MIRANSHAH, North Waziristanâ€”â€I can see slit throats beneath these turbans and beardsâ€ were the words of Hajaj bin Yusuf, an 8th-century tyrant in what is now Iraq, as he witnessed a gathering of leading religious and political figures.
A similar thought occurred to this writer as he attended the largest-ever gathering of Pakistani Taliban, tribal elders and politicians in Miranshah, the tribal capital of North Waziristan, on Wednesday. Fire and blood were in the air as momentous events loomed over the Pakistani tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, where the Taliban are in complete control.
The tribal areas bordering Afghanistanâ€™s volatile southern and southwestern provinces are once again a focus of the â€œwar on terrorâ€ and are likely soon to become as significant to the United States as Afghanistan itself.
The Americans are pointing directly at the two Waziristans as the primary conduit for the suicide bombers who are currently playing havoc with the US-NATO-led war machine in Afghanistan, and a safe haven for enemy combatants. The US now has come up with a plan to confront the strategic arm of the Taliban based on the Pakistani side of the border.
The anti-US forces, meanwhile, are taking countermeasures, and the Pakistani government is trying to find a safe position for itself between the antagonists.
Negotiations have begun to finalize new rules for dealing with the tribal region. Last month, Pakistani Vice Chief of Army Staff General Ehsan Saleem Hayat attended the conference of the Tripartite Commission (representing Afghanistan, Pakistan and the forces of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Kabulâ€”and General John Abizaid of US Centcom (Central Command) has traveled to Pakistan to finalize a blueprint.
Sources say the Americans are set on a plan of hot pursuit of enemy combatants across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they want a clear demarcation of the Pakistani tribal areas that have long been volatile and which they say should be part of the Afghanistan front in the â€œwar on terror.â€
Last month, Pakistan considered the issue and offered in response a geographical demarcation of the border and a fence along it. In fact the border in this region is the imaginary Durand Line, which passes through mountains and populated areas, and is impossible to seal. The only practical solution, as far as Washington is concerned, is hot pursuit of enemy combatants into their refuges in Pakistan.
On Wednesday in Miranshah, hundreds of people attended a ceremony for new madrasa graduates in what was considered the largest ever gathering of people from the two Waziristans. The gathering was also a manifestation of the broader current now flowing through the tribal areasâ€”the imminent arrival of the US military.
The ceremony was scheduled soon after negotiations started in the two Waziristans between Pakistani authorities on one side and the Pakistani Taliban and Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (Fazlur Rehman) on the other. Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI-F) is the political party of Pakistani opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and is the only party still working in the two Waziristans. JUI-F keeps in close contact with the mujahideen who call themselves the Pakistani Taliban.
At this meeting, the authorities, still smarting from the rout of Islamabadâ€™s forces by the tribals in both Waziristans when the government tried to impose its will in the region, declared that under the status quo the government could neither withdraw its military nor prevent US-led forces from entering the tribal areas.
The JUI-F itself is desperately looking for ways to restrict the Pakistani Talibanâ€™s ambitions. The latter movement is clearly intent on moving into the cities, especially those politically influenced by the JUI-F, and becoming a major power player in the country as a whole.
The JUI-F, therefore, is forging a strategy with the Pakistani Taliban under which the Taliban will retain de facto control of the Waziristans while the political-cum-religious leadership, including the JUI-F, will appear to be running the showâ€”and, at the same time, be shielding the Taliban from US-led forces. The Miranshah gathering was a manifestation of this new strategy.
At the gathering, mujahideen leader Maulana Sadiq Noor and a representative of Gul Badar (chief of the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan), as well as other members of the mujahideen shura (council), were seated on a stage while the leaders of the JUI-F delivered speeches. Said an organizer belonging to the student wing of the JUI-F, â€œMujahideen will not be allowed to speak; rather they will only sit on the back benches on the stage.â€
The gathering presaged the future setup in the Waziristans. The mujahideen will remain in the background and the non-militant face of leadership, in the form of local tribal elders, the JUI-F and religious leaders, will be visible. This will enable the Pakistani authorities to justify their proposal to fence the Durand Line rather than allow US-led forces a free hand in the tribal areas.
Meanwhile the â€œguestsâ€â€”foreign anti-US fighters including Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechensâ€”who are living in North Waziristan have had their own command structures dismantled and been asked to join the central mujahideen force of commander Gul Badar, or simply to scatter into ordinary tribal society.
Certainly, there is no overt connection between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Pakistani Taliban, yet the new setup in the Waziristans clearly echoes that in Lebanon, where Hezbollah hides itself behind many thick curtains while remaining in a position of power. It was precisely this setup that enabled Lebanon to defend its territorial integrity and political interests during the recent Israeli invasion.
Neither the US nor Islamabad knows the strength of the Pakistani Taliban in the mountain fastnesses of the two Waziristans. Pakistan has offered a general amnesty for all previously wanted people, and military checkpoints are manned only at three or four points on the borders of the region. The Taliban, meanwhile, call the shots everywhere.
Such was the situation until Wednesday, when the two Waziristans embarked on a new phase in which US military campaigns seem unavoidable. Cognizant of developments and intent on saving turbans, beards and throats, thick curtains have been drawn.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Onlineâ€™s Pakistan bureau chief.