x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ally deserts Pakistan's insurgents

Alliance ordered by Afghan rebel leader appears to have dissolved after local Taliban chief ignored orders to end attacks.

ISLAMABAD // Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Pakistan's insurgents, has been deserted by a key ally - possibly on the orders of Afghanistan's Taliban leader Mohammed Omar - leaving him isolated before an expected attack by security forces, Taliban sources said. The commander, Haji Nazeer of South Waziristan tribal agency, had in February formed an alliance, the Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen, with Mr Mehsud and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the top commander of North Waziristan agency, on orders from Mr Omar. The purpose of ordering the alliance was to rein in Mr Mehsud who, up to that point, had acted as head of the Pakistani Taliban factions, and force him to focus on fighting the growing US military presence across the border in Afghanistan, sources close to Mr Omar said. "The Amir-ul-Momineen [Mr Omar's spiritual title] had written three letters to Baitullah, warning him that his attacks inside Pakistan were undermining the jihad in Afghanistan," said the source, identifying himself only as "Ghaznavi", a militant tag that indicates his birthplace as Ghazni in Afghanistan. "Baitullah has failed to listen to the repeated warnings, proving him to be America's biggest agent against Pakistan," he said during a recent interview in Karachi. Mr Omar had decided against making public such views because he did not want to be seen as partisan in Pakistan's internal affairs, he said. He refused to confirm or deny whether Mr Nazeer had been instructed to withdraw support to Mr Mehsud, but conceded that their future actions "would reflect advice from Mullah Omar, rather than Baitullah". The relationship between Mr Mehsud and Mr Nazeer has never been an easy one. Mr Nazeer was a signatory to a peace agreement between militants and the government in 2006 in which he had agreed to expel foreign al Qa'eda terrorists from South Waziristan. His militia subsequently chased them out of areas controlled by his Wazir tribe, but clashed with Mr Mehsud's fighters after they gave sanctuary to the fleeing foreign fighters, most of them from Uzbekistan. Their rival militias continued to fight until Mr Omar ordered them to join in February. Tribal elders in Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan, said they have seen no indication that Mr Nazeer was preparing to fight. They said large-scale army and paramilitary reinforcements had driven unopposed over the past two weeks through the area dominated by his militia, taking up positions along the mountainous boundary occupied by the Mehsud tribe. They attributed this to Mr Nazeer's record of avoiding a destructive conflict with security forces and to his affiliation with the Wazir tribe, which farms the temperate fertile plains areas of the tribal agency. Recent exchanges of rocket and artillery fire reflected his anger at being repeatedly targeted by US drones, pilotless planes, which he sees as a violation of the 2006 peace agreement, rather than any desire to push security forces out of the area, they said. "He has always hated violence because of the suffering it inflicts on us as a people. Right now our annual crop of fruit and vegetables is almost ready for harvest. Nazeer knows that the harvest is key to our survival and would never do anything to imperil it," said an elder, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security fears. Local journalists, who also sought anonymity, said they had been summoned for a meeting with Mr Nazeer on Thursday, but he had failed to arrive for the meeting because of the threat posed by constant drone activity in the area. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, also a Wazir tribe member, has been under similar pressure from drone attacks in North Waziristan agency, suggesting a broader strategy involving both the Pakistani and US governments. The journalists were not informed of the purpose of the meeting, but surmised its purpose was to give "editorial advice" about their coverage of forthcoming hostilities between the security forces and Mr Mehsud's militia, which is estimated at 15,000 strong. The political administration of South Waziristan summoned the Darai Mehsud, a council of elders from the three clans of the Mehsud tribe, on Thursday and, as per the laws governing the tribal agencies, collectively gave them responsibility for security forces in the area. However, tensions exploded on Thursday night when a car packed with explosives was driven into the wall of a paramilitary fort at Jandola, killing 12 people in the market outside. As expected, the 15-member tribal Mehsud council, led by Maulana Miraj-ud-din, a former senator, on Friday travelled into the mountains for peace talks with Mr Mehsud and returned empty-handed, although it did fulfil the collective responsibility imposed upon the group by the government, local journalists said. Security forces responded to the suicide attack on Saturday by firing long-range artillery guns at Mehsud villages. The build-up to outright conflict has prompted an exodus of members of Mehsud's tribe to Jandola and Tank, towns to the west; they have now started arriving in the nearby North West Frontier Province city of Dera Ismail Khan, residents said. thussain@thenational.ae