Joining the dots

March 13, 2016

Was the Afghan Taliban leadership waiting for an opportune time? Was it hoping to deflect the growing pressure by Islamabad to agree to the peace talks? Or whether some ransom amount had to be paid? There are still missing links in the story

Joining the dots

There was no "intelligence-based" operation to recover Shahbaz Taseer as it was initially portrayed by some officials of the law-enforcement agencies.

No raid was conducted on any compound as claimed to set him free. He wasn’t found in a hotel room as some government functionaries maintained and sections of the media dutifully reported. Rather he was recovered from outside the Al-Saleem Hotel and Restaurant where he had just eaten the special salty roasted mutton that is an affordable delicacy in Balochistan.

This much of the story of Shahbaz Taseer’s dramatic recovery is true and corroborated by eyewitnesses, including the hotel owner and his employees. Also true is the quick arrival of personnel of intelligence agencies, Frontier Corps and the Counter-Terrorism Department from Quetta sited 25 kilometres away to take Shahbaz Taseer under their protection in Kuchlak. They had been ordered to bring him to Quetta after he had spoken to his mother Amna Taseer in Lahore and alerted her to his release and presence in Kuchlak.

However, something unclear and still a mystery is how Shahbaz Taseer secured freedom from the custody of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants who held him for almost three years in North Waziristan before shifting him to Afghanistan to escape the Zarb-e-Azb military operation launched by Pakistan’s security forces in June 2014.

Shahbaz Taseer became a free man on March 8 in Kuchlak, a town located near Quetta on the highway to the border town of Chaman and then onward to Kandahar, once the spiritual capital of the Taliban in Afghanistan. His kidnapping and recovery too had a lot to do with Afghanistan, Taliban and IMU.

There was enough evidence over the past 54 months since Shahbaz Taseer’s kidnapping from Lahore that he was being held hostage by the Uzbek militants. Reports had been circulating that he was mostly kept in a village near Miranshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan. The Uzbeks were a law unto themselves in North Waziristan where local and foreign militants from both known and unknown outfits thrived until the launching of the Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, 2014. Neither the tribesmen nor other militants could dare take on the Uzbeks due to their reputation of being ruthless and ferocious.

The Uzbek militants had earlier been evicted from South Waziristan by the native Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, who became fed up with the brutal ways of their guests and took up arms against them after getting support from the government. The Uzbeks relocated to the part of South Waziristan inhabited by the Mehsud tribe to live under the protection of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) founder Baitullah Mehsud. The military operation launched against the TTP’s Mehsud militants in October 2009 forced the Uzbeks to shift to North Waziristan.

Though Usman Basra and other educated local militants in Lahore along with two Uzbek brothers are being mentioned as Shahbaz Taseer’s kidnappers when he was seized on August 26, 2011, there are still gaps in this story. The fact that Shahbaz Taseer ended up in the custody of the IMU raises questions whether the Uzbeks planned and executed his kidnapping through their affiliates and allies or bought him from the kidnappers. It most likely was a joint operation with the IMU getting to keep him in its custody to press the Pakistan government to accept its demands.

Tribal sources in North Waziristan familiar with Shahbaz Taseer’s case had revealed at the time that the IMU initially demanded the release of 22 militants and a ransom amount of Rs4 billion. Subsequently, it brought down to six the number of militants it wanted freed in exchange for Shahbaz Taseer. The ransom money was also reduced to Rs3 billion. When the tribal mediators pressed the IMU to further reduce the ransom amount, it reportedly agreed to demand a few crore rupees less in case the Pakistan government released all the militants.

It was obvious the government wasn’t ready to release the militants or pay such a huge ransom amount to the kidnappers. The Taseer family also couldn’t accept the outrageous demands of the Uzbek militants.

The detained militants whose release was demanded by the IMU were mostly Pakistanis along with some Afghans. None was an Uzbek, Arab or another foreign militant. It was obvious the IMU was trying to oblige the local militants, who had been harbouring the Uzbeks, by securing their freedom from the custody of the Pakistan government.

Top of the list was the name of dissident Afghan Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah, whose elder brother Dadullah Akhund had always been close to the foreign militants whether they were al-Qaeda-linked Arabs or those from the IMU and other smaller groups.

Another leading figure in the list was Mumtaz Qadri, who had killed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer about six months before his son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped. The IMU was hoping to win applause from other militant groups by securing freedom for the killer of Salmaan Taseer by swapping him for Shahbaz Taseer. For unknown reasons, the IMU later dropped Qadri’s name from its list and instead focused on getting other militants released. It is possible the IMU realised that the Pakistan government would never release Qadri and this could become a hurdle in reaching a deal on the release of the other prisoners.

The five Afghan militants whose release was demanded by the IMU were Jannat Gul son of Jamaluddin, Ahmad and his son Saeed, Musa, and Safiullah son of Mohammad Naseem. All had been arrested by Pakistani authorities in Balochistan.

The other Pakistani militants on the list were Abdul Khaliq son of Abdul Raziq, Ashraf son of Abdullah Khan, Younas son of Waris, all three belonging to the Yargulkhel Wazir sub-tribe in South Waziristan, Abdul Kadir son of Saeed Khan from the Khunikhel Wazir sub-tribe and Mir Jamal son of Payo Sarwar from the Burakhel Wazir sub-tribe in South Waziristan, Shabin son of Javed and Mehrullah son of Madghai, both hailing from the Dawar tribe in Hormuz village in North Waziristan, Gula Khan son of Zaytul Khan and Abdur Rahman son of Wazir Mohammad, both belonging to Dera Ismail Khan, a militant from Swat identified as Fakhre Alam, who is also known as Commander Aftab, Mohammad Saud  son of Mohammad Siddiq from Kohat, and Farhaj Butt, Usman Basra, Rana Abdur Rahman, Hafiz Waqas, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amin. The last-named was from Karachi and was allegedly involved in the killing of Allama Hasan Turabi in a suicide bombing in July 2006.

The inclusion of Usman Basra’s name in the list shows that he was close to the IMU and had likely played a role in Shahbaz Taseer’s kidnapping.

One Danyal Aqa, said to be the head of the IMU’s intelligence unit, was negotiating at one stage with those seeking Shahbaz Taseer’s release. He was reportedly killed in the Pakistani military’s airstrikes in North Waziristan’s Mir Ali area. Later, his deputy who preferred to be known simply as Mohammad was tasked to hold Shahbaz Taseer and set conditions for his release. Video footage and audio-tapes of Shahbaz Taseer were sent to his family as proof of life through different persons.

After the military action in North Waziristan in the summer of 2014, the IMU militants shifted to Afghanistan’s Zabul province and reportedly took Shahbaz Taseer along as he was a precious catch for them. It was in Zabul late last year that Afghan Taliban fighters loyal to their new head, Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor stormed the stronghold of the IMU in the Khak-i-Afghan district to punish it for pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, or Daesh. Many Uzbeks were killed and captured and the remaining surrendered to the Taliban. It is likely that the Afghan Taliban fighters also found and recovered Shahbaz Taseer from the custody of the Uzbeks.

During the fighting in Zabul, the Afghan Taliban fighters also overran the camp of the dissident Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah, who had helped the Uzbeks to relocate to Afghanistan from North Waziristan following the military operation Zarb-e-Azb.  The Uzbeks sided with Mansoor Dadullah, who had by then joined the splinter Afghan Taliban group headed by Mulla Mohammad Rasool, and earned the wrath of the Mulla Akhtar Mansoor-led fighters. Mansoor Dadullah, his elder brother Haji Lala and several of his men were also killed in the fighting. The Uzbek fighters had never suffered so many losses and reports said a few also blew themselves up to avoid being captured.

The internecine fighting between Afghan Taliban factions and the involvement of the IMU in it seems to have created an opening for Shahbaz Taseer to win his freedom. The victorious Taliban fighters loyal to Mulla Akhtar Mansoor may have rescued him and taken the decision to set him free in Kuchlak.

There are still missing links in this story because the fighting in Zabul took place some months ago and one may well ask as to why and where was Shahbaz Taseer kept after he was rescued by the Afghan Taliban. Was the Afghan Taliban leadership waiting for an opportune time to bring him safely to Pakistan from Afghanistan? Was it hoping to oblige Pakistan and deflect the growing pressure by Islamabad on the Taliban to agree to the peace talks with the Afghan government? Or whether some ransom amount had to be paid and negotiated before Shahbaz Taseer could be set free?

One could only make a guess until the facts are made available. And that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Joining the dots