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Waziristan Unrest Sheds Light On Lingering Taliban Influence

FILE: A masked fighter in Wana, South Waziristan.
FILE: A masked fighter in Wana, South Waziristan.

For years, Pakistani political and military leaders have claimed credit for defeating terrorism by forcing the Taliban and allied militants out of the Pashtun tribal regions along the country’s western border with Afghanistan.

But in one part of this region the Taliban have apparently thrived by becoming a government-backed militia that officials, members, and supporters call the Aman (Peace) Committee.

The role of this committee in the remote South Waziristan tribal district came to light after at least four people were reported killed and scores more injured in a June 3 clash between committee members and activists from the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM).

More than 300,000 residents of Wana, the regional capital and scene of the clash, endured curfew for four days in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when adult Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

“In Wana, people have been putting up with the excess of these Taliban [peace committee] for years,” Dilwar Khan Wazir, a local journalist wrote. “They sometimes imprisoned respectable residents, which contributed to resentment and anger against the committee among locals.”

He says that after concluding an agreement with the authorities in 2007, the committee exercised a lot of control over life in the agricultural valley of Wana and the neighboring Shakai region mainly inhabited by an estimated half a million members of the Ahamdzai Wazir tribe.

According to locals, the committee is made up of several armed groups and has regulated public life, fought against anti-government militants, collected taxes, punished alleged offenders, and silenced government critics.

A journalist in Waziristan who requested anonymity because of fears of reprisals from the committee says it is composed of militants who are locally dubbed as “good Taliban.” They were opposed to the “bad Taliban,” who mostly targeted Pakistani security forces and followed the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and allies. The TTP also originated in South Waziristan.

“They have the support of the government and even have offices in government compounds. They are well-armed,” he said.

His claims are supported by the April 2007 agreement that established the committee. Titled Parameters Of The Peace In Wana Bazar And The Main Points Of The Peace Agreement, this arrangement allowed the Taliban to punish alleged offenders.

“If anyone injured another person within these parameters [of the Wana Bazaar] they will pay 200,000 rupees [$1,700] as a fine,” one provision said. Another noted “if anyone supported the Uzbek militants and any local or foreign terrorists, their houses will be demolished, and they will be fined 1 million rupees [$8,700].”

The agreement identified Mullah Nazir as the head of the committee and named Malang, Haleemullah, Metha Khan, and Abdul Hanan as his deputies.

Nazir emerged as a senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan after the region became a main hideout for the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), mainly comprising Central Asian militants following the demise of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.

By early 2007, the jihadist factions operating in Waziristan had begun fighting each other. Some wanted to only fight against NATO and Afghan forces in neighboring Afghanistan while others wanted to take on the Pakistani military for launching operations against them.

These disagreements were further fanned by suspicions that the IMU’s mainly Uzbek fighters were involved in an assassination campaign in Waziristan targeting tribal leaders, clerics, and pro-government politicians.

FILE: Mullah Nazir
FILE: Mullah Nazir

In the spring of 2007, Nazir joined forces with the Pakistani military and tribal volunteers to expel the IMU from Wana. He remained one of the region’s most influential figures until his death in a suspected U.S. drone strike in January 2013. His fighters also battled against NATO and Afghan forces across the border. Some believe the practice continues.

The committee, however, survived Nazir. Today, his four successors -- Bahawal Khan, also known as Salahuddin Ayubi, Ainullah, Malang, and Taj -- head the four factions of the committee. A fifth faction in Shakai is headed by Thesil Khan, who retains an office in the nearby district of Dera Ismail Khan, according to Wazir.

He says these commanders are a formidable force and over the years have amassed considerable wealth by taxing more than 6,000 shops and businesses in Wana. Fines and fees extracted for mediating disputes add to their coffers.

“Such wealth has translated into the Taliban enjoying a better life compared to most locals,” he wrote. “Gradually, the locals began to resent these Taliban. The administration [in Wana] even attempted to improve their relations with the locals by forming a jirga [tribal council], but it failed.”

In Islamabad, however, they are seen in a different light. Chief military spokesman Asif Ghafoor says the committee has played a major role in stabilizing Wana.

“The peace committee has fought in the war against terrorism for years,” he told journalists on June 4. “They fought in the war against terrorism and are now doing their part in the [current] phase of stabilization.”

Ghafoor said that Ali Wazir, a senior leader of the PTM, went to his hometown Wana recently and led locals in raising anti-army and anti-state slogans, which the peace committee opposed.

“A jirga was called to sort out this issue [through dialogue],” he noted. “While the peace committee waited, they [the PTM supporters] came and they had an altercation. As is their culture, they had weapons, and they began shooting each other.”

FILE: A Pakistani Army soldiers take position at Sholam Post, a military checkpost overlooking Wana, South Waziristan
FILE: A Pakistani Army soldiers take position at Sholam Post, a military checkpost overlooking Wana, South Waziristan

But the PTM leaders claim that the armed members of the peace committee killed and injured their unarmed supports. In videos uploaded to the Internet, people can be seen taking cover as shots ring out in the background. In one video, a man accuses the “Aman Committee Taliban supported by the government” of firing on them.

In a speech to his supporters on June 1, Ali Wazir had reportedly questioned the committee’s conduct and called on it to stop harassing locals.

Ali Wazir’s brother, Muzamil Wazir, says the committee is filled with diehard militants who have always tormented locals.

“It’s only the government that calls them the peace committee. We have called them terrorists and the Taliban,” he said. “Their numbers have swelled, and they are armed with heavy weapons.”

Late on June 7, a 120-member local tribal council succeeded in getting the PTM and the peace committee to agree to a temporary truce.

Sohail Ahmed Khan, an administration official in Wana, told Radio Mashaal that they lifted the curfew after the two sides agreed to stay away from the bazaar in Wana until June 25.

“The one side will not hold a rally, demonstration, or protest while the other will also not intervene,” he said.