Pakistan’s Daily Times reports today on some remarkable developments in South Waziristan, which have at least the potential for a signficant impact on the war on terror. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what is going on at this distance, but there seems to be an incipient tribal war (or at least serious tensions) developing between the majority Mahsud (also spelled “Mehsud”) and the minority Wazir tribe in South Waziristan. The Pakistani government may be abetting these tensions, all of which may create a possible opening for a quasi-Anbar-style tribal strategy in Waziristan. But again, it is very difficult to know anything for certain.
In “Tribes of Terror,” my essay in the current Claremont Review of Books, I tell the story of a tribal war in South Waziristan between the Wazirs and the Mahsuds in the mid-1970′s. This war, sparked by the rise of a proto-Taliban-style religious figure named Noor Muhammad, was essentially a drive by the Wazirs to establish a separate tribal agency to get them out from under domination by the majority Mahsuds. Perhaps the key objective of Noor’s rebellion was to force the government of Pakistan to open the Gomal Road, which would allow the Wazirs to travel and trade without having to go through Mahsud territory. The government of Pakistan eventually sent in tanks to crush the rebellion, and the Gomal Road remained closed.
Today, however, Pakistan’s Daily Times reports that the Pakistani army has opened the Gomal road to the Wazirs. This comes after a reported 15 day cut-off of electricity to the Wazir areas by the Mahsuds, who control the power lines. Tensions are now such that Wazirs are apparently no longer able to travel safely through Mahsud areas for fear of being captured or killed. The Wazirs are reportedly also raising a tribal army, whose expenses will be paid by the Pakistani government.
What is going on here? Again, it’s very tough to tell on the basis of a single report, and also because of the general isolation, secrecy, and complexity of developments in Waziristan. But the matter seems to be tied up with an ongoing and fast-growing conflict between the Pakistani army and the forces of Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud. Pakistan seems to be going after Baitullah by enforcing an economic blockade on the entire Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan, and by attacks in the nearby district of Tank. The government has apparently exempted the Wazirs from the blockade, and it may be that the Mahsuds have retaliated by cutting off electricity to the Wazirs. The government would seem to have countered by allowing the Wazirs to move independently of the Mahsuds through the heretofore forbidden Gomal road.
In short, whereas Noor Muhammad’s rebellion pitted the Wazirs against a de facto alliance between the government and the Mahsuds, the current conflict seems to pit the Mahsuds, under the leadership of Baitullah Mahsud, against a de facto alliance between the government and the Wazirs. In the 1970′s the Wazirs sought independence from the Mahsuds through an independent transportation route in the form of the Gomal Road. Now the government has opened the long-forbidden Gomal road as a way of isolating the Mahsuds, and splitting them off from the Wazirs.
Last night, Andy noted that the Taliban, under Baitullah, had overrun a Pakistani held fort in South Waziristan. That is certainly bad news, an indication of government weakness, and a general sign of the growing conflict between the Pakistani army and the Taliban under Baitullah Mahsud. But the opening of the Gomal road, government financing of a Wazir lashkar (tribal army), and what appears to be a growing alliance between the Pakistani army and the Wazirs could be the opening we’ve been looking for in the area.
If nothing else, the Wazirs may be able to provide critical information on Taliban and al-Qaeda activities in South Waziristan. And if a “hot” tribal war develops, it may provide cover for covert military operations in Waziristan. The Daily Times article ends by mentioning earlier efforts by a local Taliban leader to root out al-Qaeda connected foreign fighters in the area. Who knows, the Pakistani army may already be levering the growing Wazir/Mahsud split to undermine not only Baitullah Mahsud, but also his al-Qaeda allies in South Waziristan. But again, I emphasize that this is simply preliminary speculation on events that are extremely difficult to piece together.