The issue of the foreign militants who have found refuge in Pakistan, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), would have figured prominently in the critical stage of the peace talks between the government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had the three and a half month old process not become deadlocked.
All such substantive issues have been mentioned rather than being properly discussed in the on-again, off-again peace talks that were initiated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on January 29. That stage hasn’t arrived yet due to the stalemate in the talks. Apart from the lack of trust and complexity of the process, the logistics and security issues in arranging the face-to-face meetings between the two sides in Fata and guaranteeing safe passage to the negotiators has become a major hurdle in expediting the process. Only one such meeting between the TTP Shura members and the government negotiators took place on March 26 as the remaining meetings were indirect and involved only the four-member government team and the three TTP-appointed Islamic politicians who negotiated on their behalf.
In any case, the fate of the foreign militants would continue to remain a complicated issue and could even become a stumbling block in achieving a peaceful resolution of the complex situation resulting from militancy and terrorism with its origins in northwestern Pakistan. This issue also defied resolution in the past despite several peace accords concluded by the government in the last decade with militants in different parts of Fata and Malakand division, including Swat.
In the previous peace agreements that were mostly negotiated by army officials, the militants promised to get the foreigners identified and registered so that the local Pakhtun tribes hosting them were made to guarantee their good conduct in case they opted to live in their territory. As they were unable to return to their native countries or some other country due to fear of persecution, the government under these agreements offered the foreign militants the option to live peacefully as refugees in the protection and surveillance of the tribes after agreeing to be disarmed.
Such clauses of the peace deals, beginning with the first one known as the Shakai Accord signed by the then Peshawar Corps Commander Lt General Safdar Hussain in April 2004 in South Waziristan with the local militants’ commander Nek Mohammad, were never implemented.
It was obvious even then that feel-good clauses like the one above would be unimplementable due to the simple fact that these were signed as a stop-gap measure by the government from a position of weakness. The local militants could not be expected to expel or betray their ‘foreign guests’ after having fought together for years as it would have brought them a bad name in militants’ circles worldwide.
The peace agreements didn’t specify any penalty for violation of its clauses and no proper timeframe and mechanisms were put in place to ensure implementation.
Most peace accords fell apart in due course of time after repeated violations. Foreign fighters continued to operate and hide not only in Fata but also elsewhere in Pakistan on the basis of a support system organised by the local militants.
The precise number of foreign militants operating in Fata isn’t known. In fact, the total number of Pakistani militants too is a matter of conjecture and debate as various figures upwards of 11,000 are given at times by different sources and institutions, including the intelligence agencies.
One estimate often quoted but by no means credible is that 11,000 men, including both Pakistanis and foreigners, are under arms in Fata and in three neighbouring border provinces of Afghanistan. They include the less than 1,000 TTP fighters based since 2009 across the Durand Line in Afghanistan’s Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar provinces after escaping the repeated military operations in Malakand division and Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber tribal regions. It is often claimed that up to 43 local and foreign militants groups are operating in Fata, mostly in North Waziristan. Among them are the Pakistani militants’ groups such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led 15 non-TTP Taliban sub-groups, six TTP-affiliated ones, 10 others functioning largely independently, and some Punjabi Taliban factions, including two major outfits.
Around 12 groups of foreign militants are listed, the prominent ones being the al-Qaeda led by late Osama bin Laden’s successor Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jehad Union which is a breakaway faction of the IMU, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) made up of the separatist Chinese Uighur Muslims and headed by Abdullah Mansour, the mainstream Afghan Taliban movement and the powerful Haqqani network affiliated with it.
North Waziristan continues to draw most of the foreign militants and it is where the security forces have been suffering the highest number of attacks and casualties. The US drones too carry out most missile strikes in North Waziristan as foreign militants remain their primary target.
However, the drones have increasingly been attacking local militants in North Waziristan and, to a lesser extent, in South Waziristan, in view of the presence of a declining number of foreign fighters and their restricted movement in the two tribal agencies. Also, many foreign fighters have been shifting to other areas, including Pakistani cities where a number of al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban were captured and killed in recent years, to avoid harm.
However, there is no real evidence yet that the foreign fighters in significant numbers are shifting to new battlegrounds such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It is possible that some have left Fata and Afghanistan’s border provinces on the risky journey to these Arab countries, but they would mostly be Arabs rather than Central Asians or Afghans as the latter have a bigger battle at hand in Afghanistan post-2014 when most US-led Nato forces would have withdrawn from their homeland. Even among the Arab militants, the younger and largely unknown al-Qaeda operatives would be mostly able to travel undetected to the Middle East and elsewhere and not the older generation of fighters who are fairly well-known and wanted. As for the Central Asians, it still seems safer for them to hide in the Af-Pak border region or to set up base in parts of northern Afghanistan closer to their native countries with support from the Afghan Taliban.
The issue of presence of foreign militants in Fata is not only a challenge for the Pakistani security agencies, it is also a major irritant in relations between Islamabad and a number of terrorism-affected countries, including China and the US.
During a recent visit to China, one heard Chinese scholars and security analysts estimating the number of Uighur Muslim militants entrenched in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in Fata, to be in the range of 120 to 230. In their view, most are based in South Waziristan and North Waziristan and are able to cross the border into Afghanistan with relative ease.
However, they were candid enough to admit that Chinese authorities are yet to establish direct link between the ETIM-affiliated Uighurs hiding in Fata and those carrying out terrorist attacks in China. Still, they pointed out that the Fata and Afghanistan-based ETIM fighters remained an inspiration for the Uighur separatists involved in attacks in China through the Internet and propaganda and recruitment videos. Though they generally praised Pakistan for assisting China in tackling the problem, the Chinese analysts having close ties with their country’s security apparatus expected Islamabad to do more to meet this challenge. After the US, friendly neighbouring countries China and Iran too are using the term "do more" as they push Pakistan to go after the militants intent on attacking them.