5 years, 3 months ago
Dexter Filkins of the New York Times Magazine has written a very important article on the state of affairs in the so-called tribal region of Pakistan, entitled Right at the Edge. One particular exchange stands out as indicative of the game-playing by the Pakistani Army over the last four years.
ONE SWELTERING AFTERNOON in July, I ventured into the elegant home of a former Pakistani official who recently retired after several years of serving in senior government posts. We sat in his book-lined study. A servant brought us tea and biscuits.
Was it the obsession with India that led the Pakistani military to support the Taliban? I asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
Or is it the anti-Americanism and pro-Islamic feelings in the army?
“Yes,” he said, that too.
And then the retired Pakistani official offered another explanation — one that he said could never be discussed in public. The reason the Pakistani security services support the Taliban, he said, is for money: after the 9/11 attacks, the Pakistani military concluded that keeping the Taliban alive was the surest way to win billions of dollars in aid that Pakistan needed to survive. The military’s complicated relationship with the Taliban is part of what the official called the Pakistani military’s “strategic games.” Like other Pakistanis, this former senior official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of what he was telling me.
“Pakistan is dependent on the American money that these games with the Taliban generate,” the official told me. “The Pakistani economy would collapse without it. This is how the game works.”
As an example, he cited the Pakistan Army’s first invasion of the tribal areas — of South Waziristan in 2004. Called Operation Shakai, the offensive was ostensibly aimed at ridding the area of Taliban militants. From an American perspective, the operation was a total failure. The army invaded, fought and then made a deal with one of the militant commanders, Nek Mohammed. The agreement was capped by a dramatic meeting between Mohammed and Safdar Hussein, one of the most senior officers in the Pakistan Army.
“The corps commander was flown in on a helicopter,” the former official said. “They had this big ceremony, and they embraced. They called each other mujahids. ”
“Mujahid” is the Arabic word for “holy warrior.” The ceremony, in fact, was captured on videotape, and the tape has been widely distributed.
“The army agreed to compensate the locals for collateral damage,” the official said. “Where do you think that money went? It went to the Taliban. Who do you think paid the bill? The Americans. This is the way the game works. The Taliban is attacked, but it is never destroyed.
“It’s a game,” the official said, wrapping up our conversation. “The U.S. is being taken for a ride.”
There is another important observation concerning foreigners, tribes and tribal elders.
Waziristan is believed to contain the largest number of militant Arabs and other foreign fighters, possibly even bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. To be more specific about Jan — to use his name, to identify the tribe he leads, to name the town where he lives — would almost certainly, he said, result in his death at the hands of the militants and Taliban fighters who control South Waziristan.
“There are many Arab fighters living in South Waziristan,” Jan told me. “Sometimes you see them in the town; you hear them speaking Arabic.
“But the important Arabs are not in the city,” he continued. “They are in the mountains.”
Important Arabs? I asked.
“They ride horses, Arabian horses; we don’t have horses like this in Waziristan,” Jan said. “The people from the town take food to the Arabs’ horses in the mountains. They have seen the horses. They have seen the Arabs. These horses eat better than the common people in the town.”
How do you know?
“I am a leader of my tribe. People come to me — everyone comes to me. They tell me everything.”
What about Osama? I asked. Is he in South Waziristan?
“Osama?” Jan said. “I don’t know. But they” — the Arabs in the mountains — “are important.”
The labor it took to persuade Jan to speak to me is a measure of what has become of the area over which his family still officially presides. Since it was not possible for me to go to South Waziristan — “Baitullah Mehsud would cut off your head,” the Taliban leader, Namdar, told me — I had to persuade Jan to come to Peshawar. For several days, military checkpoints and roadblocks made it impossible for Jan to travel. Finally, after two weeks, Jan left his home at midnight in a taxi so no one would notice either him or his car.
Jan had reason to worry. Seven members of his family — his father, two brothers, two uncles and two cousins — have been murdered by militants who inhabit the area. Jan said he believed his father was killed by Uzbek and Tajik gunmen who fled to South Waziristan after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His father had opposed them. Jan’s cousins, he said, were killed by men working for Baitullah Mehsud. Jan’s father was a malik, and thousands of Waziri tribesmen came to his funeral: “the largest funeral in the history of Waziristan,” Jan said.
The rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda has come at the expense of the maliks, who have been systematically murdered and marginalized in a campaign to destroy the old order. In South Waziristan, where Mehsud presides, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have killed more than 150 maliks since 2005, all but destroying the tribal system. And there are continual reminders of what happens to the survivors who do not understand this — who, for example, attempt to talk with Pakistan’s civilian government and assert their authority. In June, Mehsud’s men gunned down 28 tribal leaders who had formed a “peace committee” in South Waziristan. Their bodies were dumped on the side of a road. “This shows what happens when the tribal elders try to challenge Baitullah Mehsud,” Jan said.
We have been ham-handed in the conduct of the campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are seasons in counterinsurgency, and we are almost certainly witnessing the end of tribe in Pakistan. While it might have been possible three or four years ago to have unilaterally acted in Pakistan to destroy the Taliban, and / or to pressure Pakistan to act against them, all of the while incorporating the tribes as was done in the Anbar Province, this is no longer possible. Tribe has been destroyed.
This season is gone, and another strategy must be pursued. This strategy appears to be fully in effect now, cannot rely on the Pakistan Army, and involves aggressive action inside the borders of Pakistan.
American military forces are stepping up cross-border ground attacks into Pakistan from Afghanistan on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
In the last two weeks, the military has begun launching ground assaults in the Pakistani border provinces known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, American intelligence and military officials said. The region is believed by American and Pakistani intelligence to be hosting the leadership of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden.
While American special forces and military contractors have conducted raids in Pakistan, such actions were rare and required Cabinet-level approval. In July, the leadership of Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was given the sole authority to approve ground assaults in Pakistan. Late last month, the American military began launching ground attacks in the country on a near daily basis, depending on local conditions and intelligence, according to a military official who requested anonymity.
These small raids won’t be enough, but at least the threshold has been crossed. The U.S. is now taking unilateral action inside the borders of Pakistan, as the Pakistan Army won’t carry out its duties to control the region, and the Taliban are using Pakistan as a launching, training and recovery base for its campaign in Afghanistan. As The Captain’s Journal has pointed out before, the campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan is one and the same.