Blown Up in Bin Laden Country

Is Pakistani intelligence allowing the country's tribal areas to become a Taliban stronghold? What can the West do about it?

The moment the bomb exploded, our Frontier Corps driver slammed on the brakes. I wished he hadn’t. If ever there was a moment to floor the accelerator that was it. The October sun was dropping fast. Slopes and broken ground stretched above either side of the road. We were less than an hour’s drive away from the battlefield in Bajaur and the loyalty of the surrounding tribes was far from assured.

Already, passing through the town of Mardan just a couple of hours earlier, we had skirted the immediate aftermath of a suicide attack that had killed seven people, most of them policemen. Our four-vehicle convoy was tiny. Most of the soldiers in it were returning from leave and appeared to be unarmed. Now, as this device detonated barely ten metres in front of us, immediately shrouding our escort vehicle in a wall of smoke and dust, halting in the middle of an ambush-ripe bend seemed insane, offering us as an easy target for follow-up fire.

“Go,” we yelled at the man. So the soldier went – springing nimbly from his driver’s door and running from sight. We gawped at each other for a while in the quietness that followed, as dumbfounded by our rude abandonment as we were by the bomb. But there was no follow-up fire. Through the smoke, one by one, bug-eyed with shock, the soldiers from the escort vehicle ran back past us. Perfectly sited, the roadside bomb had been miraculously badly angled, throwing most of its shrapnel payload skywards. A hapless civilian motorcyclist, passing in the other direction, was the only casualty. Eventually, as the smoke cleared and groups of silent, inscrutable villagers appeared from the fields to stare at us, our driver returned. He rolled a quick joint, murmured “Bismillah” rather sheepishly, then retook his seat and turned the ignition.

We proceeded towards Bajaur at speed in a cloud of hash. Daylight slipped to dusk. The track narrowed at every turn. Artillery rumbled ahead. The war already seemed way too schizoid. It seemed a spectacularly bad moment to get stoned.

There is a long queue of players jostling to criticise Pakistan, to chide and chastise its security forces over their failure to deal with the militant threat based on its soil. At best, its detractors accuse Pakistan of incompetence and denial. At worst, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, stands blamed for direct collusion with militant groups.

Gordon Brown was at it in December. “The time has come for action not words,” he demanded, standing beside Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at a press conference in Islamabad in the diplomatic aftermath of the Mumbai attacks which had left at least 170 people dead, including three British citizens.

But huddled against the whip of the winter wind in their positions in Bajaur, the remote tribal agency abutting Afghanistan, Pakistani soldiers may be forgiven for wondering what more Britain expects of them in the wake of Mr Brown’s remarks.

For if blood were proof enough then they have already offered ample evidence of their commitment to the fight against militancy. Sometimes out-gunned, often out-manoeuvred, in three months of fighting with the Taliban there last autumn along a stretch of road just eight miles long, more than 80 soldiers were killed and another 300 wounded. A further 20 are missing, presumed dead. In turn, Pakistani officers claimed to have slain at least 1,500 militants of a force they estimated to be over 3,000 strong.

“We are not afraid of these sacrifices,” a colonel’s wife told me at the hospital bedside of her husband, wounded in Bajaur. “I believe he has done a noble job for his country and religion and I am proud of him.” The colonel had lost a leg to shrapnel and been shot twice. His battalion had begun their attack at 6am on a September day. Their objective looked small, just a few mud-walled compounds. Little more than three hours later, seven of his soldiers were dead, 27 wounded. The card at his bedside, made by his two children, had “Our Hero” crayoned on its front.

No lack of commitment there. It could have been Selly Oak, Birmingham.

In Bajaur, I found Pakistan’s 26th Brigade catching its breath before pushing northwards up two key valleys still held by the Taliban. Despite the earlier intensity of the action, its enemy was still in ample evidence. The valley on either side of the key eight-mile route rattled with gunfire. Tanks and mortars engaged targets sometimes barely a hundred metres from the road while a gunship strafed Taliban positions on a slope in the middle ground.

Geared for a conventional war with India, the soldiers had found the experience of fighting heavily-armed insurgents through the labyrinths of tunnels, trenches and gullies which lined the main road vexing and costly.

“They have the spirit of the vulture,” one colonel remarked of his foe, using words similar to the written record left by veterans of frontier wars a century ago. “As soon as they see a moment of weakness or isolation, they will swarm in to feast on it. If you are strong and can throw them back, in no time they disperse and disappear. It doesn’t mean they have gone though. They are still out there, waiting.”

A Pakistani soldier on patrol in Bajaur

So were these soldiers, part of an army that in the last six years has lost up to 1,500 men fighting militants, really just pawns to the dual agenda of a government which sacrifices them on one hand while fostering the militancy on the other? At the heart of the riddle, encompassed in a swathe of mountains, wilderness and Pashtun tribes once all too familiar to British soldiers in the days of the Indian Empire, lie Pakistan’s seven notorious tribal agencies – Bajaur, South and North Waziristan, Orakzai, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram. Described today by Britain and America as the primary source of impending international terrorist attacks, and the scene of repeated Hellfire strikes by US Predator drones, these federally administered tribal agencies are known better by the acronym Fata.

The roots of Fata’s current heart of darkness status are manifold and long precede the very existence of Pakistan. Some lie among the weeds in the “Foreigners’ Graveyard” in Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) that adjoins Fata, where faded headstones offer tantalising glimpses of the British army’s past involvement in the same valleys where Pakistani forces fight now. The inscriptions suggest the soldiers’ women and children perished of cholera and dysentery. The men died “on active service”, “in an engagement with hill tribes”, were “struck down by the hand of an assassin”, or were “shot dead by a fanatic”.

Many are aware of the British empire’s fractious involvement with India’s north-west frontier, immortalised by Kipling among others, which then as now served as a strategic buffer space between powers. Few realise that the fighting between British troops and the Pashtun tribes continued until partition, independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and that Britain’s most intensive counter-insurgency campaign of the 20th century was fought against the Faqir of Ipi in North Waziristan between 1936-1947, just one among many frontier wars. (The British never caught him. Evading both foreign troops and later Pakistani soldiers, the Faqir died at liberty in 1960. Osama bin Laden take note.)

Yet the British left more of a legacy on the frontier than the untended graves of long-dead soldiers. In an effort to establish a mechanism of control between their authority and the wayward tribes, they introduced the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in 1901. It was both a punitive and administrative measure. In each agency local “maliks”, hereditary British appointees, acted as middlemen between their tribes and a political agent, who in turn reported to Peshawar. While allowing the Pashtun tribes a wide degree of autonomy, exempting them from tax and the power of the central judiciary, the FCR also allowed for the collective punishment of unruly tribes by fines, blockade and the seizure of their land and possessions. Individuals could be transported or imprisoned without trial, and houses suspected of sheltering criminals destroyed. By any modern standard the law was a gross violation of human rights.

But it still exists today, little changed in form since it was drawn up over a century ago, source of a growing sense of injustice and abandonment in the tribal agencies. Moreover, Pakistan’s Political Parties Act has never been extended to Fata’s 3.6 million residents, leaving them unable to form their own political parties. Though technically able to vote in national elections they remain effectively sidelined from Pakistan’s greater political structure, second-class citizens in a nation that is nominally their own, still reliant on a decrepit system of maliks and political agents. The knock-on effect to development has been predictable. It is the most economically disadvantaged area of Pakistan; 60 per cent of Fata’s population live below the national poverty line. Four out of five are unemployed; fewer than 18 per cent are literate; schools, roads, doctors and health clinics are rarities. “The people of Fata are victims, not perpetrators,” explained Afrasiyab Khattak, president of the progressive Awami National Party in Peshawar. “They face a triple jeopardy. They groan under a colonial system devised in the 19th century – the FCR. They have lost all types of state protection and don’t have hospitals or schools. And every state intervention in Fata is military: missiles, air strikes, heavy artillery. For any meaningful move to peace and stability there must be a plan for Fata and an end to its isolation.”

While once the maliks and political agents could offer money to the tribes as incentives for co-operation, their fiscal power has been swamped by the black cash of recent history. In the 1970s, burgeoning poppy cultivation sucked in drug money. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan drew in millions of American dollars for Fata-based mujahideen groups opposed to the occupation. A new generation of foreign fighters backed by cash-rich Islamic donors abroad has further undermined the government’s writ, along with the latest outpouring of drug money from Afghanistan. Other than heroin smuggling and militancy, opportunity is thin. Fertilised through bombing and abandonment, small wonder Fata has become a militant playground.

Coffins for sale near a refugee camp in Peshawar

Sickened by the corruption and inefficiency of local authorities, some impoverished Pashtun villagers see the Taliban as Islamic Robin Hoods. In a Maoist-style template, the majority of local Taliban commanders are themselves drawn from the lower levels of Pashtun rural society, and have made efforts to redress the grievances of farming communities by solving the land disputes and blood feuds which blight the region.

“He is a respected figure among us,” a teacher from Bajaur explained to me of Maulawi Faqir Mohammed, Bajaur’s principal Taliban commander. “People know him as a thorough gentleman. The Taliban never harmed the masses in Bajaur. Before the army operation, the Taliban had bought a degree of peace and stability there.”

Sections of Fata’s youth have also rallied around the militancy’s flag. With little other employment opportunity, born to an era of conflict, familiar with bombing and drone strikes, raised by illiterate fathers who fought a jihad in Afghanistan, they are natural Taliban fodder. Bajaur’s political agent, Shafirullah Wazir, described the Taliban training camp at Badon, one of several in the agency, as a centre “for every youth who wanted a radio, a motorbike and a gun”.

Yet Pakistan’s military and government seem manifestly opposed to any serious reform of the FCR. Some claim that the law is still an effective method of controlling the tribes, and that any form of development must first be preceded by an improvement in the security situation.

“The FCR is the best law,” stated Brigadier Mahmoud Shah, former government secretary to Fata, at his Peshawar office. “It makes the tribe responsible for maintaining law and order, not individuals. All punishments are awarded against the tribe. You can blockade them, deny them passports or ID cards. It is better to have a bad law than no law. How can you develop places you cannot even go to? It is like giving cake to a starving man.”

Others suggest that there is a more sinister agenda afoot, and claim that Fata has been deliberately crippled so as to preserve it as a specimen jar of militancy for the very sake of attracting US military funding.

There has certainly been no lack of American money thrown at Pakistan. Overall, official figures state that the US gave Islamabad $10 billion in aid between 2002-2007. Yet in Fata 96 per cent of American aid has gone to the military. Most of this has been spent through “Coalition Support Funds”, which reimburses the Pakistani army for operations it conducts against insurgents. Opaque and unaccountable, these funds have given many Pakistanis the impression that their soldiers have become little more than a mercenary force fighting someone else’s war. Of the American aid that has so far been devoted to Fata, only one per cent has been spent on development assistance.

Young members of an internally displaced family from Bajaur at a UN-sponsored camp in Peshawar

Obama’s election victory offers Fata some degree of hope and may end the American funding humbug. Vice-President Joseph Biden has been a long-term critic of Bush’s policy in Pakistan, and was co-sponsor of last year’s (2008) Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act. When passed by Congress, the Act will give Pakistan $7.5 billion in non-military assistance over the next five years and is regarded as the vanguard of a new approach in a more holistic strategy to deal with the country’s militancy.

Meanwhile, however, America has failed to achieve a single security-related objective in Fata, and the militancy there has instead spread, utilising terror in its purest essence.

Words such as “savagery” fall far short in describing the video footage and photographs showing the fate of eight Shia lorry drivers captured by the Taliban in Fata’s Kurram agency on 19 July 2008. Having first been put on trial at a Taliban court, the men were dismembered one by one, apparently with a band saw.

“We had someone there who witnessed it,” said Ali Aqbar Turi, a local Shia leader, as we examined the evidence in Peshawar. “They were alive as it was done. A father and son were among the victims. They started with the arms, then the legs and heads, and said things like ‘Huh, how do you like the taste of that?’ as they did it. There were people standing around filming it.” Wrestling with a momentary wave of nausea in the airless room, I saw nothing in the images to dispute his claims. Piled together were eight torsos, eight severed heads, eight pairs of legs and arms. Some of the faces had been mutilated, but all were identifiable. The wounds seemed surgical, so precise they could have been the work of a butcher.

In another Taliban video, this time shot in Waziristan, I saw four boys who looked too young even to be teenagers stand behind a captured Pakistani NCO, Lance-Corporal Hussain. Three carried Kalashnikovs, one brandished a knife. All had koranic inscriptions wrapped around their foreheads. They pushed the captive soldier to the ground and sawed off his head. One boy then held it up to the camera. Next they turned in file and marched away.

Worst of all, they were expressionless throughout.

Terror has become both means and ends in Fata. In suicide bombings the militants believe they have found a strategic weapon to take on the state, while beheadings are a successful tactic in terrorising the local Fata population into submission. Some 200 maliks have been executed by the Taliban in Fata since 2004, along with an unknown number of minor officials, alleged government collaborators and Nato spies, teachers and tribesmen unwilling to submit to the Taliban.

In a typical example told to me by a resident from the Mohmand agency, who like so many witnesses I spoke to was too frightened to be named, the Taliban tried to arrest “Yusuf”, the leader of an armed group of non-aligned tribesmen, in a village there in the autumn of 2007. There was a shoot-out and three Taliban were killed. Yusuf and his group fled their village and were pursued. They were surrounded and six shot dead, including Yusuf. Another eight were captured. The next day the Taliban summoned 4,000 men from the district to attend the funeral prayers for their own dead at Yusuf’s village. The eight prisoners were beheaded before the crowd. The bodies were left in the open for three days before relatives were allowed to bury them.

“That was the turning point for Mohmand,” the man told me. “After that no one challenged the Taliban.”

But if the militants are linked by an ability to capitalise on local disaffection and a willingness to use terror at its extreme, the wider threat they pose is an issue so divisive that it seems set to ensure their survival.

“The UK’s core objective is not about tribal militants in Fata,” a British diplomat told me in Islamabad in autumn 2008. “It is to eliminate the safe haven there for violent extremists planning to attack the UK.” Yet Brown’s comments in Pakistan in December suggest the UK is equally keen to eliminate safe havens for terrorists planning attacks not just on the UK but on Britain’s regional allies too.

The militants’ elimination would be easier if there were only a single foe, a single extremist group with a single objective, instead of the kaleidoscopic mix that exists in Fata today. The very definition of “enemy” differs in the eye of each national beholder and it is difficult to segregate those with a localised agenda from those with regional and international aims.

Guns are easily available in Peshawar

The Taliban are nominally Fata’s militant kingpins. They are in turn divided between the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), commanded by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, and the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Omar remains the generic spiritual leader of both groups. However, seasoned regional officials and soldiers insist that Mullah Omar’s Quetta-based headquarters has been sidelined. They say that the dominant force in the Taliban now is the group based at Miranshah in Fata’s North Waziristan, led by the Afghan Sirajuddin Haqqani. Some government officials go so far as to claim that Haqqani has united all of Fata’s militants under the umbrella of an “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan”. “The emirate co-ordinates them all,” a leading Pakistani politician told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Haqqani acts as the link man between al-Qaeda, the ISI, the Afghan Taliban and Baitullah [Mehsud]. They have some differences. But they co-ordinate. Basically the emirate runs the war.”

Linked by a desire to be able to pursue their fundamentalist Islamic ideology free of censure, militants share common ground in wishing to see Nato leave Afghanistan and the Pakistani army withdraw from Fata. Further than this, the aspirations of different militant groupings vary hugely. Some seek to overthrow the Pakistani government, others to fight a regional jihad. But in Fata the average TTP gunslinger probably has political horizons no further than those of his own tribal area.

In this light, though an attractive proposition for those seeking to make sense of the militancy, the emirate concept appears trite and simplistic. Given the Pashtun tribes’ historical tradition of internecine conflict, the idea of any monolithic form of resistance or objective tests credibility, and the Pakistani army is quick to denounce the theory, describing the militants as a loosely connected grouping of “miscreants”. “Each has its own vested interests built up by criminals and small-time hoods who have tried to legitimise themselves under a single platform,” Major General Tariq Khan, commander of the army’s operation in Bajaur, told me. “Some are affiliated to the TTP, which hires guns to smaller groups. But I see no coherent strategy in any of the groups.”

Western diplomats agree with him. But further accord quickly diverges. America is happy to use its Predators to strike at al-Qaeda cells in Fata as part of a target list of militant commanders such as Mullah Nazir and Bahadur Gul, who are believed responsible for sending insurgents across the border into Afghanistan. But these commanders in turn are left to their own devices by the Pakistani army, which does not view them as directly hostile to the country’s own interests.

Conversely, the US has so far refrained from hitting TTP elements who restrict their activity solely to Pakistan. Pakistani security officials told me that on several occasions they had passed on the location of Baitullah Mehsud to the Americans, hoping he would be killed by a Predator, to no avail.

Disagreement over the definition of a common enemy in Fata is further reflected in the mirrored accusations over the issue of safe havens. Nato has consistently blamed Pakistan for knowingly allowing insurgents sanctuary in the tribal areas. Pakistani officers counter that they face increasing attack from Afghani Taliban crossing the border from areas patrolled by Nato. In Bajaur, one senior Pakistani officer described a column of nearly 1,000 insurgents, commanded by the Afghan Zia-ur-Rahman, infiltrating from the Afghan province of Kunar to assault his men. “It’s not black and white – it’s grey,” explained Brigadier Abid Mumtaz, commander of the 26th Brigade in Bajaur, who in 2004 was based in Bagram, Afghanistan, as a Pakistani liaison officer with Nato. “I’ve seen it both ways. They come across this side and that – both sides.”

The picture is further clouded by the presence of other militant groups in Fata that utilise the lawless space provided by the TTP’s ascendancy, but have agendas of their own as well as those they share with the Taliban.

Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is a case in point. Allegedly responsible for the Mumbai attacks last December, last year it was also implicated in a large night assault launched from Bajaur last year on an American post in Afghanistan in which nine US soldiers were killed.

Formed in 1989, the LeT was originally funded and trained by the ISI to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan before being later reorganised for action against the Indians in Kashmir. Western and Indian intelligence agencies believe that the LeT is publicly fronted by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity organisation involved in relief work. A proscribed terrorist organisation in the US, JuD is viewed with special concern by Britain, which regards its expansive network of offices and camps as a portal for young British Kashmiris wishing to join al-Qaeda.

“These training camps pose a real threat to the UK,” a diplomat explained. “Which is why Britain is asking for them to be closed down. The chief worry is that young British radicals travel to Pakistan, connect into Pakistani Kashmir and may gain some training there. They are then passed on to facilitation camps in Waziristan or Bajaur. Some then reappear in the UK. Others stay on in the tribal areas planning attack operations on the UK.”

A mosque in Peshawar

When I met two JuD officials in a walled rose garden in Peshawar last October, I expected to get a glib resumé of the humanitarian work which it indisputably conducts, famously having aided survivors of Pakistan’s massive 2005 earthquake long before government agencies arrived on the scene.

So I was surprised when Atiq ur-Rahman, a Pakistani who admitted to having joined a militant group in Afghanistan in 1989 before transferring to JuD, launched into a diatribe against the West. He went on to expand the vision of a global Islamic Caliphate as an ultimate utopia for world peace.

“We don’t like democracy. Our struggle is to establish an Islamic Caliphate throughout the world. Whichever force tries to resist it shall be shattered,” he told me, before handing me a copy of Why We Are Performing Jihad, JuD’s militant manifesto, to further his case. During a follow-up visit to Friday prayers at the group’s madrassa (religious school) in Peshawar, the mullah there eulogised Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, invited worshippers to “carry on beating America in the language they understand”, before calling for a collection to fund the jihad. It was so flagrant it was almost embarrassing.

Yet despite international pressure to close down JuD offices in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has so far side-stepped the issue, unwilling to antagonise JuD’s powerful domestic following or lose its strategic value in the struggle with the old enemy, India.

When America’s military golden boy, General David Petraeus, took over the US Central Command – responsible for US operations in the Middle East and Central Asia – last autumn he was already speaking of his intention to ask Pakistan to reassess its threat prioritisation. Arguing that war between Pakistan and India served neither country’s interests, he was keen to have Pakistan shift the focus of its security efforts to Fata so as to unify the divided American and Pakistani aims. Barack Obama was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Next came the Mumbai attacks, a strategic counter-move by militants in response to the American plan which has succeeded, in the short term at least, in increasing tensions between the neighbours at the expense of Pakistan’s commitment to Fata.

Whatever the final implications of Mumbai, Petraeus is likely to find that the fundamental stumbling block to his plan lies in Pakistan’s perceptions of Western involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistani generals are convinced, based on historical precedent, that the presence of foreign troops there will be transient. They regard the vacuum left by the West’s inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan as a vital arena in which to jockey with India, a country as key to the Pakistani military psyche as the Turks are to the Serbs and the Israelis to the Palestinians.

This fear, comprehensive enough in a country that has largely defined itself through its enmity with India, causes Pakistan’s military to cling to its concept of Afghanistan as a place of “strategic depth” for its long-term interests, hence past overt support of the Taliban, among others, and the lingering accusations that elements of the ISI continue to support some militant groups as a safeguard for the future.

In Peshawar, I met a former Guantánamo inmate who insisted that during interrogation by the ISI after his arrest in 2001 he had been given a simple choice by his captors.

“They told me ‘Go to fight in Afghanistan or we will hand you over to the Americans’,” the man reported. “I met many other prisoners who were given the same option.” He had balked at joining the new wave of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan so was handed to the CIA and sent to Guantánamo.

Pakistan’s military chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, has recently concurred with US demands to clean up the ISI with a purge of maverick elements. But years of Islamification in Pakistan during the ’70s and ’80s under Pakistan’s then dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, led to the involvement of swathes of the nation’s officers corps in Tablighi Jamaat, the cult-like Islamic proselytising movement.

This in turn created masonic-like cells within the military espousing their own unilateral agenda, an opaque inheritance that is difficult to break and, when suitable, easy to deny.

“I just don’t get the ISI,” a US intelligence officer remarked to me on the Afghan border overlooking North Waziristan 18 months ago. “I’ve been in Afghanistan for a couple of years. I’ve worked directly with ISI officers. They’ve given me invaluable help. But I’ve PUC’d [arrested] ISI officers too.”

Baffled? It is a compartmentalised game in which few players can discern clear direction; a war run by egoistical charioteers each at the mercy of unbroken teams of horses. Only a long and enduring haul combining the most skilled regional diplomacy, careful incentives and judicious pressure can succeed in having Pakistan and the West find common ground in Fata.

Meanwhile, criticism alone is unlikely to achieve quick reward. Western leaders wishing to throw stones at Islamabad should first remember that they do so in the glass house of their own policy in Afghanistan which itself, having poisoned the well with corruption, hypocrisy and sectarianism, is hardly a byword for cohesion and transparency.

“What can we do?” one refugee from Bajaur remarked miserably to my interpreter, having traipsed across the mountains with his family to flee the fighting. “We are trapped between the paradise and the dollar.”

A Peshwari walks past a poster for the film The Drinker in the city’s Qisa Khan market

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