Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper

The Battle for Pakistan: North Waziristan

Militancy and Conflict in North Waziristan
  • By Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud, and Brian Fishman
April 19, 2010 |
North Waziristan

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North Waziristan, the second-largest of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is the most important springboard for violence in Afghanistan today, much as it has been for decades. The most important militant group in the agency today is the Haqqani Network. The legendary Afghan mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani left his native Khost province and settled in North Waziristan’s capital, Miram Shah, in the mid-1970s; his son, Sirajuddin, was raised in the area.[i] Jalaluddin quickly became the most important mujahideen commander in eastern Afghanistan during the 1980s; Sirajuddin now manages the network his father built, employing it to support violence against U.S. and NATO forces. Like his father, Sirajuddin uses North Waziristan to recruit, as a safe haven, and for strategic depth. North Waziristan is well-suited for all of these purposes because of its geographic isolation, difficult terrain, and relatively stable coalition of tribal militants.

Besides the Haqqanis, the largest militant coalition in North Waziristan is headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, of the Mada Khel clan of the Uthmanzai Wazir. Bahadur does not have the track record of his collaborators in the Haqqani clan, but he does have something they do not: a strong tribal base in the rugged mountains between Miram Shah and the Afghan border. This provides important strategic leverage over militants who must traverse his territory to reach Afghanistan. Bahadur’s deputy, Maulana Sadiq Noor, is from the Daur tribe and leads a coalition of both Wazir and Daur tribesmen. Sadiq Noor is very close to the Haqqanis and Bahadur seems to follow Haqqani guidance on difficult questions, such as whether to attack Pakistani troops in the region.

North Waziristan has been a safe haven for successive waves of militants fleeing U.S. or Pakistani military operations. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, thousands of Taliban members associated with the regime flooded into North Waziristan. Many took shelter in the agency’s treacherous and heavily forested Shawal Valley, which became a refuge for all sorts of foreign militants, including those from al-Qaeda. Pakistani government forces subsequently targeted other Pakistani safe havens, including South Waziristan. In 2004, a wave of militants arrived in North Waziristan after being pushed out of South Waziristan’s Shakai Valley. More recently, a variety of militants associated with the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan is believed to have sought safe haven in North Waziristan.

Militants in North Waziristan have tended to be less fractious than their cousins in South Waziristan, largely by avoiding divisive tribalism. But the divisions among North Waziristan militants are important. For example, Rasool Khan leads a group of fighters who chafe at Bahadur’s prominent role in the agency. Khan’s support for Uzbek fighters—who have angered many Pakistani militants—is one reason, but Khan’s operation also seems to have a strong criminal element that may seek greater autonomy. Similarly, a contingent of foreign and local fighters led by Abu Kasha al-Iraqi has squabbled with Bahadur’s chief commander, Sadiq Noor, who resents the Abu Kasha group’s foreign leadership. As in other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the most common strategic disagreements are over the role of Arab and Central Asian fighters and whether to attack Pakistani targets in addition to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Although they are not tribal, the disputes among militants in North Waziristan do have a geographic element. Bahadur’s stronghold is west of Miram Shah; the militants opposed to his leadership tend to operate in and around Mir Ali, which is slightly farther from the border with Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network seems to have a powerful mediation role among militants in North Waziristan. Both Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani are widely respected, and the younger man has intervened many times over the past five years to resolve disputes among militant groups in North Waziristan and other areas of the FATA. The Haqqanis’ reputation of effective military action in Afghanistan gives them influence over North Waziristan militants who lack their own networks across the border. Moreover, the Haqqanis’ long relationship with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment makes them effective interlocutors between militants and the Pakistani state. And despite their differences, the militants know that internal squabbling weakens the effort in Afghanistan and makes each group susceptible to pressure from the Pakistani military.[i]

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Anand Gopal is a Kabul-based journalist who has reported for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets on Afghanistan and the insurgency. He is writing a history of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 (Henry Holt). Mansur Khan Mahsud is the research coordinator for the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. He is from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan and has worked with several NGOs and news outlets as a researcher. He holds a masters degree in Pakistan studies from the University of Peshawar. Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

[i] Safdar Daur (local journalist in Miram Shah), SKM Interview, July 12, 2009, Peshawar.

[i] Ruttig, Thomas “Loya Paktiya’s Insurgency: The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity” in ed. Antonio Giustozzi Decoding the New Taliban (Columbia University Press: New York. 2009) pp. 66, 75.
North Waziristan is the most important center of jihadist militancy in the FATA today, in large measure because of the impunity with which militants in the agency have operated. Even as the Pakistani government has confronted anti-Pakistan militant coalitions in other regions, it has largely ignored fighters in North Waziristan.

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