Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper

The Battle for Pakistan: South Waziristan

Militancy and Conflict in South Waziristan
  • By Mansur Khan Mahsud
April 19, 2010 |
South Waziristan

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Of all the tribal agencies and districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan, few have assumed as much importance for the United States since September 11, 2001, as South Waziristan. Comprising 6,619 square kilometers, or about 2,555 square miles, South Waziristan is the country’s southernmost tribal agency and the largest by area.

Following the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, peace largely prevailed in South Waziristan, with the exception of a revolt by a mullah named Noor Mohammad Wazir in the years of 1975-6 which was crushed by a military operation. However, the 1978 revolt against the communist coup in neighboring Afghanistan and the subsequent Afghan jihad against invading Soviet occupation forces heavily affected the broader Waziristan region. Tens of thousands of Afghans flooded into refugee camps in Waziristan, some of them training camps for the Afghan mujahideen, or holy warriors.[1] These refugees told the local people about how the Soviets and their Afghan allies insulted and brutalized the Muslim Afghan population, sowing hatred for the Russians and their puppet government in Kabul. Many young men from Waziristan went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, a tendency supported by both the Pakistani and American intelligence services, which launched a propaganda program against the Soviet Union to recruit fighters.

The people of South Waziristan are almost all orthodox Sunni Muslims, and a great majority of them are illiterate. Many follow the teachings of clerics who were financially supported by the Pakistani government during the anti-Soviet war.[2] In this period, these religious leaders in Pakistan’s tribal regions opened dozens of madrassas, or Islamic schools, where young Mehsud and Wazir tribesmen were indoctrinated to participate in jihad. The madrassas were supported financially by the governments of Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, boosting the stature and authority of the clerics in South Waziristan.[3] Most of these madrassas were connected to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), an Islamist political party founded in the 1950s that is popular in the tribal areas.[4] After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, many of the FATA tribesmen who took part in the fight brought the jihadist ideology back to their home towns in Pakistan. Some of them traveled to Kashmir to fight against the Indian occupation in the predominantly Muslim state. As the Taliban began gaining strength in Afghanistan in 1994, many of the FATA jihadists joined the Afghan movement.[5]

When the Taliban formed a government in Afghanistan in 1996, it was initially somewhat popular in South Waziristan. Tribesmen were impressed with the movement’s ability to enforce strict Islamic rule over Afghanistan and to ensure security in the areas it controlled.[6] Some veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad maintained links with the Afghan Taliban, slowly introducing the Taliban’s ideology to South Waziristan, but in general between 1996 and fall 2001, residents of the agency didn’t have much contact with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.

The security situation in South Waziristan took a drastic turn when U.S. and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent refusal by the Taliban government to hand over the al-Qaeda leader behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden. Thousands from the Afghan Taliban, the Arab al-Qaeda, and their foreign affiliates--such as groups of Uzbeks, Chechens, and Tajiks--came to South Waziristan looking for refuge and bases to continue their fight against the American and NATO forces occupying Afghanistan.[7] The local tribes, sympathetic to the cause, provided shelter and assistance to the fighters, while local militants who were affiliated with the Afghan Taliban government before September 11--such as Abdullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, Nek Muhammad, Haji Sharif, and Haji Omar--began to organize local Taliban groups across South Waziristan.[8]

Nek Muhammad, a member of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe who had joined the Taliban movement in 1993 when he was just 18, was the first head of the Taliban in South Waziristan. He later fought against the Northern Alliance, and fought near Bagram air base outside Kabul after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.[9] After the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, Nek Muhammad returned to Wana, South Waziristan in December 2001 where he began to organize local Taliban fighters. Having gathered several hundred local Wazirs, he began to launch cross-border attacks in 2003 on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan with the support of veteran mujahideen commanders such as Haji Omar, Haji Sharif, and Maulvi Abbas.[10] Nek Muhammad also provided refuge for fleeing members of the Afghan Taliban, Arab al-Qaeda fighters, and the Uzbeks of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan led by Tahir Yuldashev.

Under pressure from the U.S. government to act against the mix of militants proliferating in Waziristan and attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan,[11] the Pakistani military launched its first major operation in Wana in 2004, putting 7,000 troops against the local Taliban fighters and their foreign allies.[12] Nek Muhammad led the militants, assisted by Baitullah Mehsud, Abdullah Mehsud, and their supporters. After several weeks of intense fighting, the Pakistani government was forced to make a peace deal with Nek Muhammad’s forces. Under the so-called Shakai agreement, Nek Muhammad agreed to lay down his arms and “register” foreign militants living in the area, while the government promised funding to the local Taliban so the fighters could pay their debts to al-Qaeda.[13] The deal promptly broke down, and Nek Muhammad was killed a few weeks later by a suspected U.S. drone missile while giving an interview by satellite phone to a foreign news organization.[14] The charismatic Nek Muhammad became something of a hero in South Waziristan, the one who defeated the mighty Pakistani army, and thousands from the Mehsud and Wazir tribes alike flocked to South Waziristan to join the Taliban fighters who were already there.

After the death of Nek Muhammad, Haji Omar became the leader of the Wana Taliban in South Waziristan, and he continued to support the presence of Uzbeks and other foreign fighters there[15]. The Uzbeks believed it was more important to fight against the Pakistani government and military than to attack U.S. and NATO targets across the border in Afghanistan. This put them in conflict with the Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who expelled them and their supporters, Haji Omar and Haji Sharif, by April 2007. The Uzbeks then sought refuge in the Mehsud-dominated areas of South Waziristan, where Abdullah Mehsud and Baitullah Mehsud had organized their own anti-Pakistan, anti-Western Taliban movements.[16] These groups also began to take part in cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO forces and their Afghan allies from inside Pakistan.[17]

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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.


[1] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p. 62.

[2] Interview with Saif ul Islam Saifi, reporter for Al Jazeera, October 14, 2009, in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan.

[4] Interview with Maulana Mairaj u Din Mahsud, member of the National Assembly elected from South Waziristan on the JUI-F ticket in the 2002 election, November 7, 2009.

[5] Interview with Sailab Mehsud, correspondent for the FATA Research Center in South Waziristan, October 17, 2009, in Tank city.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Saeed Shah, “Pakistani insurgents join forces on Afghan border,” Globe and Mail, December 17, 2007.

[8] Sailab Mehsud interview.

[9] Interview with Alamgir Wazir, Taliban commander for Mullah Nazir, October 12, 2009, in Wana, South Waziristan.

[10] Alamgir Wazir interview.

[11] Alamgir Wazir interview; Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Profile: Nek Mohammed,” BBC, June 18, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3819871.stm.

[13] Pakistan’s Tribal Areas: Appeasing the Militants: Crisis Group Asia Report N°125, December 11, 2006.

[14] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/taliban/militants/mohammed.html; David Rohde and Mohammed Khan, “Ex-Fighter for Taliban Dies in Strike in Pakistan,” New York Times, June 19, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/19/international/asia/19STAN.html; Alamgir Wazir interview.

[15] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Who’s who on the insurgency in Pakistan’s NWFP,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, September 22, 2008, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=5169&tx_ttnews[backPid]=167&no_cache=1.

[16] Alamgir Wazir interview.

[17] Ibid.
The security situation in South Waziristan took a drastic turn when U.S. and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent refusal by the Taliban government to hand over the al-Qaeda leader behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden. Thousands from the Afghan Taliban, the Arab al-Qaeda, and their foreign affiliates--such as groups of Uzbeks, Chechens, and Tajiks--came to South Waziristan looking for refuge and bases to continue their fight against the American and NATO forces occupying Afghanistan.

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