run by a the former Taliban official Haqqani. More than 100 Pakistani paramilitary troops assisted by about a dozen US soldiers raided the religious school at Darpa Khel, North Waziristan. Haqqani had set up the seminary during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

The Pakistani law-enforcing authorities had closed down the seminary a few months back. Haqqani, who rose to fame due to active support from the Central Investigation Agency against the Soviet intervention, had been minister of frontier affairs in the Taliban government. The US intelligence officials in Pakistan believe he is the main actor behind the regrouping of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "The raid on his religious school was a signal for those who are harbouring the alleged terrorists in tribal areas."

Due to their religious socio-cultural environment, the Pakistani tribal areas are considered traditional strongholds of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The area has been under intense surveillance from foreign intelligence agencies for this very reason. During the US campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, thousands of tribesmen voluntarily crossed into Afghanistan to fight against the US forces and all kind of material support was extended to the Taliban.

Contrary to the official policy, a majority of the tribesmen still hold the view that the Taliban were on the right path and their ouster from power was due to an international conspiracy hatched by anti-Islamic forces. The tribesmen, who until recently were not ready even to see Pakistani regular forces on their soil, deeply resent the presence of US forces in the areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Prior to the raid on Haqqani's seminary, the tribesmen were agitating against the operation of US forces in the tribal areas. The tribesmen, led by Pakistan's leading religious group, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, staged a big protest rally in North Waziristan Agency in the last week of April. Thousands of tribesmen, armed with rockets and rifles, took to the streets and blocked the Bannu-Miran Shah road.

The participants demanded the withdrawal of the US forces from the agency and a halt to the arrests of innocent people on suspicion of being members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. On the other hand, however, it is hard to find someone in the area who has actually seen a US soldier, though they are very much there. The exact number of soldiers and what they are doing, however, remains unclear -- which is what the American and Pakistani officials most probably want, because of the military and political reasons.

And to keep the secrets, the Pakistani authorities are simply not allowing journalists into the tribal areas. The sources say that the US commandos, who have established their operational bases at Vocational College and Sport Complex, Miran Shah, are planning more raids in the area, as General Tommy Franks, commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan, has already signed an informal agreement with Pakistan for hot pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives.

According to Pakistani intelligence sources, some Western intelligence outfits, including the CIA, are active in monitoring and collecting data on the fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda members in the tribal area for the last several months. Small teams of American, British and Australian commandos also remained in the no-man's land on the border since they launched a new hunt for terrorists last month.

Their main focus is the region between the Afghan town of Khost and the Pakistani border town of Miran Shah. More such raids are being planned in other tribal areas, including Baluchistan, the sources said.

Due to other reasons such as the government's resolve to bring drastic social, political and legal reforms, collect electricity bills, Pakistan's participation in the coalition against terror and the refusal to allow cross-border trade, the tribal areas are witnessing unrest; a condition very conducive for any anti-government movement.

The chief of Pakistan's leading religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, had announced on May 8 that the religious parties would take a unanimous decision against the Musharraf regime on May 13 for allowing US troops to operate in the tribal areas. Speaking at a news conference in Peshawar, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Jamaat chief, said: "We warn the government of existing provocation in tribal areas in particular and Muslims in general with regard to the American operation against religious institutions in Miran Shah".

He urged Musharraf to immediately cancel the agreement with the US to save himself from the wrath of the people. He declared that the people would come out on the roads against the government if it did not withdraw support to the US. The existing provocation among the tribal people and other countrymen, he said, was a threat to internal security.

Also see: America's War Against Terror: Complete coverage

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