Nek Muhammad Wazir, Muhammad Ilyas Khan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)
Publishing Date: Friday, September 16 2005
With his Byronic good looks and proud tribal mien, Nek Mohammad fearlessly cruises the rugged South Waziristan landscape in the company of his infamous guests as the hapless administration looks on. Just how does he do that?
If there is one man operating in the South Waziristan Agency who is truly the child of the tumultuous 1980s, it is Nek Mohammad. Born in 1975, he was part of the generation that believed that General Ziaul Haq was Pakistan's perpetual president and jihad a perennial stream of religious emotion that flowed, unlike most rivers in the trans-Indus region, from Pakistan into Afghanistan. And understandably so.
Nek was trained in the cauldron of battle. During the early 1980s, his formative years, Wana served as the staging post for mujahideen forays into a large swath of Afghan territory from Zabul to Paktia. The town swarmed with CIA and ISI agents who recruited and trained tribal youth, arranged supplies and planned attacks. The Arab mujahideen, meanwhile, had already built concrete bunkers in the Shkai and Nawe Ada areas near Wana as Middle Eastern mosque funds poured into the region by the millions to spawn a phenomenal increase in the number of religious seminaries. A new generation of ideologically indoctrinated and combat-trained militants was being readied to bring the world under the banner flag of the so-called Darul Islam.
Nek's father Nawaz Khan was a man of few means. He had inherited a maliki which entitled him to token government allowances as well as a vote in the restricted franchise system and a khasadari, a political policeman's job which comes under a tribal system of distribution called nikat. In addition, the family owned a little piece of agricultural land in Kalosha that Khan tilled with the help of his four sons. All put together, this was barely enough for the family to make ends meet.
Joining one of the new-look seminaries for education was therefore an obvious choice for Nek, the second eldest among his siblings. Maulana Noor Mohammad Wazir, a cleric affiliated with Maulana Fazlur Rahman's Jamiatul Ulema-e-Islam, was among the first religious scholars to access funds that helped him augment his Wana-based Jamia Darul Uloom Waziristan, the seminary where Nek was initiated into religious education. Maulana Wazir, who later became an MNA when adult franchise was introduced in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 1997, could not have imagined that one day he would be asked to mediate between the Pakistan Army and his young Yargulkhel disciple.
"Nek never had an intellectual mind but some other traits of his personality became evident during his stay at the Darul Uloom," recalls one of his teachers, requesting anonymity. "He showed himself to be a hard-headed boy, endowed with an impenetrable soul and an obstinate determination to carry out his will no matter how mindless it might be." The episode of Nek's expulsion from and subsequent readmission into the Darul Uloom during his early years is widely known in Wana. Incensed over something that no one seems to remember, Nek once refused to recite his lessons in class. In line with the usual practice, the teacher Maulana Deen Mohammad began hitting him across his palms with a stick. As Nek persisted in his defiance, the teacher became furious and started rapping him on the hips. This offended Nek who picked up his books and walked out of class in a manner that was construed as a threat that he might return with a lethal weapon to get even with the teacher. Though people in Wana are reluctant to get into the details of the incident, some elders had to apparently intervene in the matter and bring Nek back to the school in peace.
Given that secular subjects were also taught at Darul Uloom, Nek claims that he passed his matriculation exam from the seminary. But some informed circles in Wana remain doubtful. According to one source, Nek quit the seminary and joined tuition classes in Dera Ismail Khan at the middle-school level but never managed to complete his matriculation. Recently, Nek himself told a source that he not only completed his matriculation but also landed a place at a college in Quetta through the political influence of Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. "But I never saw that college," he is quoted as saying. "I went to the jihad [in Afghanistan] instead."
Between school and jihad, Nek appears to have made several false starts. Some time in the early 1990s, he was involved in an abortive car-lifting attempt and was nearly caught by the police. Together with a couple of friends, he hijacked a pickup from Dera Ismail Khan and tried taking it to the Punjab but was intercepted by the police just across the bridge on the Indus River. Nek and his friends escaped from the scene, leaving the pickup behind. But tracking the theft, the owner of the pickup, a Mahsood tribesman, shortly came calling at Nek's house in Kalosha. A Wazir elder who mediated in the dispute says the Mahsood was compensated by Nek's family. For his part, Nek asserts that the incident was motivated by a grudge he held against the vehicle owner rather than any criminal intentions of making a profit.
At around the same time, Nek also tried his hand at trading by opening a general store in Wana. But keeping shop never suited his mercurial temperament and the business was soon insolvent. Left with few options, Nek was ready to lend an ear to his new acquaintance Mohammad Gul, a Kharoti tribesman from southern Afghanistan. A former Afghan mujahid who had been living at the Ziare Noor refugee camp near Wana for a long time, Gul had recently started recruiting men for the rising tide of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. He asked Nek to join the club.
Information about Nek's early military career with the Taliban remains sketchy at best. Did he receive formal training in guerrilla warfare at one of several training camps run at the time by the al-Qaeda as well as other militant organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan? "I don't think so," says one Yargulkhel tribesman who has been with Nek at close quarters. "He does not have the patience [to receive training]." But he did distinguish himself as a worthy fighter in the field. Information gathered by the Herald shows that he stuck with Mohammad Gul's group for several years and fought on many difficult fronts across southern and southwestern Afghanistan. Through Gul, he seems to have also come into contact with Saifullah Mansoor, son of celebrated mujahideen leader Mullah Nasrullah Mansoor of Shahikot and a key figure in the ongoing Taliban resistance in Afghanistan.
Following the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996, Saifullah Mansoor became the chief commander of an important Taliban garrison at Kargha Lake, less than 10 kilometres west of Kabul. One of the sub-commanders at the garrison was Mohammad Gul. According to one version, Nek was elevated as the commander of Gul's contingent when the latter was killed in action while another claims that he parted ways with Gul before his death and was appointed sub-commander of the Waziristani fighters in Kargha on his own merit. During the late 1990s, Nek commanded the Waziristani fighters at Bagram airbase, the Panjshir front line in Bamiyan, Mazar Sharif, Takhar as well as Badghis, the venues for some of the bloodiest battles that the Taliban fought against Ahmad Shah Masoud's Northern Alliance.
"He started off as a foot soldier but the tremendous self-respect that drove his actions catapulted him to a mid-level position in the Taliban military hierarchy, commanding 3,000 men at one time," contends one Wazir tribesman who served under Nek in Bagram. Nek's reputation was founded primarily on his dogged determination never to concede his position in battle, even when the higher command ordered a pull back. This earned him the nickname of Bodogay implying a thoughtless, stubborn person. "The only time he abandoned his trenches without an argument was in November 2001 when the US and Northern Alliance troops descended on Bagram and the Taliban melted into the countryside," the tribal adds.
Nek was first exposed to the influence of foreign fighters when he was a sub-commander at Kargha. During this period, the former Russian garrison of Rishkhor in the southern suburbs of Kabul was converted into an al-Qaeda training camp. At Kargha and Rishkhor, the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawaheri were frequent visitors and men such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Saifullah Mansoor and Riaz Basra rubbed shoulders with the chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Djumma Namangani, his deputy Tahir Yuldashev and the Chinese Uighur militant Hasan Mahsun.
But Nek had to wait until the spring of 2002 before he would meet the stalwarts of this elite club of Islamic fighters at close quarters. Uprooted from the Shahikot mountains in the wake of the US-led Operation Anaconda, thousands of Arab, Central Asian and Chechen fighters needed an exit route or sanctuary and Nek soon rose to become their chief contact in Wana. Nek had already made some money during his stint as a Taliban operative and returned to Kalosha in late 2001 with six all-terrain pickups appropriated from the Taliban inventory. But along with the Arabs, came more money. By December 2003, Nek and company possessed a fleet of 44 pickups, including a few bullet-proof vehicles, some of which were sold off while the others remained in the service of their "guests".
As jihadi venues shrank, a lot of the earmarked funds started pouring into Wana, giving the cash-starved tribal mujahideen a fleshy bone to fight over. The Taliban leadership had gone underground and their military structure was crumbling. In the resulting vacuum, a number of groups started competing for funds in Wana. Nek led his own group while brothers Mohammad Sharif and Noor Islam ganged up with Maulvi Nur Abbas under commander Mullah Nazir. Commander Javed, another Ahmadzai soldier of fortune, ran a separate group. For two years, these groups vied with each other for the hefty al-Qaeda doleouts and developed some serious differences with each other that at times threatened to spill out in public.
But growing pressure from the Pakistan Army to flush out foreign fighters from Waziristan has led these groups to close ranks once again. Perhaps the greatest laurel that Nek can rest on for all his life is the way he outwitted his competitors in the Kalosha operation between March 16 and 28. All his raw tribal mettle was on display that crucial morning of March 16 when he hurled his bullet-proof truck right up against the cordon of security forces, throwing the 'enemy' ranks in disarray and cruising his prized guest Tahir Yuldashev to safety. Following the lull in the showdown between the Pakistan Army and the tribals in South Waziristan Agency, Nek has come across as a charismatic leader with the ability to clinch well-orchestrated deals and subtly divide tribal opinion as a means of diverting both the government and the locals from the issue of the foreign fighters.
Yet his ability to roam free in the Wana region is not due to al-Qaeda support alone. Observers are baffled over the army's lack of intelligence concerning matters that are common knowledge in Wana. "Everyone knows that Taliban commanders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Dadullah were in Wana in April to hold a meeting with Nek and other groups," comments one observer in Wana. "It is also common knowledge that Tahir Yuldashev was asked to appoint a new commander for South Waziristan in order to forestall infighting between the mujahideen groups. But ask the authorities and they know nothing."
Credible sources believe the intelligence failure that led to military casualties during the Kalosha operation was also a ruse. "Nek is a great fighter but he is not bigger than Islamabad or even the camp office in Wana. If he is standing tall against the receding shadow of the corps commander Peshawar, there has to be something more than al-Qaeda behind him."
Nek Muhammad Wazir, Muhammad Ilyas Khan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)