| Arms and the men
From the dusty bazaar of the border towns of Peshawar and Gulanai in Pakistan, bristling with guns and jihadi fighters, the lightning victory achieved by the Americans in the wake of the September 11 attack two years ago seems like a distant past. It’s as if September11 never happened and the taliban were never routed. In the last ten days of August, the taliban, who were driven out of Kabul under withering US bombardment and ground assault, assembled some 1,000 troops in the two tribal provinces of Afghanistan to launch attacks on US and Afghan forces. A mix of Pashtun tribal passion and Islamic extremism, combined with political failure in Pakistan, lies behind the taliban resurgence and explains why the American war on terror is faltering.
The war on terror has done little to address the issue of Pashtun desire for political autonomy. The taliban’s dramatic offensive in Afghanistan during the past few weeks has been fuelled by recruits, arms, money, and logistical support from Pakistan’s two provinces of North West Frontier and Baluchistan, where Pashtun tribesmen and Islamic parties are sympathetic to the taliban. Pakistan’s Pashtuns find common ethnic and political cause with the taliban, who are also largely Pashtun. Pashtuns on both sides of the border are bitterly opposed to the presence of US forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The sense of Pashtun brotherhood is even stronger in Pakistan’s seven Federal Administered Tribal Agencies, which run north to south forming a 1,200-kilometre wedge between Afghanistan and the settled areas of NWFP. The FATA are nominally under the control of Pakistan, but the tribes have been semi-autonomous since the British raj. They have always carried arms and sold arms to everyone in the region, from Tamil Tigers and Kashmiri militants to the taliban. These days the bazaars in FATA are filled with taliban — both Afghan and Pakistani — looking to stock up before going into Afghanistan. “The taliban are clean, honest, believe in Islam, and will rout the Americans,” says Shakirullah, a Mohmand shopkeeper. “Anyone fighting the Americans is our friend,” he adds.
The Mohmands are just one of the dozens of major tribes that straddle the border, but their views are similar to most tribal Pashtuns. Isolated from mainstream Pakistan and the media, misinformation is rampant. After dozens of interviews it is apparent that most Mohmands refuse to accept that al Qaida carried out the attacks of September 11, believing instead that they were perpetrated by “the CIA and Jews”. Most Mohmands also believe that the Americans and, in particular, the president, George W. Bush, hate the Pashtuns.
After the defeat of the taliban in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army entered FATA agencies one by one at the request of the US forces who are patrolling the Afghan side of the border looking for al Qaida militants. In August, at the behest of the Americans, thousands of Pakistani troops occupied the Mohmand Agency for the first time. But the army has been unable to stop the flow of guns and fighters to the taliban. For the first time since their defeat nearly two years ago, the taliban battling US and Afghan government troops in southern Afghanistan are not retreating under withering air bombardment by the Americans. Instead, they are standing their ground and bringing in more recruits from Pakistan, while at the same time trying to open up other fronts in eastern Afghanistan to broaden the attack against US forces.
The taliban are now striking at Afghan and US positions all along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Just last weekend they launched an audacious attack a few miles outside Kabul. The taliban aim is to humble the Americans and the government led by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and delay the political process — including the adoption of a new constitution this December and general elections next June — all the while preventing reconstruction by aid agencies and ensuring that instability remains.
The Pakistani army’s actions in FATA are designed to apprehend taliban and al Qaida leaders such as Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding out further south. With American funds, the army is building schools, hospitals and roads in FATA to try to win the tribesmen’s support and glean intelligence from them as to the whereabouts of taliban and al Qaida leaders.
But the army’s one hand is tied behind its back. General Orakzai promised tribesmen that the army would not interfere in their main economic livelihood — the smuggling of goods (and drugs) between Afghanistan and Pakistan — trade, which also provides the taliban with supplies. The army has also not prohibited the sale of guns and ammunition in FATA, which supply the whole of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, US officials and Afghan leaders have charged that Pakistan’s powerful Inter-services Intelligence is clandestinely providing its own support to the taliban, a charge Pakistan vehemently denies. However, on August 31, the army spokesman, Major General Shaukat Saulat, admitted that three to four officers had been arrested for links to Pakistani extremist groups who are also backing the taliban — the officers were all posted near FATA. In Afghanistan, officials close to Karzai say the officers were in fact captured in Zabul province while helping the taliban and were handed over to US forces who took them to Pakistan for questioning. The army denies the charge.
The arrests come amidst rising concerns that as the president, Pervez Musharraf, who is also army chief, allies himself closely to the US in its war against terrorism and in Iraq, Islamic extremism is rising in the army’s officer corps. The army backed extremist Islamic causes such as the taliban regime in the past, but since September 11, Musharraf has been at pains to stress that Islamic fundamentalism has been eliminated in the army.