On the front line in war on Pakistan's Taliban
High in the mountainous north west provinces of Pakistan, government forces are waging a bitter war against Taliban militants who have made the region a stronghold. As US predator drones criss-cross the sky overhead, troops on the ground endure a daily confrontation with suicide bomber attacks, mortar fire and the piercing cold
Jason Burke | The Observer | November 16, 2008
Ali Hussein, a sergeant in the Sindh Regiment of the Pakistani Army, peers over the lip of his sandbagged machinegun pit to see the following: a muddy patch of farmland divided into a chaos of individual fields, a row of slender birch trees, a dry river valley and, almost invisible among the trees half a mile away, a village called Khusar. Over his head, shells screech through the air towards its half-dozen mud-walled houses.
A rocket-propelled grenade cracks out in solitary, futile response, leaving a trail of spiralling smoke in the chill dawn air. There is the continual crackle of small-arms fire, the distant thud of a mortar.
Khusar lies in Bajaur, a 500-square-mile jumble of valleys and hills high on Pakistan's north-western border with Afghanistan. Few outside Pakistan had heard of Bajaur until recently. But now the fighting here - the biggest single clash of conventional forces and Islamic militants anywhere - is being watched closely around the globe.
The battle of Bajaur has huge local and international implications. Locally, it is a critical test for the new Pakistani civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto. The recent bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad is thought to be a response to the Bajaur offensive. Regionally, the battle is a chance for the Pakistani Army to rebut allegations that it is dragging its feet in the fight against international extremism. Internationally, the fight is crucial for the 40-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Not only will its result determine who controls the supply route that crosses the Khyber Pass just to its south - where militants hijacked a 60-vehicle Nato convoy last week - but it will also show if the semi-autonomous 'tribal agencies' that line the mountainous zones on the Pakistan side of the frontier can be stabilised. It is there that al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban leadership are hiding. Peace in Afghanistan will remain a distant prospect until the frontier is calmed.
So the efforts of men such as Sergeant Ali Hussein are being watched very closely. When President-elect Barack Obama takes office, the file of Pakistan, a nuclear-capable state of 173 million, will top the pile in the foreign affairs in-tray. According to Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst who has recently been appointed Obama's adviser on the region, 'every nightmare that worries Americans about the 21st century comes together in Pakistan in a unique and combustible way'.
To reach the combat zone in Bajaur, the Pakistani Army goes the long way round. Last week The Observer travelled with it. Dozens of soldiers have been killed with remote-controlled or suicide bombs on these roads in recent months. A single Jeep takes four hours, the mammoth supply convoys inching along the mountain roads take nine.
The convoys leave the border city of Peshawar - which has its own problems. Fighting in the surrounding countryside has spilled into urban areas. Last week, a suicide bomb in the city's stadium killed four people, an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped, two journalists were wounded in an ambush and gunmen murdered an American aid worker. 'It's going to be a bloody few weeks and months,' said Iqbal Khattak, a Peshawar newspaper editor.
From the city's crowded bazaars the convoys head east, taking the new motorway that leads to Islamabad, the capital, 120 miles away. Its six lanes slice through haphazard fields of sugar cane and wheat where peasants work with hoes and bullock-drawn ploughs. A few yards from the hard shoulder, beyond a line of posts now stripped of fencing by scrap metal thieves, lie villages where the only concrete building is the mosque and the main fuel is dried manure.
Turning north, the convoys head towards the first hills of the Hindu Kush. The land becomes poorer, the road narrower, the towns scruffier. A steep climb leads into the valley of Malakand, where more than a century ago a young British army officer called Winston Churchill fought the local tribes in operations like those under way along the frontier today. The relatively peaceful plains have been left behind.
Another two hours on winding roads across fast-flowing rivers and narrow passes and you reach Bajaur, a cluster of high, fertile valleys split by menacing ridges. Last week belts of rain lashed the dank fields and drenched the soldiers manning the many roadblocks around the agency's administrative centre of Khar, 15 miles back from the front.
Colonel Muhammad Nauman Saeed, who has 28 years of service, a greying beard and Sandhurst English, explains that, after weeks of operations, the mixed force of 4,000 troops and paramilitaries known as the Frontier Corps has pushed the militants back to positions that will be cut off when the snows come in a few weeks' time. The weather and a force of American and Afghan national army soldiers across the frontier will mean they are boxed in.
'Originally there were 5,000 militants and we have killed half of them at least,' the colonel said. His troops have lost 84 killed and 320 injured since the operation began.
A few hundred yards from his office, artillery fires salvos, sending orange flares of flame through the rain. From Khar, a dirt road leads to the front. Villages are deserted, the bazaars shut, the crops rot in the fields. Dozens of houses converted into strongholds by the militants have been demolished or occupied by the army. There is the constant rattle of small-arms fire, and the crack of rocket-propelled grenades and artillery overhead.
The front itself is a chaos of burnt-out homes, wrecked vehicles and pockets of bizarrely bucolic calm.
More than 200,000 civilians have fled and are now scattered in camps or living with relatives across the province.
Bajaur's recent history is repeated all along the frontier. In the aftermath of 2001, militants fleeing from Nato operations in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan's own intermittent crackdowns on internal extremist groups, were able to exploit the social upheaval caused by conflict and economic change to establish themselves.
In Bajaur, local men formed bands around those with guns and access to cash, elbowing aside traditional tribal leaders. Militant leaders include a former teashop owner, a gunman, a known criminal and a minor cleric. One is from the violence-racked Kunar valley in Afghanistan. 'They are men from economically and socially marginalised elements in tribal society,' said a Peshawar-based expert and former senior bureaucrat, Khalid Aziz.
The disparate groups based themselves in the village of its chief and, with money and a little military training from al-Qaeda, soon established a miniature version of a hardline Islamist state, preaching jihad, closing girls' schools and DVD shops, and killing tribal leaders who stood in their way. According to Mohammed Shah, a former chief of security in the region, 'they are a loose federation rather than a unified movement'.
Al-Qaeda figures may have passed through Bajaur but did not stay. They did not need to. The brand of radical Islam that Osama bin Laden and others have succeeded in popularising in recent decades provided the glue for the various bands and the justification for the fight against their own government. The religious schools, which offer a free education, provided the footsoldiers. A skirmish this summer provided the spark for all-out war.
'They were not looking for a fight, but had prepared carefully for battle when it came', said Colonel Nauman. 'They are dug into complex, interlocking tunnel and bunker networks, and have huge reserves of ammunition.'
Bajaur, the northernmost of the seven tribal agencies along the frontier, had acted as a key entry point to and from Afghanistan, said Major-General Tariq Khan, the overall commander of the Bajaur operation, and was thus of 'immense strategic importance'.
A series of similar military operations over recent years has failed to pacify the tribal areas, often resulting in peace agreements controversial in Washington and Kabul. but lessons had been learnt, Khan said. The current operation would be 'the model' for the future. Last week troops started pushing into Mohmand, the next agency to the south.
Khan stressed the commitment of his troops. 'When our troops come into contact with the militants, they do not see them as Pakistanis or brother Muslims or whatever. They see them as the enemy. Those who have any doubts - and there are some - are those who have not come into contact with the reality on the ground.'
But the Pakistani Army still views the battles it is fighting against extremists very differently from Western strategists and policy-makers. Scores of private conversations with soldiers of all ranks reveal that few see themselves as fighting in a 'war on terror' that many of them abhor.
Many believe that India, Pakistan's long-term regional rival, and Afghanistan are manipulating the militants fighting in Pakistan. In a mirror image of the Western analysis that attributes the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan to their bases in Pakistan, the Pakistani officers blame the war in Afghanistan for their troubles at home.
Privately few have much good to say about the West either. Anti-American sentiment is widespread. Many - both on the front line and at senior levels - doubt that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. Instead the officers and men interviewed by The Observer see their fight as a necessary struggle to purge their own nation of an internal threat. 'It is our war, not anyone else's,' said Colonel Nauman.
For many such officers, both the presence of al-Qaeda on their territory and the pressure from Washington to play a greater role in the war on terror complicate the situation. American money, technical assistance and equipment is welcome - the Pakistani military has received about £7bn from the US since 2001 - but interference on the ground is not. 'When it comes to operations in the tribal areas ... sometimes our agendas coincide, sometimes they do not,' admitted Major-General Khan.
Many oppose the remote-controlled missile strikes that, although they have killed many senior international militant figures, have enraged local people. Two villages hit in Bajaur agency in 2006 are now militant strongholds. The strikes are likely to continue, however. Western intelligence sources insist they have played a major role in disrupting potential terror attacks in the West and locally and have so demoralised al-Qaeda's leadership that key figures now sleep outside under trees and are convinced their organisation has been infiltrated.
One other key development being eagerly watched in Bajaur is the activity of local tribesmen who have formed so-called lashkars, traditional informal armed tribal militias that deal with specific problems, to force the militants out of their areas. 'The tribesmen have risen against the militants. It could be the turning point in our fight against militancy,' said Owais Ghani, the governor of the North-West Frontier Province.
Few doubt the eventual winner of the battle of Bajaur. Even senior militants are already melting away. The Observer found one in a slum area in Karachi, 1,000 miles to the south, earlier this month. But the question is what happens next. The key, analysts and soldiers agree, will be the political follow-through.
'The solutions to this conflict will not be military alone. The military can open up space for the administration of justice, political activity and development, said Major-General Tariq Khan. 'If we don't go down that road we will be in a vacuum, but I am sure these efforts are in train.'
Others are suggesting major political reform to end the tribal areas' special status and consequent isolation. A £500m development plan financed by the US has been launched. Britain has similar, smaller-scale projects. Yet with Pakistan's plunging economy and political instability, it is doubtful that the politicians and bureaucrats can - or want to - fill the vacuum.
Interviewed in Peshawar, captured militants predictably denied fighting in Bajaur. Instead most said their target was 'only' the 'Western occupiers' in Afghanistan, believing that such statements, made in front of Pakistani officers, would be appreciated by their audience.
One, however, was unashamed about his actions against his own government. The oldest of his fellow prisoners and alleged to be senior commander in Bajaur, the 45-year-old, a relatively wealthy man, said: 'If I am released, I will go straight back to what I was doing. Jihad is the only true path.'
The Khyber Pass: The Crossroads of Battle
At the foot of the Khyber Pass, only a hundred yards from where Pakistani dust becomes Afghan dust, is the busy frontier post of Torkham.
There, amid a chaos of overladen trucks, ragged children, tradesmen and fretful travellers, a blue painted stone lists the invaders who have crossed and recrossed this strategic staging post in the Hindu Kush.
From Alexander the Great's infantry to Mughal horsemen to British redcoats on punitive expeditions into Afghanistan to Winston Churchill to the Nato logistics trucks of today, few armies in the region have not fought, bribed or threatened their way through the massive cliffs and hairpins of the Khyber.
Even though the Soviets never penetrated Pakistan, the anti-tank ditches dug to stop them trying still lie beside the road adjacent to the badges of British regiments that are painted on the black rocks.
Last week, as Pakistani armed forces continued their battle with Taliban militants in Bajaur to the north where there is another crucial but much less famous crossing, there came a reminder that the Khyber remains as lawless as ever when trucks ferrying supplies to western forces in Afghanistan were hijacked by militants who later posed for photographs in front of the Humvee military vehicles before being chased off by attack helicopters.
But the Khyber is also a historic trade route too, for licit and illicit goods. Once it was caravans of spices, textiles, tea or looted wealth travelling between the plains of India and Persia or Europe. Later, camel trains brought the melons, pomegranates, horses and fat-tailed goats of Afghanistan.
In the 1990s convoys of local men would carry fridges and freezers across to Afghanistan only to bring them straight back, a customs dodge taking advantage of local trade agreements. But soldier, smuggler or honest merchant, no one has ever crossed the Khyber without the assent of the locals or without a fight.
For centuries, traders crossing the Khyber Pass have been routinely
'taxed' by local tribes, which have earned their living by providing 'safe conduct' to travellers. And the Pashtun clans living around the pass have always fiercely resisted any challenges to their autonomy.