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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 May 2006, 00:08 GMT 01:08 UK
Pakistan's Taleban gamble

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Peshawar

US air strikes on Tora Bora in December 2001
Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters escaped the Tora Bora assault

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf says his country's battle against al-Qaeda in the lawless tribal region has almost been won.

He says he is more worried about the rise of Taleban-like extremism in the tribal area of Waziristan.

But those watching the current conflict in Waziristan say it is unrealistic to separate the two entities.

They argue that al-Qaeda and the Taleban are in fact locked in a symbiotic relationship in which a crackdown on the former automatically galvanises the latter.

Open border

For Pakistan, though, a clear distinction between the Taleban and al-Qaeda has been a defining element of its policy perceptions vis--vis the US-led war on terror.

"Our security paradigm at the time the US bombed the Taleban regime in Afghanistan out of power was very clear," says a top military source who has extensive knowledge of the tribal region.

Zubair Mehsud
Hundreds of Taleban and foreign militants... would arrange for local protection and disappear into the rural areas
Professor Zubair Mehsud

"We kept telling the Taleban that they do have a future as a political entity indigenous to the area, whereas al-Qaeda doesn't."

It was perhaps this perception that allowed a large number of Afghan Taleban and their fellow al-Qaeda fighters to enter Waziristan during the extensive US bombing of the Tora Bora mountain ranges in Afghanistan in December 2001.

Pakistan said at the time that it had sealed the border to prevent militants hiding in Tora Bora from crossing over into Waziristan.

But locals tell a completely different story.

"Hundreds of Taleban and foreign militants were seen lining up at public baths [called hamams] in major Waziristan towns such as Wana and Miranshah in those days," says Zubair Mehsud, a law professor at Peshawar University.

Mr Mehsud is putting together his thesis on how the conflict in Waziristan measures up against international humanitarian law.

"They would be covered in dirt, some would be injured, others near starvation.

"They would clean themselves up, arrange for local protection and disappear into the rural areas," says Mr Mehsud.

Locals in Wana say these refugee militants included Afghan Taleban, Central Asians and Arabs.

'Milking the Arabs'

Waziristan's economy has always been dependent on the smuggling routes that run through the area linking Pakistan with Afghanistan.

Before the September 2001 attacks on the United States, trafficking in foreign militants was a relatively controlled affair, "closely monitored and often orchestrated by the Pakistan army".

"But the sudden influx after the Tora Bora bombing led to a kind of a free-for-all," says a tribal in Wana.

"Swathes of unemployed locals, many of whom had never had connections with the militant networks in Afghanistan, suddenly discovered the lucrative business of harbouring foreign militants."

Grocery stores in towns such as Wana and Miranshah were suddenly overflowing with canned foodstuffs such as tuna fish and mushrooms - the kind that most local tribesmen had never seen before.

These events are not denied by Pakistani military officials, only interpreted in a different context.

"It is impossible to completely seal off Pakistan's border with Afghanistan along the Waziristan region," says a top military official who has worked in the tribal areas for several years.

"So when the bombing of Tora Bora drove the militants into Waziristan, a large number of local smugglers and criminals seized it as an opportunity for making money by providing them with shelter and provisions," he says.

Pakistani soldier takes aim on border with Afghanistan
Pakistan has sent thousands of troops to the tribal areas

"A 20kg sack of sugar worth $10 was sold to the Arabs for as much as $100 in those days," says the military official.

"This was very different from the culture of hospitality seen during the anti-Soviet war, when militants were housed as honoured guests by the proud tribesmen."

Military officials say that for nearly two years between 2002 and 2004 - when the army's principal engagement in Waziristan was restricted to intelligence gathering - this new breed of "tribal entrepreneurs" acquired a prominence and wealth that they never had before.

"Sadly, it was these extortionists that took over the Pakistani Taleban uprising in October last year," says this official.

"They saw an opportunity to cash in on the local anger at the general lawlessness and umpteen gangs of bandits on the prowl and in doing so, assumed the leadership of the Taleban."

The official contends that these people are now making fortunes milking the Arabs in the garb of anti-US ideology.

Taleban return

The new situation presented Pakistan with two policy options: it could declare an indiscriminate war on all foreign militants and their local protectors or it could try to isolate the locals from the foreigners.

Making a distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taleban or between good and bad Taleban is like picking white hairs from your beard
Tribesman in Wana

The government clearly chose the latter.

There are many in Pakistan's security apparatus who expect that one day, when the Americans are gone, the Taleban will regain power in Afghanistan. Therefore, they argue, it is essential to have good relations with the Taleban in order for Pakistan's western borders to be secure.

Few understand the nuances of such policy issues better than local tribesmen.

And many have their own distinct way of putting it.

"Making a distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taleban or between good and bad Taleban is like picking white hairs from your beard," says a local tribesman in Wana.

"No matter how long you do it, the white is eventually going to win."

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