Uzbeks in the Pakistani Tribal Areas

Talking to journalists in Lahore, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated that “foreign elements hailing from Central Asian Republics (CAR) are disturbing peace in the Tribal Areas and they are behind the current unrest and spike in violence in the tribal belt”. He was referring to around 2,000 Uzbek warriors belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who are allegedly spread around in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. They moved into Pakistan from Afghanistan after the US bombardment of 2001 and formed a part of the “multinational” force that accompanied Al Qaeda as it fled across the Tora Bora mountain range into the tribal areas of Pakistan.

First reports about them and others like the Arabs and Chechens were dismissed as false by the MMA government in the NWFP at the time which said that the “foreigners” were actually the mujahideen who had come here to join the jihad against the Soviet Union and had remained here after marrying into the local Pakhtuns. Most observers in Pakistan agreed with this version and all news about the “foreigners” were labelled “plants” organised by an allegedly pro-US government. But the fact was that commanders in Waziristan like Nek Muhammad looked after the Uzbeks under the tutelage of Al Qaeda and deliberately spread the falsehood that there was no “foreign” presence in the Tribal Areas.

The IMU was led by Qari Tahir Yuldashev whose position about jihad was close to that of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Aiman Al Zawahiri. He believed that jihad should first target not the US but those “hypocrite Muslims” who support the US. The Uzbeks soon became known for their cruelty and disregard for local Pakhtun culture in Waziristan. This led last year to a cleavage within the Al Qaeda power in the region. One pro-Al Qaeda commander Maulvi Nazir fell out with the Uzbeks and mounted a bloody operation against them. Today his organisation is under attack from Baitullah Mehsud, which means that the Uzbeks are in the ascendant as followers of Al Qaeda.

The Uzbeks were seen by Pakistani journalists when they came to Swat as a part of the Taliban force in the wake of the storming of Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007. They stood out because of their savage conduct among the innocent people of Swat. They were a part of the faction that beheaded local people and placed their headless corpses in the streets. They were partly masked, seemed to look racially different and did not speak because they did not know the local language. Later, news trickled in about training camps established especially for the training of Uzbeks in the Tribal Areas.

The IMU targets Pakistan as compensation for Al Qaeda’s support to IMU’s activities in Uzbekistan. The training camps in Waziristan prepare terrorist squads that stage attacks in Tashkent against the ruling elite there. The Uzbekistan government has also formed its Afghan policy in response to Al Qaeda “plans” for Uzbekistan. Even as the Taliban were conducting their war around Mazar-e-Sharif in the late 1990s, Uzbekistan was in the process of strengthening what later became the Northern Alliance. Pakistan, at that time pursuing the doctrine of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, was at cross-purposes with Uzbekistan, which was then also backed by Turkey.

Tashkent knows that Uzbek killers are being trained in Waziristan. Tahir Yuldashev is actually running two campaigns for Al Qaeda. One, to bring down the government of Pakistan and replace it with a caliphate supported by Al Qaeda; two, to bring down the government of President Karimov in Tashkent. The camps are thus training two sets of terrorists: Pakistanis from such organisations as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Uzbeks that keep trickling in from Uzbekistan who are meant to return and create trouble in their homeland. Their three routes are internationally known: they reach Waziristan by travelling through Kazakhstan, through Azerbaijan and through Iran.

There are Chechens in the Tribal Areas too. They came in with Al Qaeda but “fresh” Chechens from the Russian Federation also keep coming in. The troubled province there is Dagestan where the armed rebels, mostly Chechens, are not having much success against the government. With Uighurs of Chinese Sinkiang added to the number, Waziristan will therefore decide the international move against Pakistan in reaction to its “cross-border” raids into Afghanistan. As a reaction, then, we can be sure that intervention or pre-emptive strikes in the Tribal Areas, violating the sovereignty of Pakistan, will be supported by most of Afghanistan’s neighbours including Russia and India. The game is set for a blazing row across borders.

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