Bajaur: A Talk with the Taliban

'At last, a familiar sight: we drive past a Johnson & Johnson factory. "This place can't be that bad," I tell myself. "Daniel Pearl was executed near here," the driver says unprompted. "Do you want to see where?"' - Shiraz Maher comes face to face with the Taliban 

The view outside my window is breathtaking: a corrugated landscape of sweeping ravines and verdant gorges. It is hard to believe that this is the most dangerous place on earth. Yet the recent discovery of a car bomb in New York’s Times Square underscores its ongoing menace. 

Prosecution papers filed with the District Court in Manhattan reveal that the alleged bomber, Faisal Shahzad, attended training camps here in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), and received his orders directly from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, rivals only Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as the most wanted man in the world. 

“We’ve now developed evidence that shows that the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack,” the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, told ABC television. “We know that they helped facilitate it. We know that they probably helped finance it, and that [Shahzad] was working at their direction.”

Faisal Shahzad trained in Fata, a fertile plain for fundamentalism spawning terrorist leaders with ambitions to eclipse even al-Qaeda’s worst excesses. I have come to Khar, a small town four miles from the Afghan border in Bajaur, Fata’s northernmost province, to understand how this once anonymous region became the epicentre of global terror. Without stability here, peace in Afghanistan and beyond is impossible. 

Fata is a stronghold for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Although still in its incipient phases, the group has already changed Pakistan for ever. Just travel through its biggest cities, Islamabad or Lahore, and you immediately get a sense of how the terrorist threat has become a part of daily life. Even the shortest journey involves passing through endless chicanes and roadblocks manned by armed police, although in more sensitive areas it is the army who are in charge. Sitting behind almost every checkpoint are two sharpshooters ready to fire on anyone who fails to stop. Yet most Pakistanis are fatalistically resigned to the increasing militarisation of their streets and society. 

Even before the attempted attack in Times Square threats from Fata have left an indelible mark on the West too. At least two of the 7/7 bombers are known to have visited training camps in this region. A plot to bring down transatlantic airliners in 2006 also had its roots here. Less than 18 months ago, Gordon Brown revealed that three-quarters of the most serious terror plots currently under surveillance in Britain had links to Pakistan.

According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who chaired a review of US policy towards Pakistan for Barack Obama, “Every nightmare that worries Americans about the 21st century comes together in Pakistan in a unique and combustible way.” Similar sentiments are echoed in the Foreign Office, where a counterterrorism official tells me: “If you ask me what my priorities are I would say: ‘Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan’.” 

It is easy to see why the Taliban has flourished in Bajaur. Its elevated gulleys and sweeping ridges make it perfect guerrilla terrain. Beyond the obvious appeal of geography, there is genealogy too. Most of the Fata tribes, such as the Tarkanis in Bajaur, live on both sides of the Durand Line — the nominal border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Loyalties here are particularly fissiparous and transient, borne of the premium that villagers place on following the diktats of tribal elders and their jirga councils. When the jirgas back one party against another, everyone follows suit. When Tarkani tribesmen from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province poured over the border in 2001, local jirgas welcomed them in and simply let them melt into the background.

The growing crisis in Bajaur only came to international attention years after 9/11 when a captured al-Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, revealed that key members of the movement were regrouping there. On January 13 2006, intelligence suggested that Ayman al-Zawahiri was meeting other senior militants in Damadola, a village just north of Khar, to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Predator drones operated by the CIA circled overhead monitoring the meeting. Beaming real-time images back to agency’s headquarters in Langley Falls, Virginia, the Special Activities Division, which controls the drones, decided to fire four Hellfire missiles at the sites where al-Qaeda leaders were believed to be gathering. It was the first drone attack on Pakistani soil, a constant and controversial feature of US policy in the region ever since. In the event, no significant terrorist leaders were killed in the Damadola airstrike. 

Al-Zawahiri may not have been there but the area has been, until recently, home to one of TTP’s most senior commanders, Maulvi Fakir Mohammed. Speaking to local journalists shortly after the drone attack, he said: “Ayman al-Zawahiri never came here but if he wanted to come, we will welcome him, and it will be a great pleasure for us to be his host.” Maulvi Fakir and his followers quickly consolidated their position after the attack, setting up their own checkpoints and parallel court system based on Sharia. Later, they began collecting taxes too. With all the privations of rural life, the money and munitions poured into Bajaur by TTP commanders found a ready audience of recruits imbued with millennarian religious narratives. As their influence grew unchecked, the TTP soon spilled over into the neighbouring provinces of Dir, Malakand and Mohmand before Islamabad was finally stirred into action. 

Bajaur has attracted would-be conquerors for centuries. Its Nawa Pass predates the Khyber as the most favoured route from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. Both Alexander the Great and the Mughal Emperor Babar marched their armies through here. Indeed, local women proved so irresistible to Alexander that, according to folklore, he began an illicit affair with Queen Cleophis from the local Assaceni dynasty. It is impossible to comment on Alexander’s tastes: I see no more than a handful of women on Bajaur’s streets and none in its market. Those who do venture outside are veiled behind the flowing blue burqa that has become synonymous with Taliban rule, even though they are no longer in control.

It epitomises the sense of fear and danger that persists here. Although the army has officially declared victory, active combat operations remain ongoing in isolated areas. Even now, it is too dangerous to reach Bajaur by road. I hitch a lift on one of the army’s Mi-17s, a Russian-made transport helicopter, to the forward operating base of the Bajaur Scouts, home to the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Then I join a convoy heading to Maulvi Fakir’s now abandoned headquarters in Damadola. 

The journey reveals just how tense, even febrile, the atmosphere remains. Everywhere I look there are soldiers on patrol while repeated roadblocks hamper our progress. “This entire place was littered with improvised roadside bombs,” my driver from the Frontier Corps tells me. A mountain range in the distance is all that separates us from Afghanistan. “The Taliban used to fire on us from up there,” he says. It is an enviable vantage point, overlooking the entire valley.

Karachi Rangers 

It is a peculiar feeling travelling through Khar with the army. Until recently, Fata was a no-go area for Pakistan’s regular forces. Instead, these areas were administered by locally recruited soldiers who serve in the Frontier Corps. That situation only changed in recent years after the TTP engulfed most of Fata and parts of the neighbouring North-West Frontier Province. Locals remain unsure of how to treat this influx of outsiders to their otherwise insular world. As we drive through the desolate market, where more shops are closed than open, almost everyone stops to stare, some bewildered, others more belligerent, at the procession of vehicles storming through their town. “We risk our lives to save yours,” an army roadside sign reassures them. 

It is all part of Islamabad’s new outreach programme to win over Fata’s tribes after years of persistent neglect and underinvestment. There are signs of enforced conformity everywhere. Pakistani flags are ubiquitous, flying on every street corner, over every house and shop. Bajaur feels like a new city on Independence Day. In some respects, that is what it is. 

At Maulvi Fakir’s house, which also served as a madrassah (Islamic school), there is a stark reminder of just why the government has invested so heavily in this battle. A rusting metal sign on the floor reads, “Madrassah and headquarters for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan”. The road leading there is treacherous, a winding uphill dirt track barely wide enough for my car. 

The madrassah’s watchtowers offer strategic views over the adjacent grazing grounds and farms. The complex itself consists of buildings made from baked, or “pukka”, bricks and mud houses reinforced with stone masonry. Wheat straw, bleached by the sun, sits on mud-plastered mounds, providing shade. These structures might look flimsy but they remain intact, despite being pounded by helicopter gunships weeks before my visit.

It all points to just how ferocious the fighting has been. The lead time enjoyed by the TTP before Pakistani forces eventually moved in allowed them to develop a strong infrastructure, hampering the belated efforts to uproot them. 

At Maulvi Fakir’s compound, I find a series of tunnels that the TTP and al-Qaeda have carved into the surrounding mountains. It is dark and claustrophobic inside. The entrance is so narrow that I have to remove my backpack just to pass through it. Inside, the tunnels form a labyrinthine web of interlocking bunkers and warrens running deep underground. In places, simply getting through is a gruelling physical experience. Eventually, the tunnels open up to form cavernous rooms capable of holding more than 30 people. This is where al-Qaeda and the TTP’s fraternity of the faithful planned terrorist attacks against allied forces in Afghanistan and civilians in Pakistan and the West. 

Going underground: Maulvi Fakir’s now abandoned Damadola headquarters still filled with sleeping bags 

The residents here clearly left in a hurry, the mess in their rooms preserved like a terrorist’s Marie Celeste. Delicately-patterned Arabian floor cushions are scattered across the floor. Other rooms towards the back are filled with sleeping-bags and paisley eiderdowns. It feels inexplicably homely. These tunnels enabled the guerrilla fighters to move men and munitions undetected. There are two different types here: the first act as trenches providing cover to militants fighting the army. The second are more sophisticated logistical tunnels. Excavated with pickaxes and shovels, they extend up to 20 metres underground and can be hundreds of metres long. The effort poured into constructing them is testament to the TTP’s zeal.

Travelling with the army in Bajaur makes it impossible to verify independently what locals think of the fighting and the fighters that imposed themselves on the area. To find out, I travel to Karachi which, unlike Pakistan’s other big cities, is host to a vast jumble of different ethnic groups. Almost every family displaced by the war in Fata has relatives there. For that reason, it is home not only to those caught up in the fighting, but also to those who have been doing the fighting. 

Within hours of my arrival in Karachi my fixer calls, “I’ve arranged a meeting with a member of the Taliban. Do you want to go?” I accept the invitation, assuming, naively perhaps, that this will be a straightforward affair. Just before sunset, we meet a contact outside a textile factory. He hands me the details of another meeting point where I am told to arrive in three hours. For the moment, I am more worried about braving the busy and bustling Karachi rush hour than I am about the meeting. 

By the time I meet the handler at the second meeting point it is dark and late. He asks to drive my car to the final venue. I agree and we set off. Everywhere in Karachi takes longer to reach than it should, but this journey is unusually long. 

Soon we are entering deeply unfamiliar terrain even for locals, my fixer tells me. “Karachi is run by criminal gangs,” he whispers. “This is a rough neighbourhood. No one comes here without protection.”  The road is potted and uneven, barely more than a dirt track in places, and the car kicks up a trail of sand. There are hardly any working streetlights. The car is squeezed down increasingly cramped and bumpy alleys daubed with sectarian political slogans.

The silhouetted figures still braving the streets at this hour belong only to hefty and hirsute men. It has been miles since we encountered the last checkpoint manned by the Karachi Rangers, the armed police who are meant to deter kidnappers and terrorists. 

At last, a familiar sight: we drive past a Johnson & Johnson factory. “This place can’t be that bad,” I tell myself. 

“Daniel Pearl was executed near here,” the driver says unprompted. “Do you want to see where?” 

We are in Sherpao Colony, a desperately impoverished area where extended families live in small blocks of vertical housing. The almost exclusively Pashtun community here is acutely sensitive to the ongoing turbulence in Fata. Arriving at our meeting point, a TV cable store, I am greeted by several men. All wear crooked smiles coloured by tobacco stains and chipped teeth. Without a hint of irony they are watching American wrestling on TV. “I hope you’re not on a tight schedule,” says a man who introduces himself only as “the General”. 

“No,” I reply. 

“Good, because nothing around here works like that. You drink Mountain Dew?” he asks, passing me a full glass of the fizzy drink before I have a chance to reply. The fighter I am hoping to interview has not arrived yet and I am told to take a seat. 

I try to distract myself with the television while the general switches on a fan. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling by a wire provides the only light. The General is twirling a Beretta pistol in his hands. Its cold, burnished metal glistens menacingly under the dainty spotlight. It also becomes apparent that another group of armed men are keeping watch from a distance, furtively scanning the terrain.

Suddenly, the room plunges into darkness. The television fades to black while the fan whirs to a lifeless stop. “Nothing to worry about,” the General laughs as the light flickers back on to half its previous strength. “It’s just load-shedding.” Perennial electricity shortages mean power cuts are a part of daily life in Pakistan. In Karachi, outages total only about four hours a day but in the villages where most Pakistanis still live it is not uncommon for blackouts to last 18 hours. 

“We siphon electricity off the police station’s generator,” the General explains while the rest of Sherpao sits in eerie darkness. “They let us have it and in return” — he pauses — “we don’t give them any problems. More Mountain Dew?”  

My interviewee finally arrives on a dilapidated red motorbike. Husain (not his real name) is 27 and was born in Bajaur before moving to Karachi as a child. A gaunt, gangling figure, he boasts the physical expression of devotion crested on his forehead: the zebiba, a tuft of hardened, callused skin caused by protracted submissions on the prayer mat. We climb into the back of my car to talk in privacy. 

Husain has dedicated his life to the Taliban after joining them as a teenager and explains how he was inducted. Recruiters moved freely between Pakistan’s big cities throughout the 1990s, looking for jihadists wanting to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Husain was approached by Harkat al-Mujahideen, a group primarily focused on Kashmir, shortly after he turned 14. He attended their weekly meetings in the nearby district of Sher Shah. 

“There were no false promises,” he explains. “All the difficulties of jihad were made very clear to us before we committed ourselves to anything. We were told, ‘You will have to give up your comforts, you will miss your families, you will lose out on your livelihoods.’ They made sure we understood all that.

“Afterwards, we were asked to give an oath of loyalty, to say ‘labbaik’ (‘I will obey’) and give a firm commitment to the group if we wanted to go. I did that and was sent to Kandahar for training.” 

The training programme comes in three parts. Husain was first sent to a safe house in Afghanistan where there was no military training. “We were only taught about Islam, politics and how to live as good Muslims,” he says. “Our teachers explained the need to live by Islam and also told us about the punishments that should be imposed on those who don’t live according to Allah’s laws.” These religious classes lasted a month and gave recruiters another opportunity to assess the temperament of their new intake. 

From there Husain went to Bagram. “This was a specialist military training programme,” he says. “We were taught how to fight guerrilla war, how to avoid ambushes, and how to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades.” The final stage of training involves a kind of apprenticeship where new recruits are provisionally assigned to a mujahideen battalion. A range of foreign nationals, including Uzbeks, Egyptians and, Husain insists, an American convert, trained with him during the nine-month programme. “I didn’t encounter anyone from Britain,” he tells me after I press him. “But why shouldn’t there be any? Allah has blessed Muslims everywhere with a love of jihad.”

Back in the operations room of the Bajaur Scouts, I meet Colonel Nauman Saeed, who served as operations commander in the battle to reclaim Bajaur, known as Operation Sherdil (meaning Lion Heart). A burly, thick-necked Pashtun, Colonel Nauman is precise and punctilious, sucking his cigarette through a cocktail-length cigarette-holder. “I hope you’re not allergic to smoke,” he says before lighting another. 

Taliban showing off their weapons near the north-west frontier

He is incensed by the suggestion that Pakistan needs to do more. Speaking about American efforts in Afghanistan, he says: “In their [own] language, they need to ‘do more.'” He blames them for failing to secure the Afghan border during Operation Sherdil, claiming that more than 700 terrorists were able to evade capture by simply slipping over the border into Afghanistan’s neighbouring Kunar province. 

“Either they [the Americans] lack the capability or the willingness, but this is certainly making my job harder. It is like a gas balloon: the moment you squeeze the militants on one side, they go to the other. Either we cross the border or [the Americans] clear it up.”

Brigadier Zafarul Haq sits next to Colonel Nauman, grim-faced. He points indignantly to the heavy fatalities sustained by the army in Bajaur — 151 since the fighting began — to rebut accusations that they are not doing enough. 

There is no doubting the ferocity of the battle for Bajaur. What troubles the West, however, is the inconsistency of Pakistan’s approach to dealing with the growth of militancy in Fata. Operation Sherdil was launched only in August 2008, almost three years after Abu Faraj al-Libbi first told interrogators that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces were regrouping in the area. 

The army insists it first had to explore alternatives to battle that included negotiating with the Taliban through local jirgas. For them, the ongoing crisis in Fata is principally a domestic crisis threatening Pakistan’s national security. “This is our war, not anyone else’s,” Colonel Nauman says. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that Pakistan will not be dictated to by outsiders. 

That sentiment is borne out of a deep distrust of American intentions in the region. A retired Pakistani official who previously served at the highest levels of government explained why friction persists between the two countries. “They [the Americans] came in the 1980s and then left when the Soviet Union was defeated, leaving us to clear up the mess. Then, after we tested the [nuclear] bomb, they put sanctions on us. Suddenly, 9/11 happens and they expect us to be their best friend?”

When America diverted resources from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq in 2003, it confirmed fears that Washington remained an unreliable partner in the region. This is crucial to understanding Pakistan’s stubborn isolationism. 

After the abortive terrorist attack in Times Square, that policy could now set Islamabad on a disastrous collision course with Washington. General Stanley McChrystal, the US military commander in Afghanistan, flew to Pakistan for talks with Pakistan’s Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, hours after the alleged bomber was arrested. He pressed for a fresh military offensive in Waziristan, where the TTP now operates. 

The language reveals what is at stake. The American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warned: “We’ve made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.” Unnamed US officials have gone further: “We are saying, ‘Sorry, if there is a successful attack, we will have to act.'”

For all its diplomatic pressure, Pakistan remains indifferent to Washington’s demands. The army’s spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, meets me at his office in Rawalpindi. 

A large oil painting of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, has pride of place on the wall behind his desk. It seems to dwarf Abbas, whose elfin features can make him seem retiring and reticent, though he is refreshingly forthright when we finally get talking.

His forces are committed to fighting the TTP, who have destabilised the country. They have everything to lose if they don’t. But there are disappointing caveats for those who would prefer a greater sense of urgency from Pakistan: it will clean up Fata only on its own terms and in its own time. “Nobody should expect us to leave our long-term interest and go on to entertain and accommodate [their] short-term interest,” Abbas says.

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