In a swath of territory across Afghanistan and Pakistan, a wild and lawless new state is being born. As warlords struggle for control and Islamic militants pour in, Jason Burke travels deep into the region to reveal hidden forces fuelling a growing conflict in the front line of the ‘War on Terror’.
The bomb was far from the biggest seen on the North-West Frontier but it did its job well. Placed in a water cooler, it ripped through the Nishtar Abad music market, sending shards of glass and splintered CDs in all directions. ‘Miraculously, no one was killed,’ said Mohammed Azam, who was shopping for presents for the Muslim holiday of Eid this weekend. Twenty people were injured, three seriously, and a dozen shops gutted.
For the police chief of Peshawar, the dusty Pakistan city 40 miles from the Afghan border, it was clear who planted last Tuesday’s bomb. ‘We suspect the involvement of those people who in recent months had sent letters to the CD and video shops, warning them to shut their businesses, saying it is against Islam,’ Abdul Majid Marwat said.
The ‘Pakistan Taliban’ – or one of the various groups claiming the name – had struck again. Within hours the debris was being cleared away and the blood wiped off the walls. ‘This is the life we lead,’ said Azam.’ We have no choice but to continue.’
The Pakistan Taliban’s campaigns go way beyond bombing music shops. Fifty miles south of Peshawar last week, a full-scale pitched battle, complete with air strikes and artillery barrages, raged between the Pakistani army and local and international militants dug into fortified positions in remote tribal villages. By the time a fragile calm had settled on the rocky hills, scattered palm trees and desiccated fields of Mir Ali, 50 soldiers, a 100 or so militants and around 100 civilians had died. Given the inaccessibility of the battlefield and the conflicting claims of the military and their opponents, accurate casualty figures are simply not available.
What is not in doubt is the scale of the fighting. It was a bloody week for everyone as half a dozen ragged conflicts raged across a stretch of land the size of Britain, from the Indus river to the central highlands of Pakistan.
The weekend before had seen an American soldier and a handful of Afghans killed in Kabul; last Monday saw the latest in a spate of suicide bombings attributed to the Taliban in Afghanistan when a bicycle bomber hit a convoy of Nato troops moving through the British-held town of Lashkar Gah, injuring two civilians. Towards the end of the week, around 100 Taliban stormed a remote police post close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran, sparking lengthy exchanges that left 10 militants and a police officer dead. An Australian died when his armoured vehicle was hit by a massive remote-detonated mine, the 192nd coalition soldier killed this year in Afghanistan.
The death of David Pearce, 41, made this year the bloodiest for foreign soldiers deployed in Afghanistan since the days of the Soviet occupation. The number of Afghan civilians who have died in the fighting this year is already higher than that for any year since the vicious civil war that tore the country apart in the early Nineties.
In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, analysts talk of an explosion of violence. Tensions were so high last week that when a gas cylinder exploded in an affluent suburb of Islamabad, already hit by a bloody series of suicide bombings, it was initially thought to be yet another terrorist blast.
For some, the ongoing violence in south-west Asia is simple to explain: the Taliban, reconstituted after the defeat of 2001, and with the help of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi, are battling their way back to power in Afghanistan and, perhaps worse, fast making progress towards seizing power in nuclear-capable Pakistan.
But the reality is far more complicated. It is hard to make sense of one of the most confusing conflicts of modern times, a war with no defined fronts, waged with tactics that range from those of the dynamite-throwing anarchists of the late 19th century to those of the Western Front trench stalemate in 1916, and sometimes to state-of-the-art ‘fourth generation’ 21st-century warfare.
Across an area that stretches through Pakistani cities such as Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi, through Kabul and Kandahar, to remote villages and Nato bases in southern Afghanistan, it is possible to unpick the intricate detail of the battle for the strategic centre of the War on Terror. What emerges is a picture not of a single movement or insurgency called ‘the Taliban’, but of a new state without formal borders or even a name, a state that is currently nothing more than a chaotic confederation of warlords’ fiefdoms spanning one of the most critical parts of the world and with the potential to escalate into a very real presence – with devastating consequences for global security.
And this weekend, the ‘centre of the centre’, as one western official called it, was the small, scruffy town of Mir Ali.
In the lulls between fighting last week, soldiers and militants retrieved their dead. Among the corpses buried within hours according to Islamic custom were a couple of Arabs and several Uzbeks. The find confirmed the worst fears of Western intelligence services. Over recent years it has become increasingly obvious that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group has been able to rebuild a version of the terrorist infrastructure that existed in Afghanistan in the late Nineties.
Volunteers, many of them British, have travelled in a steady stream to training camps. They have included key members of the 7/7 London bombing plot and those convicted in the recent Operation Crevice trial. A new ‘high command’, including a high proportion of Egyptians and Saudis, has taken on the task of directing strikes around the globe, and into Pakistan (where President Pervez Musharraf remains a key target), and providing technical and financial assistance to chosen allies in Afghanistan.
The training camps are ‘rudimentary’, according to Pakistani government and Western intelligence sources, but despite steady losses – a missile fired from a Predator drone killed Abu Hamza Rabia, the al-Qaeda number three, in a house in Mir Ali last November – there is no shortage of militants to fill the gaps. ‘The number three position in al-Qaeda, “director of external operations”, is one of the jobs with the shortest life expectancies in the world,’ said a UK-based intelligence source. ‘But that does not stop people volunteering for it.’
Equally troubling is the renewed activity of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Uzbeks under Tahir Yuldashev, brutal commander of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Pakistani militant groups that have moved into the hills after losing Islamabad’s backing. According to Brigadier Mehmud Shah, there are several hundred Uzbek fighters in and around Mir Ali, all set on killing as many Pakistani soldiers as possible. ‘In 2003, there were around 600 Uzbek fighters, now there are more than three times that figure,’ said Shah, a retired Pakistani officer who oversaw security on the frontier until last year. The influx has been fuelled by fierce repression in Uzbekistan itself, ruled by Stalinist dictator Islam Karimov.
Last month, a terrorist plot was uncovered in Germany after American intelligence intercepted emails from a breakaway faction of the IMU to German converts who had travelled to the North-West Frontier to be trained. The increasing internationalisation of the militant presence in the Pakistani tribal areas recalls the worst days of the late Nineties, when scores of different groups were based in Afghanistan, all plotting violence in the Middle East or the West. Already, British intelligence experts are describing the Pakistani tribal areas as ‘the Grand Central Station’ of modern Islamic militancy.
Again, however, the situation is complex. In many parts of the border country, the Uzbeks are far from welcome and have fought pitched battles with local tribes. An estimated 200 were killed in fighting between Pashtuns and ‘foreigners’ in the south Waziristan agency earlier this year. But few doubt that the Uzbeks – and al-Qaeda – have enough allies, enough respect and enough money to ensure a welcome in the hills around Miram Shah and Mir Ali for a long time yet.
The Torchi river snakes down from the high mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier to the Indus and eventually into the Arabian Sea. Mir Ali lies where the river hits the flatlands. It is a ragged settlement of half a dozen villages grouped around a scruffy bazaar on a crossroads and a concrete ramp that serves as a bridge over the river.
Last week, Pakistani soldiers took heavy casualties as they tried to battle their way in. Despite air strikes reducing dozens of the mud houses to dust and fierce fighting between the low walls and across the dried-out fields and sparse orchards, they had made little progress by this weekend despite talk of a ‘major push’ before the Eid festival. Refugees fleeing the area spoke of a ‘rain’ of missiles and shells.
‘We don’t have any place to live,’ said Mohamed Anwar. ‘We have sent our children to other areas because we are scared that the bombing could start again.’ With the fragile truce barely holding, renewed fighting is almost certain in the days that come.
Few observers were surprised at the lack of progress. Pakistan now has 101,000 troops deployed in the semi-autonomous badlands along the frontier, but they face daunting obstacles. Mir Ali is in the North Waziristan tribal agency, one of seven agencies stretching along the strategically crucial frontier area where the authority of the Pakistani government is, under an agreement concluded by British imperial administrators anxious to pacify the warlike and truculent Pashtun tribes, constitutionally limited to the roads and a narrow strip either side just 10 yards wide. There is no tax collection, justice system or police force.
A second difficulty is the terrain. On both sides of the highly porous border, there are very few roads, high ridges provide vantage points and frequent gorges are perfect for ambushes. Those forests that have yet to be stripped of their valuable timber give excellent cover. Even the houses are fortified. With its high hills and populated plains, the terrain is similar to that where British troops are deployed in southern Afghanistan.
As in the restive south and east of Afghanistan, the agencies are populated by self-ruling Pashtun tribes for whom war has been a way of life for centuries. ‘A Pashtun takes his Kalashnikov out with him like a westerner takes his mobile phone,’ said Latif Afridi, a local tribal leader. ‘They learn to shoot when they learn to walk.’
Inter-tribal violence is a continual backdrop to life on the frontier. Last week, tribes west of Peshawar battled over rights to grazing, water and other scarce resources with mortars and machine-guns, oblivious to the global conflict unfolding around them. And experience gained in the war against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when many Pashtuns in the region fought against the Red Army and its local auxiliaries, has forged a new style of warfare where combat is no longer seen as an extension of negotiation but as a bid to annihilate the opponent.
Finally, there is Islam. In recent years the radical new ideology of Middle Eastern militants such as bin Laden has spread among the Pashtun tribes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, providing a new language and justification for age-old resentments against central authority, buttressed by new ideas about ‘the global attack on Islam by the West’ and a powerful call to ‘jihad’.
One powerful factor has been the massive growth in recent decades of the hardline Deobandi traditionalist school of Islam. With tribal leaders losing their authority in the new radicalised environment, the clerics are more influential than ever. ‘The traditional structure with tribal chiefs, big landowners or merchants and religious figures sharing power has broken down,’ Professor Zia Ullah, of Peshawar University, told The Observer. ‘At the moment it is the mullah and the talib [religious student] who are in charge. A system that has lasted centuries has been overturned.’
It is these mullahs, whose religious education is often minimal, who are forming the private militias labelled ‘the Pakistan Taliban’. In fact, they are little more than a fractious confederation of mini-states run by warlords. Together they have succeeded in expelling almost all representatives of any government authority from their territory and in doing so, some analysts fear, have laid the foundations for a state without borders or flags, but which has a justice system and a common ethnicity, ideology, culture and religion. And it was this fragmented, chaotic, embryonic state’s soldiers that were fighting so hard at Mir Ali last week.
Carry on up the road that slices through Mir Ali bazaar, heading west into the mountains, and you will soon come to Miram Shah. Lying in a hollow below a crucial pass over the mountains, the small town was a crucial support base for the mujahideen who fought the Soviets. One of their leaders, an Afghan tribal chief called Jalaluddin Haqqani, held Miram Shah as a personal fiefdom for decades, building a mosque and a huge religious school on its outskirts. Haqqani, a senior cleric, or maulvi, in the Deobandi school of Islam, is now old and ailing – some intelligence sources believe him to be dead – but his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has taken over and is as active as his father ever was. If anyone is going to be president of this new state it is he.
Little is known about Sirajuddin Haqqani. According to Brigadier Shah, the Pakistani army is ‘currently fighting blindfold’, and western intelligence agencies admit a ‘lack of visibility’ in the tribal areas. However, all believe that Haqqani is the dominant figure among the warlords hacking out their fiefdoms in the tribal areas.
‘[Sirajuddin Haqqani] is at the top of the food chain,’ said one western military official in Islamabad. ‘He’s one of the few people everyone listens to.’ Sources told The Observer that it was Haqqani who, four weeks ago, brought three different warlords together to provide a big enough force to take on the Pakistani army around Mir Ali.
But Haqqani, who is believed to be in his forties, has another key role to play. He has inherited the influence his father built over 20 years well beyond the tribal zones of Pakistan. That influence stretches across eastern Afghanistan as far as Ghazni and even into Uruzgan, where the Australian soldier was killed last week.
As in Pakistan, the Afghan Pashtun tribes do not unconditionally obey one commander but Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son have been able to draw together a complex web of links of allegiance, some based on tribal loyalty, others inspired by religious devotion to the senior Deobandi cleric that Haqqani is (or was), still more by a quasi-national response to what is perceived to be a ‘foreign’ invasion and occupation that threatens to change Afghan society for ever.
‘We respect Maulvi Haqqani,’ one tribal leader told The Observer by telephone from the Pakistani town of Kohat. ‘He has always been a true mujahed [freedom fighter], fighting the Russians and the Americans and the British. And he has built many schools and mosques.’
Another reason the Haqqani dynasty is so powerful is its wealth. This allows them to buy the loyalty that their religious and jihadi credentials do not win them. That money comes from smuggling opium, weapons and timber out of Afghanistan as well as from quasi-legitimate businesses. It also comes in direct donations from backers in Gulf Arab states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – until 2001, Jalaluddin Haqqani was a frequent visitor to the Gulf and one of his wives is from a wealthy family in the United Arab Emirates – and from indirect donations via the scores of Islamic charities which gather the 10 per cent zakat levy that every devout Muslim gives to religious causes.
Cash is a critical commodity throughout the ‘south-western Asian theatre’. Though not among the prime motivations for many Afghan fighters, money is necessary for weapons, equipment and for the tribal auxiliaries who will turn out to protect drug shipments and boost numbers for major one-off attacks. To bolster a recent, and rapidly broken, peace agreement in the tribal zones on their side of the frontier, Pakistani army commanders distributed sums ranging from Â£10,000 to Â£100,000 to five leaders of militant militias who promised to lay down their arms. The money, the men said, was needed to pay back advances given to them by ‘al-Qaeda’ to fight the Islamabad government’s forces.
But the militias, like the Haqqanis, are not loyal to bin Laden, according to Peshawar-based analyst Ashraf Ali. ‘Baitullah Mahsud [one of the key leaders of the militant militias on the Pakistan side of the border] recently said that neither bin Laden nor al-Qaeda was his leader,’ Ali said. ‘His leader was Mullah Omar [the ousted Afghan leader].’
In the sprawling multinational base in Kandahar there is one hangar riddled with rusty bullet holes and shrapnel marks. It stands in stark contrast to the pristine new constructions – including a Pizza Hut outlet, a Burger King and a full-sized chapel – elsewhere in the vast complex that the headquarters of Nato’s Regional Command South in Afghanistan has become over the six years western forces have been fighting in Afghanistan. The hangar is known as the Taliban’s Last Stand, and was left as a memento to the defeat of the hardline Islamic militia in 2001. It has since become something of an embarrassment.
The latest contingent of British troops to deploy in Afghanistan, 52 Brigade, arrived last week. Most will be based in Helmand, the province to the west of Kandahar. From their bases in places such as Lashkar Gah and Kajaki, the activities of the Haqqanis and the Pakistan Taliban will seem a long way away.
Analysts are split over the links between the two wings of the Taliban. According to Brigadier Shah, ‘the Afghan Taliban have no extraterritorial operations or ambitions’. ‘Communications among senior leaders we intercepted showed us that [the Afghan Taliban] considered the Pakistan Taliban as a burden and requested them to fight Pakistan but not come into Afghanistan,’ Shah told The Observer.
But others are less convinced. ‘The situation is so complex that you cannot draw a line between the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban,’ said Ashraf Ali, the analyst.
Certainly Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who has led the Afghan Taliban since its creation in 1993, is respected by everyone on both sides of the border, including the Haqqanis. ‘If there is one chief, it is him,’ one official in Islamabad said. ‘If Talibanistan suddenly came into being, he would be the president.’
But the links that tie the two halves of the Taliban together go way beyond shared allegiances. A United Nations report into the new phenomenon of suicide bombers in Afghanistan stated that ‘much (but not all) of the recruiting and training happens’ in Pakistan.
‘While suicide attackers elsewhere in the world tend not to be poor and uneducated, Afghanistan’s attackers appear to be young, uneducated and often drawn from religious schools in Pakistan,’ the report stated. Government and military sources in Kabul told The Observer that many bombers came from the Haqqanis’ madrassas [religious schools] around Miram Shah, others from the system of Deobandi madrassas around Quetta.
In Peshawar, The Observer found evidence that one bomber who killed himself in Kandahar last autumn was recruited in the small town of Charsadda north east of the Pakistani frontier city by a Pakistani group. The bomber, who had no previous involvement with radical Islam, had travelled nearly 500 miles, from one side of the border to the other, to attack western troops.
Equally, though substantial funding is generated within Afghanistan from taxes on the sale of opium and contributions from wealthy sympathisers, much of the funding of the Afghan Taliban comes from across the border. Weapons from stores in Pakistan or from gun factories such as that at Darra Adam Khel to the south of Peshawar – temporarily occupied in August by a group of Pakistan Taliban – cross the mountains to be used against Nato forces too.
And though much of the fighting in Helmand or in Kandahar is in part based on tribal rivalries, cross-border personal links, not least through the Deobandi religious network, play a key role. ‘At the end of the day, it is all about who knows who,’ said one Kabul-based intelligence official. Maulana Rahat Hussain, a senior cleric interviewed by The Observer in Peshawar last week, reeled off a list of his classmates at the massive Binoria madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial centre, who had all become senior figures in the Taliban.
‘They were and are and will forever be my brothers,’ Hussain, the deputy secretary of the Deobandi-linked political party that has run Peshawar for the past five years, said. ‘They are fighting an occupying force and inshallah they will be victorious.’
On the ground, differences disappear. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced in the Eighties and early Nineties grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan or studied in religious schools there. ‘Telling the two apart is impossible,’ one British officer in Helmand told The Observer. ‘We have found bodies with pockets full of Pakistani currency. But does that mean it’s an Afghan or a Pakistani? Round here the distinction is meaningless. Nation states don’t really exist in the way we imagine them to.’
And though British intelligence officers and diplomats who have served on both sides of the frontier stress that there are considerable differences between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, cautioning that ‘to conflate the two’ would be a serious error, they admit that there are many links too. ‘The short-term objectives may differ but if you are looking for shared long-term aims or a common world view, culture, language and so on, they are very close indeed,’ one official, a veteran observer of the region, said last week.
Nato officers in Kabul dismiss the suicide bombings as ‘not a strategic threat’, but senior officers admit privately that there is a danger that the south and east of Afghanistan, already well beyond the authority of Kabul, will effectively translate ‘de facto autonomy’ into independence. That raises the spectre of the confederation of warlord states that is in the process of emerging on the Pakistani side of the border effectively trebling in size with the addition of the Taliban-controlled zones in Afghanistan.
‘It would be the United Taliban Emirates and it would be a very nasty place indeed,’ one said. ‘It would be the biggest and most defensible terrorist safe haven the world has ever seen.’
Few are hopeful that a swift solution will be found to the problem posed by the emerging state without a state on the borders of Afghanistan. The Pakistani army, according to western defence officials in Islamabad, lacks the doctrine or the equipment or the will to take on the forces against them. ‘They are demoralised. They are taking heavy casualties, having hundreds of guys captured. They are in real trouble up there,’ said one.
Nor is the Pakistani army’s will to fight unquestionable. ‘The men and the officers are sick of fighting America’s war,’ said one recently retired general in Islamabad. ‘Why should we kill other Pakistanis and other Muslims or sacrifice our lives for President Bush? It is not just the tribesmen who are anti-American. The whole country is.’
There are frequent allegations that the Pakistani intelligence services are helping the Taliban on both sides of the border. ‘There is no institutional policy to provide support for the militants but it may well be happening at a low level with some individuals pursuing their own agendas,’ said one Islamabad-based defence official. ‘I have never seen a smoking gun though.’
There is general recognition that the Nato alliance and the Taliban, who are increasingly relying on amateurish suicide bombings, have fought each other to a standstill. Nato partners such as Germany, the Netherlands and France are tiring of a war that British commanders admit may take ’30 years to win’. British ministers have suggested talking to the Taliban – something President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has offered to do. Earlier this month he made a personal plea to Mullah Omar to negotiate and stop ‘the destruction of [his] country’.
But the confederation of warlords, Pakistan Taliban, Deobandi religious networks, businessmen and smugglers, the veterans such as Haqqani and the newcomers who have seized power in villages like Mir Ali will not give way easily.
‘The loose, chaotic quasi-state which we are seeing emerging has been in the process of being built since the early days of the war against the Soviets 30 years ago,’ said one western diplomat in Pakistan. ‘It is going to take that long, if not longer, to dismantle.’
Rise of the radicals
Taliban literally means ‘students’. Originally mainly ethnic Pashtuns, many footsoldiers came from radical seminaries in Pakistan, where two million Afghans sought refuge from two decades of war.
Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. The pro-Soviet government fell in 1992; rebel factions took power but then began infighting. Thousands died in a vicious civil war. The Taliban emerged as a real force in 1994. In 1996 they captured Kabul. They were forced out in 2001 by a US-led invasion, but staged a comeback last year.
The Taliban believe in a strict interpretation of Islamic law and last month produced a constitution. Executions are carried out in public. Women are fully covered and are not permitted education. Men should wear beards, and light entertainment – music, television and film – is deemed to be anti-Islamic.
Poppy production in Afghanistan rose dramatically after the 2001 invasion destabilised a shaky economy, leading more and more farmers to turn to opium production to survive. The country provides 86 per cent of the world’s supply of the drug.