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Pakistanis suspect army's motives in South Waziristan

Pakistani displaced families who fled Waziristan due to the fierce fight between security forces and militants, arrive in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 .


The Pakistani army's new offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, probably the country's most significant move in the anti-terrorism fight since 2001, has so far failed to convince locals that the state really is determined to wipe out the extremists it has patronized in the past and with whom it has repeatedly cut "peace" deals.

Tribesmen from the Mehsud clan now flooding out to escape the fighting tell of brutal subjugation by Taliban extremists and their al-Qaeda allies who run the area. But they do not yet believe that the army has genuinely turned against militants.

Pakistan is a long way from winning the "hearts and minds" of the people of South Waziristan, which it must do if it is to clear the area of Islamic extremists.

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And the current offensive, launched Oct. 17, is not gaining any ground toward that goal: Refugees claim the homes of ordinary people are being destroyed and civilians are dying in an indiscriminate aerial bombardment.

Even the anti-Taliban militia, made up of the few Mehsuds willing to stand up to the extremists, are not sure whether to have faith in the army.

"The government has used the people like toilet paper, used them and thrown them away," thundered the spiritual leader and founder of the anti-Taliban Mehsud militia, Maulvi Sher Mohammad, in an interview.

The Mehsud tribesmen have had to abandon their homes three, sometimes four, times since 2004, to escape periodic army operations against the Taliban, only to see the authorities cut peace deals. They then returned to find their area under even tighter control by the thugs. The Pakistani Taliban is based in the part of South Waziristan that's occupied by the Mehsuds, a lawless region that borders Afghanistan.

A deep, corrosive cynicism persists, even though Pakistan carried out a successful operation earlier this year that largely eliminated the Taliban from Swat valley and the early indications on the South Waziristan ground offensive are that it's much more serious than anything undertaken by the army in the past.

Mr. Mohammad, a burly cleric who lives behind high compound walls in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, on the edge of South Waziristan, guarded by gun-toting young men, said that he will not ask his fellow tribesmen to rise up yet.

"We cannot fight alongside the army because my people do not yet know whether the army and the Taliban are friends or enemies," said Mr Mohammad. "When we see the army crush them [the Taliban] then we'll believe."

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Three times in the past, the army has agreed to a ceasefire and peace terms with the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. Each time, the Taliban took bloody revenge on those who had sided with the state. Mehsuds remember bitterly how in 2005, after such a deal, a Pakistani army general literally embraced then Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and called him "a soldier of peace."

The army complains that until this year it was not given a solid mandate by the politicians to rout the Taliban, and that Pakistani public opinion had previously not favoured fighting a movement that claimed to be acting in the name of Islam. Critics allege that the military, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, saw strategic benefit in having Taliban guard Pakistan's northwestern border.

The Taliban is dominated by the Mehsud tribe, whose home territory occupies about half of South Waziristan. The army offensive is only in that part of South Waziristan occupied by the tribe.

Few of the South Waziristan refugees are willing to candidly speak about the Taliban, out of fear that they'll have to go back to face the militants once more.

"It is one hundred per cent wrong to say that the Mehsud are in favour of the Taliban," said a teacher, who asked for his name not to be used and who evacuated from his home in the Ladha area of South Waziristan. "We only 'support' the Taliban when we're there [in South Waziristan]to save our lives and our property."

Under Baitullah, the traditional tribal leaders of the Mehsuds were systematically butchered or driven out of South Waziristan, removing a rival source of authority. Baitullah also turned the Pakistani Taliban from a group that fought "infidel" international forces in Afghanistan to a movement at war with its own Muslim homeland, a twist of jihadist logic that came straight from al-Qaeda.

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Many Mehsuds said they would support an operation if they thought it was real. Instead, some of them said that the country's army acts cyclically against the Taliban just to keep international aid flowing in.

"This fight is for American dollars. The government always has some deal with the Taliban. It is ordinary people who suffer," said student Zahidullah Mehsud, who thought he was aged about 19, queuing at a registration centre for those displaced by the operation, in Dera Ismail Khan. "This is all an ISI game."

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