In Pakistan’s borderlands, Taliban quietly expanding influence

1 month ago 27

Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan – Every night, Muhammad Nadeem gathers his weary body and begins the first watch. His rifle across his lap, he sits at the entrance of his home in the northwestern Pakistani town of Tank and waits.

Periodically, he will walk around the house’s perimeter, checking for activity in the streets of this dusty backwater of a town, located adjacent to his native South Waziristan district, about 300km (186 miles) southwest of the capital Islamabad.

The authorities’ hold over law and order in this part of Pakistan has historically been tenuous, but Nadeem is not spending sleepless nights because of local thieves or criminals.

His concerns are slightly more serious: Nadeem is standing guard against the Pakistani Taliban.

Muhammad Nadeem, 33, is a construction contractor who says both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban are extorting Waziristan residents for money and carrying out targeted killings [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

This year has seen a marked uptick in violence in the South Waziristan and adjoining North Waziristan districts – once the birthplace and headquarters of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) – and with the Afghan Taliban now controlling neighbouring Afghanistan, which borders both districts, residents of these areas say they fear a return to life under the TTP.

The situation is complex, analysts and residents say, and involves a resurgence of the TTP and its allied local militias, as well as Pakistani government-backed “surrendered” Taliban fighters, all engaged in targeted killings of civilians, extortion, tribal councils and attacks against security forces.

Since January, at least 69 people have been killed in 37 attacks across South and North Waziristan districts, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).

The attacks have included targeted killings of anti-Taliban civilians, extortion-related killings, checkpost raids and numerous improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeting security forces, who account for 84 percent of all reported casualties in these areas.

Pakistan’s military attributes the rise in violence to “the evolving situation in Afghanistan”, according to a security source familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject.

“Shocks were felt in Pakistan due to evolving situation in Afghanistan,” said the source. “However, this scenario was short-lived as Pakistan’s security forces remain ready to deal with any internal [or] external threats.”

A view of the gate of the local administration compound for South Waziristan, located in Tank. A Pakistani flag flies above the gate, which is named the ‘Gate of Waziristan’ [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

In October, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government was in “talks” with the TTP, attempting to pave the way towards a peace agreement.

In November, Afghan acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi confirmed that the Afghan Taliban was “mediating” those talks, and has agreed upon a one-month ceasefire as the formal structure of talks was set up.

In the Waziristan districts, however, such talk is being met with both scepticism and fear, residents say.

‘They will kill them’

“Right now, security there […] is very bad,” says Nadeem, of his native Sararogha area of South Waziristan. “Those who say there is peace, there is no peace. The Taliban are there in a full-fledged way.”

Nadeem, 33, is a construction contractor, and travels to the district often for his work.

“When I say ‘[roaming] freely’, I mean that in our village the Taliban are also passing decisions, conducting jirgas. In their own name.” The term ‘jirga’ refers to a form of tribal council dispute mediation that is common in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On May 23, a member of Nadeem’s family was attacked in a bombing in Tank, followed by a raid on their home by gunmen. The threat came after his uncle refused to pay two million Pakistani rupees (roughly $11,400) in extortion money to a man who identified himself as a member of the Pakistani Taliban.

“The man said it is our business what we do with the money,” says Nadeem. “’We are doing jihad in Afghanistan, we are in difficult times, we need money, give us the money,’ [the man said].”

South Waziristan Deputy Commissioner Khalid Iqbal says the government has improved conditions in the district immensely, and says there has been a ‘big improvement’ in security [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Other residents of South Waziristan district say such threats have become common across the district, and, as in Nadeem’s case, have even targeted members of the community resident in the adjacent districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.

“For extortion it’s like this: if someone doesn’t give them [the money] the first time, they might burn their car or fire on their [home],” says Fida Muhammad, a rights activist and resident of the Tiarza area of South Waziristan. “And after one or two warnings then they will kill them.”

Muhammad shared the example of a construction contractor in the Tiarza area who was shot dead on July 7, allegedly in connection with an unpaid extortion payment.

“Whoever takes a contract there, there will not be a person who does not give [extortion] money,” says Alamzeb Mehsud, a leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) rights group and native of Ladha in South Waziristan.

Alamzeb Mehsud, a central leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, alleges the military carries out indiscriminate raids against innocent civilians after attacks [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

In South Waziristan, a particular concern appears to be the emergence of government-backed local militias composed of former Taliban fighters who have “surrendered” to security forces and now work alongside them.

“We see that in Waziristan, where there was a time where you could not even carry a knife, […] these ‘good Taliban’ [are] roaming with weapons and imposing the same system [as before], just their name had changed,” says Mehsud.

Several residents of areas across South Waziristan Al Jazeera spoke with said that these “surrendered” Taliban fighters – referred to locally with the sarcastic moniker “good Taliban” or in local slang as “cylinders” – had also set up offices to collect extortion money from residents and enforce their decisions regarding local disputes.

“They […] have an office. If I have an issue, I will take it to them,” says Muhammad. “They take money from both [sides] and then issue decisions.”

Alamzeb Wazir’s uncle, Arif Wazir, was a prominent critic of both the Taliban and the military’s role in Waziristan, and was shot dead outside his home in May 2020 [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Analysts say the emergence of state-backed armed groups was of particular concern.

“These are dangerous developments, and portend a return to the way things were a decade ago in that area,” says Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution. “Foot soldiers from the ‘surrendered’ Taliban can easily cross back over to the TTP – or facilitate them, provide them logistical support and assistance.”

Referring to the “surrendered” Taliban, the Pakistani security source said such fighters were put through “an efficient rehabilitation mechanism which includes medical facilitation, dissemination of skills […] and psychological grooming”.

“As an additional step, follow up on these individuals is also carried out to ensure their reintegration in the society.”

The source did not comment on the allegations that the “surrendered” Taliban were still armed and carrying out attacks or enforcing control in certain areas.

A road sign on the way to the remote South Waziristan tribal district, in northwestern Pakistan [File: Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Brutal killings spread fear

In neighbouring North Waziristan, the security situation appears to be even worse.

Since January, at least 45 people have been killed in 25 attacks in the district, according to SATP data, with a mix of armed actors active in the area, including the TTP and local militias led by commanders Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Sadiq Noor, Aleem Khan and others.

“After the collapse of Kabul, they have gotten internal strength and confidence, and they have come onto the front foot,” says Mohsin Dawar, North Waziristan’s sole member of Pakistan’s lower house of parliament, who travels often to the district.

“They had quite a large presence before as well, and they were moving around as well, but it was done in a certain [hidden] way. Now they have become very visible again.”

Asked what kind of activities these armed actors engage in, Dawar is emphatic:

“Everything. There is extortion, taking money from contractors or anyone who has any business there. There are abductions as well [and] there are killings,” he says.

In one case in early November, Dawar narrates, local tribal elder Malik Laik, from the Hamzoni area of North Waziristan, was dragged out of his home and beheaded by a local Taliban-allied militia.

“They kill brutally in order to spread fear,” says Dawar.

That incident, like many others in the Waziristan districts, which are entirely controlled by the Pakistani military since a 2014 operation to drive out the Taliban and its allies from those areas into neighbouring Afghanistan, was never reported in Pakistan’s mainstream press.

“Statistically, it is quite difficult to gauge what is happening there, because we have only one official source from where information is coming, this is ISPR [the military’s press wing],” says Amir Rana, a security analyst and director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS).

“Specifically, the TTP and other militant groups are also targeting civil society and elders, and the reporting of these attacks are still missing.”

The rocky hillsides of South Waziristan, the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, are littered with mines and IEDs left behind by a bitter war [File: Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Muhammad, the native of Tiarza, said that many attacks are not reported to the authorities “out of fear” for reprisals, from the Taliban but also from security forces.

Several residents Al Jazeera spoke with accused the military of carrying out indiscriminate raids following attacks, abducting local civilians and holding them for months without charge.

Mehsud, the PTM leader from Ladha, said the TTP’s fighters had returned to the district “in large numbers”.

“At night someone calling themselves Taliban would come, asking to be fed,” he says.

“If [a person] gave them bread, because they were forced to do so, and then the next time there was an attack, or even if there wasn’t an attack, the army would come and pick up their family members and accuse them of feeding the [Taliban].”

The PTM has documented at least 13 specific incidents of civilians in South Waziristan being abducted by the military following a security incident this year alone, Mehsud said.

One Waziristan resident who faced security forces action after he was accused of supporting the TTP said people in the district were afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled Taliban sympathisers by the military.

“You see, [in Waziristan] there is a prohibition on speaking the truth,” he said, declining to be named for fear of further reprisals.

The Pakistani security source denied the allegations, calling them “baseless”.

“Security forces conduct operations for rooting out terrorists and associated networks, however, facts are fabricated to malign the image of armed forces,” the source said.

‘Afghan Taliban and TTP are the same’

In October, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told Turkish state-affiliated broadcaster TRT World that his government was engaging in talks with the TTP, with the possibility of those who lay down arms being “forgiven”.

The TTP, an umbrella group of armed groups originally from across Pakistan’s northwestern border districts, was formed in 2007, and waged a war against the Pakistani state for years before the 2014 operation pushed most of its leadership and fighters into neighbouring Afghanistan.

The group has been responsible for some of the deadliest bombings targeting civilians and security forces on Pakistani soil, including a 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed more than 132 schoolchildren.

In all, at least 25,622 Pakistanis have been killed in attacks by the TTP and its allies since 2007, according to SATP data, with civilians accounting for 73 percent of all casualties.

The 2014 operation saw violence drop sharply, with the Pakistani military citing a 75 percent drop in the number of attacks since 2015, with 398 major and 830 minor operations conducted against the TTP and its allies.

Once the headquarters for feared Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, Makin today lies mostly abandoned [File: Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Amir Rana, the analyst, says the possibility of the Afghan Taliban acting as a neutral broker in the talks is a remote one.

“I think this is quite funny, in the context that Afghan Taliban and the TTP are the same,” he says. “The Taliban will favour the TTP in any sort of the talks. Although there are indications even after the ceasefire the formal talks haven’t been started yet.”

Pakistani officials have said that they have approached the Afghan Taliban to ensure Afghan soil is not used by armed groups targeting Pakistan, but analysts say it is unlikely the Afghan Taliban would act in any concrete way against the TTP, whose fighters fought alongside Afghan Taliban troops against US-led NATO forces for years.

“I don’t see it happening,” says Afzal, the analyst. “The Taliban care greatly about maintaining unity in their ranks – action against the TTP would undermine that and threaten to send defectors over to Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIL’s affiliate in the region), something the Taliban really don’t want.

“That motivation trumps any desire to appease Pakistan.”

Previous peace agreements between the Pakistani government and factions of the TTP, notably in the northern Swat valley in 2009, have ended in the TTP using the space to consolidate their power and then expand into adjoining districts.

“It is quite apparent that whenever the Taliban are given space when they have ‘surrendered’ they exploit it and used it to expand their influence in these areas,” says Rana.

“The TTP will […] try to introduce, implement and enforce their own brand of Sharia [Islamic law] on the tribal [areas]. This is also where [if] the State will resist, it will trigger another wave of terrorism. This is the worst-case scenario.

“And the worst-case scenario is … also the more likely scenario.”

For residents of Waziristan, the omens are not good, they say, caught in a conflict between the TTP, state-backed “good Taliban” and raids by the Pakistani security forces themselves.

“For normal people, their lives are completely at a standstill,” says one resident, who requested anonymity fearing reprisals. “They are very distressed, because they can’t say anything to the army or to the Taliban.

“People are afraid.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Read Entire Article