Life, death and the Taliban: Blowback

Mon Aug 10, 2009 3:00pm EDT

Taliban fighters are seen in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)

Taliban fighters are seen in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan July 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)

(This article first appeared in www.globalpost.com. For the full article click here)

By C.M. Sennott

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (GlobalPost) -- On a dusty plain not far from the border with Afghanistan, mud-brick walls weathered by rain and time still mark the boundaries of what were once sprawling Afghan refugee camps.

The walls are a crumbling memory of the first time I came to this frontier town in 1995 to report on what was then a new force in the region, the Taliban.

And now, 14 years later, on this same patch of earth, the Jelozai Camp is filling up once again. Beyond the remnants of the old walls are new rows of white, UNHCR tents sprouting and filling up with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

These are not Afghan refugees, they are Pakistanis fleeing the Pakistan military's offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, a fractured movement that has in recent years grown out of the Afghan Taliban that hides in waiting on this side of the border.

There is anger in the camps these days at both the Pakistani government for the fighting that has left so many displaced, and the Taliban for going too far in imposing its puritanical beliefs.

In mid-July, the government began allowing some people to return to their villages but many are too fearful of reprisals from the Taliban to go. The camps are crowded, hot and dusty and there is disease and desperation in the air.

In June at the Jelozai Camp, a crowd pushed and shoved with buckets in hand to get a turn at the spigot of a water truck. Jad Mohammed Khan, a welder from Mingora, the capital of Swat, tried to hold his place in line as he said, "Life is very hard here. It's the government bombings that drove us from our homes. We were in the middle and there is nowhere but here. ... There is anger here now."

There are also reports that the Taliban and its supporters are hiding in these camps and lying low with newly shaven faces. But most people with whom we talked expressed frustration with the Taliban militants in Swat, even though they did so nervously.

Ikramullah, a 18-year-old student from outside Mingora, looked over his shoulder several times as he said, "The Taliban do one good thing and follow it up with a bad thing so the people turn against them. They slaughter people and they flog women in the streets. This is all wrong."

And so the layers of war and displacement that have defined this region's history continue to unfold in ridges and valleys as impenetrable and hostile as the terrain itself.

Since the birth of the Taliban in 1994, Pakistan has funded and supported the movement out of expediency and strategic interests. And now Pakistan is engaged in a sweeping military campaign against the force it created, or at least what the Taliban has become here in Pakistan.

The offensive began in the late spring in the Swat Valley and then moved to Waziristan. It has killed hundreds of Pakistani forces and insurgents and civilians — numbers that are impossible to document as the media is shut out from the operation. More than 2 million people are displaced by the fighting.

The Pakistani offensive coincides with the U.S. military's escalation of 21,000 troops in Afghanistan this summer and a counterinsurgency campaign against the Afghan Taliban in Helmand Province that has left the U.S. with its highest casualty rate in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

The Pakistani Islamic and military establishment that once provided support to the Taliban has noticeably turned against it, no longer seeing it as a strategic foothold in Afghanistan or a counter to American occupation but as an existential threat to Pakistan's internal security.

There has been criticism inside the U.S. military and intelligence community that the Pakistani offensive is too narrowly focused on the Pakistani Taliban and ignoring the support networks that exist for the Afghan Taliban. But the U.S. has been working with Pakistan on its side of the border as well, such as on August 7, when Pakistan confirmed that a U.S. drone had killed Baitullah Mehsud, the most wanted leader of the Taliban there. Most analysts agree that Pakistan has come to realize that the Taliban poses a threat to its government just as much as it threatens the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

In the parlance of the CIA, Pakistan is experiencing what is known as "blowback."

Hamid Gul, 72, who has been active in Pakistan's military and intelligence community for more than 40 years and was the head of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, is in a position to know.

He is now retired but was there on the ground in different supporting roles when Pakistan first provided financial and military assistance to the Taliban. I have interviewed Gul throughout the years and recently visited him in Rawalpindi, the former British military garrison that is the nexus of the military and intelligence elite.

"Absolutely, we have experienced blowback. It is our own people who are fighting us because they deem the Pakistan army and its policies to be favoring the infidels," said Gul.

"The Taliban served its purpose for Pakistan and the United States. There is a reason the United States was on board with the Taliban as well in the mid-1990s. They wanted to set up the natural gas pipeline and that trading routes would be opened up. They thought, and we thought, the Taliban would be a handy tool … . The Taliban, it was thought, would be under our control," explained Gul, a sarcastic smile sweeping over his face.

THE RISE OF THE TALIBAN

The Taliban, a Pashto word derived from Arabic which means "religious students" or "those who seek knowledge," emerged in 1994 as a spontaneous village revolt around Kandahar in Afghanistan. The Taliban were essentially Pashtun vigilantes led by Mullah Omar, an uneducated, modest cleric and former mujahedeen. They took a stand against the corrupt and brutal warlords who, in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, were fighting for control of the country.

Mullah Omar would go on to become the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban.

The theology of the Taliban and the madrassas that supplied its foot soldiers was grounded in the 19th-century Islamic revivalist Deobandi movement, which was a reaction to British colonialism in India.

The Deobandi tradition sought guidance in the Quran to counter the colonial presence, lessons that would carry over in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion and subsequent occupation, and later be leveraged against America.

But it was also a movement theologically shaped by the Wahhabi sect within Islam. Inspired by the 18th-century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, it emerged out of what is today Saudi Arabia.

The madrassas in Pakistan in particular became radical hot houses of fundamentalist Islam, fusing the Deobandi education with the fiercely puritanical, often misogynistic and militantly anti-Western ideology of Wahhabism.

The Wahabbi influence also came with hard cash — and lots of it — from the oil-rich Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose monarchies are beholden to a clerical establishment that adheres to Wahhabi beliefs.

By 1996, the Taliban had taken Kabul, never intending to rule but only to liberate the people from the warlords. At first, even the U.S. State Department under Madeleine Albright supported the movement.

Power proved intoxicating for the Taliban. It began to exert control over the country. Taliban leaders from that time, such as the Taliban's former U.N. representative, Abdul Hakim Muhajid, along with three other former, senior Taliban officials, unpacked this history in several extensive interviews in Kabul. They generally conceded the movement lacked the skills for governance and administered the country poorly.

The Taliban leadership became increasingly rigid in its piety and violent in its enforcement of a strict religious code that prevented girls from attending school and forced females to wear burqas and men to have beards. All television and all music was banned as un-Islamic.

"The Taliban tried to create a culture of fear, knowing that through fear they can control the population easier than through governance. They are employing this tactic right now more than ever in both Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American professor of history at Tufts University.

The U.S. and the West turned its back on Afghanistan and, as Muhajid sees it, pushed the government into a corner where it was forced to form alliances with militants, particularly wealthy Saudi militants such as Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda.

"While Afghanistan was in a very broken position, it was a ruined country with a broken economy … . Naturally, the government went to those powers who are supporting them. I cannot blame the Taliban in all this situation, I will certainly blame the U.S. and the governments of the West that they could not understand the Taliban," said Muhajid.

"While you are cornering and marginalizing people to one side, how can you say it was a mistake? Actually they were forced to go to these radical elements," he added.

By 1998, the U.S. sought to isolate the Taliban regime with severe economic sanctions as it provided support for bin Laden who was openly espousing a jihad against America. As Al Qaeda carried out the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and in 2000 on the USS Cole, the Clinton administration responded with cruise missile attacks that had little effect.

But on the morning of September 11, 2001, everything changed for America, for the Taliban and for Afghanistan.

THE AFTERMATH OF 9/11

After the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan began in October 2001, the Taliban was quickly toppled and dissolved into the mountains on the Pakistan side of the border.

Much of its leadership, including its spiritual founder and leader, Mullah Omar, is believed to be hiding still in the shadows of Quetta, Pakistan. Al Qaeda, or what's left of it, is also presumed to be hiding out in Pakistan's tribal belt, protected by a Pashtun culture and tribal law that reveres its guests. And bin Laden is seen as a guest.

Gul faults the U.S. for the military miscalculation that has allowed the Taliban to become resurgent in Afghanistan and to have splintered into the various groups now operating in its name inside Pakistan.

"This was a military failing of the highest order," said Gul, of the failure of U.S. troops to corner bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership in Tora Bora in December 2001.

When asked about perceptions among U.S. military leaders that Pakistan played a large role in the strategic failure by doing very little to assist the U.S. in going after the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Gul replies with a stern question.

"Why would the U.S. for such an important military plan allow Pervez Musharraf to carry out the logistics for them? The failing was in trusting the wrong man," said Gul, who was a superior officer to the former Pakistani president and general when he was rising through the military ranks.

The Afghan Taliban effectively used the tribal areas of Pakistan to reconstitute itself and in 2003 and 2004, as the U.S. was drawn deeper into the war in Iraq, the Taliban quietly reasserted its strength in the south and east of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban emerged at the same time, eventually metastasizing into at least two dozen different cells vying for local power and control. The Pakistani Taliban sought to fill a vacuum left by the failures of the Pakistani government in the frontier provinces. Pakistani intelligence sources estimate there are 5,000 to 7,000 active insurgents in the Taliban's two main organizations, the TNSM, an acronym that translates as the "Movement for the Enforcement of the Law of Mohammed," and the TTP, or "Taliban Movement of Pakistan."

THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN

Rustam Shah, who served as Pakistan's secretary of the interior and dealt with Afghan refugees closely and later served as ambassador to Afghanistan and has close links to the Afghan Taliban, believes the Pakistani Taliban has very different goals from the Afghan Taliban.

He believes the Pakistani Taliban grew out of a reaction to the Pakistani military's fateful decision and bungled strategy to send national troops into the tribal areas in defiance of treaties that gave the frontier provinces autonomous rule.

He said prior to the military incursions, there was a vast neglect of the institutions of justice in the tribal areas. The Pakistani Taliban flourished amid the failures of governance. And although he supports the military confrontation of the Pakistani Taliban, he believes it has been mishandled.

"We have to focus on reviving the civil institutions. The military offensive has created a great sense of despondency and it may serve to help the Taliban in Pakistan. I think it comes at a tremendous cost to the country. The scars will never heal. Hearts and minds have been lost. This is a civil war-like situation and I fear further destabilization," said Shah.

The rise of the Pakistani Taliban cuts across the Durand line, the 1,600-mile border that separates Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan and which was drawn through the tribal area after the British empire's two, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan.

The area that straddles the line is sometimes called Pashtunistan, a rugged, mountainous landscape made up of small, remote villages and towns that are home to an estimated 40 million Pashtuns.

The Taliban has maintained its hold in these communities largely by playing on the ethnic loyalties of the Pashtun and by offering what the people here have always required from any local leader throughout the ages: security, a swift system of justice and freedom of movement for trade.

For the last 15 years, when I am traveling in Pakistan on my way into Afghanistan, I always stop in the Silk Road town of Peshawar to see Rahimullah Yusufzai.

I am on a long list of Western foreign correspondents who have gotten to know him and benefit from his wisdom and knowledge of the region. He's been the leading journalist in Peshawar for most of the last 30 years, working for Pakistan's top newspapers and always covering the border area.

As we climbed the stairs to his office off one of the crowded market streets of Peshawar in June, I could hear the news reports coming in of two Pakistani Taliban leaders who had been killed. He was glued to the radio and held up a hand for quiet as he listened.

As we learned, a TNSM leader, Mohammed Alam, who Yusufzai had arranged for me to speak with the last time I had visited, had just been killed in an ambush in Islamabad. Two other militant Islamists, whom he had helped me interview the last time I was here, had also been killed in the two years since I'd seen him. Even the hotels where I typically stayed were bombed. The Marriott in Istanbul was struck earlier this year and the Pearl Continental in Peshawar was bombed while I was in the country. Thankfully, I had taken the advice of correspondents on the ground not to spend the night in Peshawar.

"Yes, a lot has happened since you were last here. A lot of the people you reported on are dead now," he informed me.

"But welcome. Good to see you," he added, cheerfully.

Yusufzai is widely credited with writing the first story on the Taliban and obtaining one of the only interviews ever given by Mullah Omar. He also interviewed Osama bin Laden.

Yusufzai said he is watching the refugee camps fill up again and he is reminded of that time 15 years ago when the Taliban drew on the young students from the madrassas in the camps as its fighters.

"It is a familiar story. When I look at these IDP camps, I say OK, we had these camps for Afghan refugees and they became the nurseries for the Taliban. Some of them also joined Al Qaeda. So maybe it is being repeated. What will the despair and the anger of these camps create? We don't know yet, but it will create something and I fear it will not be good," said Yusufzai.

Yusufzai said there is one profound shift in Pakistan that has come in recent months. It is a growing resistance to the Taliban in Pakistan among the religious right and military establishment, which had long supported them. The military has wide popular support behind this offensive on the Taliban, he said.

"It's very different. That is a big tide change, this time. For the first time, the Pakistani people in large numbers is supporting the military operation. So I think that is going to be something that is very effective."

It is an optimistic assessment. Goher Zaman, a former high ranking military and intelligence official who served as the chief of the bureau that oversaw the tribal belt, was more pessimistic.

I visited him in his home lined with the gun collection of antique field rifles dating back to the British empire's ill-fated adventure in Central Asia during what came to be known as The Great Game with the world's powers vying for control of Afghanistan.

Zaman, who retired but has a consultancy company with several large multinational corporations with interests in the region and who says he has also "worked closely" with the CIA, said he fears America's mission will creep further into Pakistan than it already has with its missile attacks from unmanned drones.

"Our problems will get worse because I can see America not sticking to Afghanistan, but going into the tribal areas here which will make things much worse for the Americans and for us. Expanding the theater of war will be dangerous," he said.

"I fear Pakistan will become a theater like Cambodia was in the Vietnam war," he said, "and we know how that ended."

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