DIR // As Pakistan's army pushes ever deeper into the country's mountainous tribal regions in a bid to flush out extremists, they are making a startling discovery - the majority of fighters are foreigners, and not just from Afghanistan. Uzbeks, Europeans, Afghans, Russians and even a few Caucasian Americans all have been arrested along the rugged border with Afghanistan as the military presses its operation in North and South Waziristan.
Col Nadeem Mirza, the military commander, told The National on an exclusive trip to the region: "Our intelligence had informed us that al Qa'eda followers were hiding in the tribal agencies but no one was expecting to find so many foreigners and al Qa'eda members here. It seemed like these areas had become a fortress for al Qa'eda." According to Col Mirza, more than 80 per cent of mosque leaders in the tribal area are foreigners - and some are not even Muslims, he said.
"It is rare to find a mosque in the tribal areas where both the leader and the followers are Pakistanis," Col Mirza said. "We have arrested Uzbek mosque leaders, Russians and even Indians." Brig Mahmood Shah, an expert on Pakistan's tribal regions, said the presence of so many foreign fighters in the tribal regions showed that al Qa'eda had a greater presence than the government had been willing to admit, as the Taliban traditionally only recruited Afghan or Pakistanis.
The army's comments are startling because the government has so far been debunking reports pointing to the presence of al Qa'eda and Osama bin Laden in Waziristan. Rumours about foreign fighters in Pakistan have long been making the rounds but this is the first time an army officer has gone on record acknowledging their presence. In October, during military operations in Orakzai, Sherwangai and other areas along the Afghan border, passports belonging to German and Spanish men were recovered, along with photographs of suspected foreign militants.
Hassan Askari, a political analyst, said the presence of foreign fighters makes the battle more challenging for the military. "These foreigners are familiar with the terrain in Pakistan, Afghanistan and even India," he said. "It's almost impossible to hunt them down since they can easily move across borders. When you're fighting Pakistanis, you know they will be less eager to jump across the border since they're more familiar with the region on this side: not so with foreigners."
The district of Dir is currently at the forefront of the military operation. During raids conducted by the army, dozens of Kalashnikovs, pistols and hand grenades were recovered. Col Mizra said: "It's obvious that the militants have foreign assistance. Look at this display of arsenal - some of them are imported weapons, others have probably been snatched from Nato forces [in Afghanistan]. "These people are being helped by their colleagues in Afghanistan, India and other places."
Although the army now admits to the presence of foreign fighters in the region, it insists that there is no indication that bin Laden or any other high-ranking al Qa'eda operatives are in Pakistan. "Yes, al Qa'eda members and their affiliates are present in Waziristan but not to the degree Americans would like us to believe," Col Mirza said. "I don't believe any high-ranking al Qa'eda members are hiding in Waziristan."
The military's Rah-e-Najat operation which began in mid-October was described by the army as being the "largest and most aggressive" assault against militants hiding in the tribal regions. The army sent in 30,000 troops believing they would be fighting 10,000 militants, but Col Mirza said that in some areas, such as Dir, where he is posted, that was a gross underestimation. "We have fought battles where there were 110 army officers to a hundred militants," he said. "Our estimates weren't as exact as we would have liked them to be. The rugged terrain and the inaccessibility of many parts of the tribal agencies makes it hard to get an exact number of militants."
However, the military claims its operation has been far more successful than many predicted. In many parts of Waziristan, the army has re-established control and militants have been captured, killed or weakened to a degree that they are no longer a definite threat. Col Mizra said this was down to a three-stage strategy. The first stage was gaining control over the militants' main supply routes, such as Bajaur from where supplies from the rest of Pakistan enter Waziristan, and areas bordering the Pak-Afghan border.
"This was a relatively easier stage," Col Mirza said, "because most of the militants had moved to hiding places inside Waziristan making it easy for us to get hold of their supply lines. As we moved inward, we maintained a presence on the border areas to ensure that our control on the supply lines remained strong." The second stage entailed taking control of valleys and plains, while the third stage involved "search and cordon off" operations, including raids on hide-outs and safe houses. The army claims that in most areas, Operation Rah-e-Najat is now in stage three.
Col Mirza said that at the beginning of the operation, locals were hostile to their presence. He said residents at first refused to talk about the presence of militants, but gradually opened up to the extent that now, the military relies on them for intelligence gathering. * The National