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Pakistan's hidden war

There was a loud, sharp sound followed by flames and a massive blast of wind that threw the boy 20 yards.

He said it felt as if he had fallen off the mountain. When he pulled himself to his feet, dazed and battered, he found nine members of his family dead and his mother badly wounded. All fell victim to an artillery shell fired by the Pakistani army fighting Taliban fighters in the country's mountainous borders. As soon as the boy's remaining family were able, they fled with the rest of his village. Two months on, 12-year-old Ikram Ullah sits with thousands of others in a wretched, fly-ridden refugee camp, his face streaked with dirt and tears as he tells his story and wonders what will happen to him. "Life here," he says, crouching in the dust among rows of canvas tents, "is filled with sadness and grief."

Ikram is far from alone. Up to 200,000 desperate people have fled their villages and the fighting. Some 20,000 refugees have even crossed the border into Afghanistan. As the Pakistan army bends to pressure from the US to step up its confrontation with Taliban militants in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan, the fallout for the civilian population worsens. Every day, their lives are threatened by the pounding jets that sweep into the valleys on bombing and strafing runs and by the clattering helicopter gunships that the Pakistani military uses to spearhead assaults. The people in the dust are the so-called "collateral damage" of Pakistan's own war on terror.

But the political danger goes far beyond. The spread of the Taliban and the seemingly endless cycle of violence they are now provoking threatens the very fabric of Pakistan, an unstable, nuclear-armed state that, at times, appears on the brink of unravelling. The consequences, were that to happen, for the country and the region would be unthinkable. The civilian administration elected this year looks ill-prepared to tackle the emergency. Until now, the conflict has largely played out in the remote tribal areas along Pakistan's north-western border with Afghanistan. For the West, it has been easy enough to ignore: Pakistan's tribal agencies have long been considered all but outside the control of the government in Islamabad.

But that has changed. Militants have escalated their attacks. Areas outside the tribal regions are beginning to suffer the increasing influence of the Taliban. A truck-bomb attack on the five-star Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September left more than 50 people dead, including half-a-dozen foreigners. There have also been attacks on the Prime Minister and the Anti-Terrorism Police headquarters; in August the Taliban claimed responsibility after two suicide bombers killed 70 people in Wah, 20 miles from the capital. In the province's Swat Valley, once a tourist destination called the "Switzerland of Pakistan", the army has also stepped up operations against militants. Last week, shopkeepers in Lahore, long considered a bulwark against extremism, began publicly setting fire to DVDs of pornographic movies after threats from the Taliban.

Lawless mountains

They are a world apart. Pakistan's tribal areas are squeezed between the North-west Frontier Provinces and Afghanistan in a strip that runs north to south-west and contains some of the most mountainous and inhospitable terrain in south Asia. There are seven so-called tribal agencies, North and South Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur, and parts of them are utterly lawless.

They enjoyed autonomy under the British empire and, after independence, it was left up to the tribal chiefs or maliks to agree whether or not to become part of Pakistan. The chiefs managed to ensure they would retain a large degree of autonomy. Peopled by Pashtun tribes, the area has only ever nominally been in the control of thecentral government.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it was through here that Pakistan – with funding from the US and Saudi Arabia – dispatched arms, supplies and thousands of young fighters to join Afghan militias opposing the Red Army. Praised by Ronald Reagan as "freedom fighters", the mujahedin, or holy warriors, were a crucial factor in the Soviet's decision a decade later to withdraw.

In 1994, after years of civil war in Afghanistan, the government of Benazir Bhutto provided backing to "the students", or Taliban, who were attempting to seize control in Kabul. Ms Bhutto said stability in Afghanistan would help Pakistan. "I don't know how much money they were ultimately given," she said. "It was just carte blanche." Taliban rule ended only when the US invaded after the 2001 al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington.

Many of the Taliban fled into the tribal sanctuaries of Pakistan. Here, among fellow Pashtuns, they have regrouped, resupplied and launched their battle against US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. At the same time, their influence in Pakistan spread, and increasing numbers of Pakistani Taliban were recruited to an anti-US jihad. These fighters have been the target of operations by the military since Pakistan signed up to President George Bush's war on terror.

Under Pervez Musharraf and the recently elected civilian government, negotiated settlements were made with the militants. But in August, after constant pressure from Washington, the Pakistan military launched a major operation in Bajaur, the smallest tribal agency and home to Ikram and his family. It was devastating. "When the fighter jets came into our valley, four people were killed," says Abdul Rauf, a creased-faced 50-year-old refugee from a Bajaur village called Tauheedabada. "All the people were crying, we were frightened. After that, we started to run away."

Aid agencies estimate 200,000 people have been forced from their homes, but that is guesswork. "Since mid-August, we've seen an exodus of about 190,000 people from areas bordering Afghanistan. This includes Bajaur and Swat," said Vivian Tan of UNHCR. "We have no access to most of these border areas, so we're relying completely on government figures."

The army

Pakistan's army is headquartered in the neat and well-tended cantonment district of Rawalpindi, the garrison city near Islamabad. Lt-Col Haider Baseer's office is in a quadrangle planted with sweet-smelling roses. From here, the fight involving 120,000 troops is overseen, and officers bristle at the suggestion that their efforts to root out the militants is only half-hearted.

Beneath a photograph of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad ali-Jinnah, is pinned a map showing the location of ongoing operations. "We are operating in Swat, in Bajaur, in Darra Adam Khel and North and South Waziristan," the colonel points out. The Taliban, he says, is fighting a classic guerrilla war and both the terrain and the enemy is difficult. "Everybody has a gun," he says. "It's their culture." A total of 1,400 soldiers from the Frontier Corps have been killed since 2001. But this war also pitches Muslim against Muslim and often, in the case of the Frontier Corps, Pashtun against Pashtun. There have been reports of desertion and surrender. A military officer based in Swat and Waziristan admitted: "At the beginning, before we were inducted into this war, it was troubling. We asked ourselves, 'How are we going to fight against fellow Muslims?' We were motivated to fight against India and if we die, we were told we become martyrs who go to heaven. Now I am convinced I am fighting this war for my country and my religion. Now we see the criminal elements getting into their fold. They do not represent Islam in any way."

The involvement of US forces is a further complication. For a long time, the US has been using unmanned drones flown from Afghanistan to attack suspected militant hideouts. Sometimes they claim to killal-Qa'ida members, often they kill civilians. In June, a US air strike killed 11 members of the Frontier Corps.

Such attacks have fuelled popular sentiment against the US. But the situation was brought to boiling point in September when US special forces entered Pakistan and attacked the village of Jalal Khel, in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan. Up to 20 people were killed, including women and children. The incident triggered outrage in Pakistan. US and Pakistani troops even exchanged fire along the border. "Obviously, no one wants to see foreign soldiers entering the country," says Col Baseer. "We have asked the US to stop the border incursions."

Yet the most serious allegation concerning Pakistan's seemingly lacklustre effort to confront the militants is that parts of the military establishment do not wish to. The shadowy ISI intelligence agency has been accused of maintaining operational links with the Taliban, which it helped create three decades ago.

This summer, the CIA's deputy director, Stephen Kappes, travelled to Islamabad and presented what he said was evidence that mid-level ISI officials were involved in a suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing 54 people. The plot was, the US claims, hatched by the veteran Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who had been described by an ISI official as an "asset".

In Islamabad, a government minister said Pakistan had always considered Afghanistan its "fifth province". He added: "The Taliban was created by the Pakistanis and the CIA. All the problems were created here. Who do you think created these people? That is why they are not prepared to take them on. They consider them their assets."

Even military officers admit that the US and Pakistan have different priorities. US military operations inside Pakistan using unmanned drones have largely targeted militants attacking targets in Afghanistan. The Pakistan military has focused its efforts on militants believed responsible for attacks inside Pakistan such as Baitullah Mehsud, who is blamed for the assassination of Ms Bhutto.

"The priorities are mismatching," the military's chief spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas concedes. He strenuously denies supporting the re-energised Taliban, but admits indirect links are maintained. "Which agency in the world would break its last contact with them?"

Tribal fightback

One morning in mid-August, the day crisp and clean, up to 4,000 Pashtuns from the town of Salarzai in the Bajaur agency arrived for a meeting in pick-ups and trucks. The younger men were dressed in salwar kameez and vests, older tribesmen wore rough woollen clothes. Many were wearing traditional chitrali turbans, reserved for special occasions. Almost everyone was armed, many with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-launchers, "a gift from the Soviet jihad".

The jirga, or council, had been called after Taliban militants attacked and killed two chiefs, or maliks. One of the dead maliks was Shah Zarin Khan, and his supporters addressed the jirga first. For centuries, the system of jirgas – which women are not permitted to attend – have been used by the Pashtun tribes to decide important issues. On this morning, the community had been called to discuss a defence force or lashkar, to take on the Taliban.

Syed Akhunzada Chattan, the local MP, was called to speak. "The sanctuary we gave the Taliban was because we thought they were good people, because they had established peace in Afghanistan, because they fought against a superpower in the form of America," he said. "Then the Taliban started hurting us. These people are the enemy of Pakistan; they want a weak Pakistan. We cannot surrender our area to these people. We have to throw them out."

As Mr Chattan spoke, the villagers raised their fists in solidarity. There and then, it was decided to target the Taliban leaders. Anyone with information about a Taliban fighter would receive 10,000 rupees. Anyone found harbouring such fighters would be fined 1,000,000 rupees and have their home burnt down. Within a week, claims Mr Chattan, the Taliban had been driven from the area.

Some reports suggest the tribes are acting against the Taliban's efforts to impose stricter moral codes than local people wish, but there is evidence that the tribes object mainly to the militants' efforts to seize control in the areas, and to criminal elements and "miscreants" who use the cloak of the Taliban to behave like mafia.

The combination of lashkars and military operations appears to be having results. Last week, Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the coalition of about 40 Taliban groups, said it was prepared for unconditional talks with Pakistan if the military halted its actions. It also offered to help oust "foreign fighters" from tribal areas.

The Pakistani government rejected the offer. This indicates either that the army believes it has the upper hand or that there is ongoing pressure from Washington to continue its military strikes. Either way, it was the first time the authorities had turned down such an offer of talks.

Identifying the enemy

Inside the bombed-out interior, there is a frenzy of activity. Electricians, plasterers and metal workers are furiously at work while all around is the evidence of destruction. There is rubble, twisted metal, bombed-out windows, but there is also a determination to have the Marriott Hotel ready for a grand reopening party on New Year's Eve.

On the evening of 20 September, a massive truck bomb was detonated at the gates of this Islamabad landmark. At least 54 people were killed. There had been deadlier bomb attacks before and there have been others since but this attack forced a wider audience to take notice of Pakistan's crisis. The conflict was spreading from the remote tribal areas to the cities.

President Asif Ali Zardari, while in New York, called the event Pakistan's 9/11. Mr Zardari, whose wife, Ms Bhutto, was assassinated last December, vowed to continue the fight against militants. "This is a menace, a cancer in Pakistan we will eliminate. We will not be scared of these cowards."

But the attack has forced a debate about how best to confront the militants. With so many casualties, one recent report suggested suicide bombings in Pakistan killed more people in the first eight months of 2008 than in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is also now soul-searching about the nature of the enemy. Religious leaders have also spoken out. Two groups of clerics have issued fatwas against suicide bombings.

Peshawar sits on the very edge of the tribal areas. In the mid-1980s, Osama bin Laden moved his family here from Saudi Arabia and quickly developed his reputation as a supporter of the jihad. Today, for all its modernity and amenities, there is still a hint of the city's position as a frontier town.

The crenellated sandstone walls of a British-built fort now serve as the headquarters of the Frontier Corps. Up to 85 per cent of the fuel used by Western forces in Afghanistan is transported along the historic trade route leading from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul. Last month, the crossing-point into Afghanistan was temporarily closed by the Pakistani authorities because of poor security.

On a recent evening, the soft golden light of south Asia is slipping away as the faithful arrive to pray at the city's Sunehri mosque. In a large, airy upstairs classroom, the imam, Khan Mohammed Saeed, sits overseeing a group of young boys, hard at their study. The imam is no liberal; his view that Pakistan should be run according to Islamic law would alarm many both inside the country and abroad.

But asked about the militants just miles from where he sat, he does not hesitate. "There are people in the tribal areas and the NWFP who have come to do bomb blasts and destroy our religion," he says. "Our religion does not give us permission to do these things... In none of our teachings or texts or what our learned scholars have taught, is there any permission to do these things."

Who's fighting who


Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan president, widely known as "Mr 10 Per Cent" over numerous corruption cases. He became leader of the main opposition party, the People's Party of Pakistan, after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last year, and became president following elections. Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani says the army should remain out of politics but could yet change his mind.

Pakistani Taliban

The Taliban leaders in the wild and woolly tribal areas include former gym fanatic Baitullah Mehsud, wanted for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Maulana Fazlullah, the leader in the picturesque Swat valley (which was formerly a tourist destination) has his own clandestine FM radio station. Faqir Mohammed, in Bajaur, leads a religious group that forcibly imposed Sharia in the tribal areas during the 1990s.


Al-Qa'ida's leader Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding in the border regions of Pakistan while senior Taliban leaders may be living in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Tribal leader

Anwar Kamal, a former minister, was the first to rally his tribesmen and form a lashkar, or tribal militia, to beat back the Taliban more than a year ago. Mr Kamal's success in clearing the town of Lakki Marwat, adjoining the tribal areas, has recently been replicated elsewhere.

Faultlines of history

1947 Muslim Pakistan is created out of the partition of India at the end of British rule. More than half a million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are killed in riots and massacres following the largest mass migration in history.

1980 After Soviet forces intervene in Afghanistan, the US gives Pakistan military support as they join forces with Saudi Arabia to fund the Islamic mujahedin.

1998 The country explodes five nuclear devices.

1999 General Pervez Musharraf leads a military coup. After 9/11 Pakistan becomes a key US ally in the "war on terror". But as turmoil mounts he is forced to quit.

Belfast Telegraph