When tribal elders gather in Kabul to thrash out a strategy to deal with a resurgent Taliban, the spotlight will fall on the equivocal role played by the fierce tribes who inhabit the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border in the global fight against terrorism.
About 700 elders, Islamic clerics and other leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan are due to meet in the Afghan capital this week to take a united stand against the rising militant threat facing both nations.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf will on Thursday open the three-day “jirga,” a traditional gathering which has for centuries dealt with crises in tribal areas straddling the border.
Their turbans and baggy trousers betray the timelessness of the rugged mountain region, where Pashtun tribes have lived, regardless of borders and invading armies, at least since the time of Alexander the Great in the third century BC. Loyal only to their religion and tribes, they pay little heed to central government, and express their fierce independence through resentment of the US and support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The region, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is home to more than three million people and geographically divided into seven “agencies” along 1,450 kilometres (900 miles) of the border. Through ethnic and religious solidarity, the Pakistani tribal zone has become a natural sanctuary for the Taliban -- who like the tribes are largely Pashtun -- and their Al-Qaeda allies.
US officials have repeatedly warned that Al-Qaeda has re-established itself in the Pakistani tribal areas and is using the region as a base to plot terror attacks around the world. It is widely believed that Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants are being sheltered by the local tribes.
“The tribal people sympathised with the Taliban when the US overthrew them because they were affiliated through historic cultural and religious bonds,” said Afghan affairs expert Rahimullah Yousafzai. In several areas video cassettes have been burned on pyres, Internet cafes destroyed, and bodies, some decapitated, found with notes declaring the dead to have been an “American spy”. In some areas, radio stations broadcast Taliban directives.
The Afridis and Shinwaris dominate Khyber and Kurram agencies; Bajaur, Mohmand and Orzakzai agencies are each dominated by tribes of the same name; while North and South Waziristan, the southernmost and most conservative of the agencies, are dominated by Mahsuds and Waziris. The tribes have a history of resisting invasion -- from Moghuls to Sikhs and the British -- and resent the deployment of Pakistani troops.
“In Wana (South Waziristan), dominant Ahmed Zai Wazirs and Yargulkhel tribes are the leading pro-Taliban tribes, while the major Utmanzai Wazirs and the sub-tribe Dawars support the Taliban in North Waziristan,” Yousafzai said.
Anti-American sentiment spread after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the Taliban, who had ruled since 1996. Islamabad has deployed paramilitary forces in the tribal zone since early 2002 but despite having 90,000 troops along the border, pro-Taliban tribes continue to wreak havoc. Army operations in North and South Waziristan to drive out the insurgents since 2004 have left more than 700 soldiers and 1,000 militants dead.
Analysts said there has been no local backing for the troops. “For a military operation conditions have to be created through political dialogue and you have to have local support for such operations,” said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistani army.
Peace agreements between tribes and the government to end militancy in the tribal areas have faltered this year after both sides alleged violations. Tribes in North Waziristan in September last year had pledged not to shelter foreign militants in return for a reduced military presence, but US officials have criticised the deal saying it allowed Al-Qaeda to regroup.
In South Waziristan 300 foreign fighters were killed in March in clashes with tribesmen who drove out the mainly Uzbek and Chechen insurgents themselves after a mortar fired by the Uzbeks killed several schoolchildren.
The turbulence in Pakistan's tribal areas was closely linked to stability in Afghanistan, said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.
“As long as Afghanistan remains unstable, the issue of extremism and terrorism will continue to haunt authorities in Pakistani tribal areas,” Ahmed said.