Taliban real power in Pakistan’s border region?

We again point out the surreal irony that Pakistan, the closest US ally in the region, is serving as a staging ground for the anti-US insurgency in Afghanistan. This report indicates that the actual Taliban leadership which was chased out of Afghanistan almost exactly five years ago has seized power in Pakistan’s border region of Waziristan. And we also point out the intractable nature of the problem: if Musharraf seriously moves to oust the Taliban there, he will almost certainly face a tribal insurgency war in Waziristan, and may even face a coup attempt from the pro-Islamist elements of his own military. From Newsday, Sept. 27 (emphasis added):

Taliban truce raises doubts

KABUL, Afghanistan — As Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf visits the White House today for talks about the war on terror, evidence is growing that his peace deals with Pakistan-based Taliban groups are letting them step up attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Since Pakistan signed a truce in June with the Taliban in its border region of North Waziristan, “we have seen a 300 percent increase” in Taliban attacks and other incidents in the adjacent Afghan provinces, a U.S. intelligence officer said here yesterday. Most came from Pakistani soil, he said.

This month, Pakistan converted that truce into a long-term pact that Musharraf said bars the Taliban from crossing to fight in Afghanistan. Military analysts in Pakistan and Afghanistan say the deal cannot be enforced and is a surrender to the Taliban. President George W. Bush has defended Musharraf, saying simply, “I believe him.”

But new signs suggest the deal is letting the Taliban continue – and escalate – the fight:

North Waziristan residents say the Taliban have set new rules to make their infiltration of Afghanistan less visible to U.S. surveillance. A source close to the peace talks said these provisions were part of an oral agreement with the Pakistani government that accompanied the written peace deal. A Pakistani government spokeswoman denied there was a secret part to the agreement.

Last week, one of the Pakistani Taliban leaders who approved the North Waziristan peace deal was killed battling U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan, Pakistanis and U.S. military sources said. The leader, Mullah Abdul Qalam, was buried in Pakistan, where other Taliban leaders vowed to continue the fight across the border.

In North Waziristan, a ruggedly mountainous region where foreigners are banned, the Taliban are in control and the mood following the peace deal was buoyantly militant. Residents said there was a general expectation that the peace deal with Pakistan’s ruling army will let the militants step up fighting in Afghanistan.

In one village a few miles from the Afghan border, men said Taliban officials have declared that the jihad now will be more organized and disciplined. Men who volunteer to fight must now cross in smaller groups and stay for longer periods – at least 40 days, according to one source. Fighters will be required to hand their identity documents to the Taliban commander in their village to ensure that they will not be identifiable as Pakistani citizens.

The Sept. 5 peace deal, following a similar pact with Taliban in South Waziristan 18 months ago, marks Pakistan’s abandonment of a 30-month campaign of blunt military offensives that failed to clear Waziristan of al-Qaida fighters or Taliban. The army attacks destroyed villages, uprooted thousands of the ethnic Pashtun tribe members and inspired legions of local young men to join the Taliban.

Pakistan says the Taliban in Waziristan now are being controlled by the region’s tribal leaders. But that is a transparent fiction, Waziristan residents and analysts say. The Taliban have shattered the tribes’ authority, killing hundreds of pro-government tribal leaders, and “are too strong to be controlled by the tribes,” said retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Mehmood Shah, a former security chief for the Pashtun tribal zone that includes Waziristan.

Musharraf says this month’s deal was with a council of tribal leaders rather than the Taliban, but that, too, is untrue, tribal leaders themselves have told journalists. The real terms of the deal were negotiated between a government team and the Taliban’s leadership, and “the council simply approved it,” said a tribal leader who asked not to be named for fear of government sanctions.

Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who are to meet Bush together today, have continued to trade accusations this week about which country is the main base for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

For U.S. forces in Afghanistan, there is no doubt the Taliban are mainly Pakistan-based, the U.S. intelligence officer said. “Some of the incidents are generated from inside Afghanistan,” he said, “but the financing, logistics, recruiting and safe haven are all centered in Pakistan.”

U.S. and Afghan bases on the border often come under direct rocket fire from the Pakistani side of the border, and guerrilla groups who attack American positions are routinely traced back to Pakistan, the official said.

In a mud-walled farming village of North Waziristan this month, a crew of illiterate young Pashtun tribesmen arrived at 7 a.m. to pick up shovels and begin a day’s construction work. In Waziristan, few such men dream of getting an education or a career someday, for schools and jobs are few.

Of the eight to 10 men who usually work on the crew, four have registered with their village’s Taliban commander to fight the Americans, the crew’s employer said. “After we ate lunch yesterday, we gave the prayer of thanks,” he said, “and one of these boys told me, ‘Please also pray for us, that we will be sent soon to Afghanistan for jihad.'”

See our last posts on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Waziristan.