Wood smuggling is not only sustaining the militants but also denuding fata of its forests
Back in 2008, the Pakistani Taliban were confronted by a big problem. The double whammy was that after the security forces started the operation in South Waziristan, they also started making special efforts to clamp down on the militants’ funding sources.
This led to the militants’ increased dependence on activities like kidnapping for ransom. But, during the last two years, being pushed further and further away from their established camps in the Waziristan agencies to lesser populated areas, they were compelled to rely on other financing sources.
They have started charging a commission on timber smuggling and have, in fact, played an important role in the increased smuggling of timber from Waziristan to Afghanistan during the last couple of years. The Shawal valley, which is one of the favourite areas of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) leadership for hiding during the last few years, after an increase in the number of drone attacks is, in fact, one of the most important forest areas. This thinly populated area comprises of the thickest jungles in the tribal areas. This whole valley is under the control of different groups of the TTP and Afghan Taliban. The beautiful valley, which becomes inaccessible during winters, is situated between South and North Waziristan and also has a border with the Khost province of Afghanistan.
Gul Muhammad (not his original name), a North Waziristan-based timber merchant, was in Islamabad a few weeks back. According to him, timber smuggling is not a new phenomenon in the region but the volume of this illegal business has increased sharply after involvement of different Taliban groups. “It used to be 2 to 3 trucks of wood a day that used to be transported from Pakistan to Afghanistan a few years back. But now, the number of trucks going to Afghanistan, illegally carrying precious wood, is between 20 to 30 trucks.” He said this increase is due to the Taliban’s patronizing of wood smuggling, which resulted in the introduction of modern technology to cut trees. “These smugglers pay Rs 15,000 to 25,000 per truck to the Taliban and they allow them to use mechanical saw machines run by diesel generators to cut trees. Before this, smugglers used to cut the trees through manual saws and it usually took 5 to 6 hours for a lumberjack to cut one mature tree. But these machines take only a few minutes to cut a tree.”
Afghanistan is the destination of most of this timber. Gul Muhammad estimates that wood worth 15 million rupees is smuggled daily from Shawal and other areas of North and South Waziristan to Afghanistan. The Shawal valley is one of the main routes used by the timber smugglers to transport timber from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The Shawal valley has several mountainous tracks that can provide easy access for these timber smugglers to Nawyee Mandeeyee, Machadad Kot, Shakin, Mangreetai and Khost in Afghanistan.
“Most of the Pakistani and Afghan officials on the way also get their share to allow this illegal movement of wood,” Gul alleges.
As writ of state is barely visible in the Shawal valley, local timber merchants only have to purchase the jungles from the tribes who own these mountains. “Surely, both sides pay a 3 to 5 percent share of their deal to Taliban as commission”, said another timber merchant based at North Waziristan.
A high security official based in Islamabad admitted that timber smuggling had become one of the major sources of funding for Taliban groups active in North and South Waziristan.
Mushtaq Yusufzai, a senior Peshawar-based journalist who has been covering war or terror since a decade, said that the TTP, Mullah Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Haqqani networks have their strong presence in the Shawal valley. “Different parts of the Shawal valley are under the control of these militant organistaions and there is little or no writ of state in the area. It is true that most of these groups are involved in timber smuggling but they have been only allowing the timber mafia to work in their areas and in return, get a good amount of money from them.”
During the last few years, he said, different militant groups have been relying on different finance sources. “Sometimes it becomes hard for them to get funds from their traditional sources and that is why they use other ways of funding. The multiple sources of funding make TTP a resilient and well-armed group”.
Timber smuggling not only provide militants easy money but also helps them getting transported from one side of the border to other. “They send their fighters with these trucks as conductors and as these smugglers have good links with officials on the both sides of the border, militant organizations also use them to transport different goods from one side of the border to other.” According to Mushtaq, the exploitation of natural resources by Taliban on an organizational level started in April 2008, when Taliban militants took over white marble mines in the Mohmand agency in the tribal areas of Pakistan. “They earned huge amounts of money out of these mines and it showed to them the value of natural resources in the area. In Swat, Taliban militants developed ties with timber mafia for the first time. They allowed the timber mafia to cut thick pine forests and apple orchards of Malam Jaba, Fatehpur, Miandam and Lalko,” he said.
Locals in tribal areas have been facing a lot of problems because of timber smuggling. “Massive cutting of trees in different areas of North and South Waziristan has not only been tarnishing the beauty of the area, but it has also resulted in more floods and land-sliding while it has also become difficult for locals to arrange woods for their own consumption from these jungles. Most of the people are forced to buy wood even for cooking puposes”, a local based at Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan, said.
In mid-2008, then federal environment minister Hamidullah Jan Afridi, who also belong to tribal areas, pointed towards the militant-criminal nexus in Fata and blamed the timber mafia for funding militancy in KP and in Fata. Forest officials at the Fata Secretariat are well aware of the situation and said the losses suffered by forests in Fata in the last two years were more than the losses of the last two decades. “Forests are fast depleting due to the depredations of the powerful timber mafia with the help of militants in tribal areas and especially in Shawal valley. So far, more than 60,000 big pine trees have been chopped in Shawal alone by smugglers with the help of militants during last two years. Such trees took at least 100 years to become mature”, said a forest official at Fata secretariat. “We know they have been earning good money out of this business but it is too difficult to stop timber smuggling as the area is hardly under government control and all Taliban groups have strong presence there”, said the official.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.