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Rocks and hard places

A recent attack on a madrassa in Pakistan shows up all that is wrong with Nato's and Pakistan's anti-Taliban policies, writes Graham Usher from Peshawar, in the first of two special reports from Pakistan

December 1, 2006
8 min read

At 5am on 30 October, three Hellfire missiles slammed into a madrassa or religious seminary in Bajaur, a tribal agency on Pakistan’s north-western border with Afghanistan. Eighty young men were killed, all but three under the age of 20. It was the single worst act of violence in Pakistan anyone could remember, certainly since the September 11 attacks on America.

As the body count started to mount, so did the outrage, and not only in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Over the next week mass funerals evolved into mass protests, with demonstrators denouncing President-General Pervez Musharraf, his military regime and, above all, their ‘strategic alliance’ in the US-led ‘war on terror’ – a war that translates easily here as a western crusade against Islam.

Addressing a mass rally in Peshawar on 3 November, the Islamist opposition leader, Fazlur Rahman, gave voice to the aspiration of thousands. ‘American and Nato forces cannot prolong the occupation and will leave Afghanistan soon,’ he said. He was also clear about who was behind the carnage at the madrassa.

‘Both the United States and the Musharraf government are responsible for what happened at Bajaur. Even if the operation had been carried out by the local (Pakistani) forces, the order would have been given by the US. That is why both are culprits in the case.’

But the culprits were unapologetic. The White House praised Musharraf’s ‘determination’ in fighting ‘terrorism’. And Pakistan’s supreme leader averred that all the slain were Taliban militants. ‘They were doing military training. Anyone who says these were innocent religious students is telling lies,’ he told a security seminar on 31 October.

To give weight to his words security men invited journalists in Islamabad to view a grainy, infrared video of ‘militants training in the planting of explosives or suicide bombings’, allegedly at the very madrassa. One official said the seminary had been frequented by Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command to Osama bin Laden. The statement was amplified loudly on US media.

To Pakistanis it was so much wind and piss, and not only because sightings of al Zawahiri are ‘a dime a dozen’ in tribal areas, admit American military analysts. Rather the conviction here is that the attack on the madrassa was either directly executed by unmanned US Predator drones that monitor the Pakistan-Afghan border or indirectly by Pakistani helicopters at Washington’s command. There is also near consensus over US motives: to prevent a peace agreement being signed between the Pakistan army and pro-Taliban tribesmen in Bajaur.

Talibanisation

Bajaur is one of many thorns in Pakistan-Nato relations. Adjacent to Afghanistan’s restive Kunar province, it is an entry point and haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas fighting Nato forces. The head of the madrassa was a young cleric, Maulana Liaquat Ali, who, in October 2001, raised 10,000 volunteers to fight alongside Taliban resisting the USled invasion of Afghanistan. Liaquat Ali was killed in the missile strike.

But he was also increasingly marginal to Bajaur politics, and had been ever since the disastrous expedition into Afghanistan in 2001, say locals. In fact, at the time of the missile attack he was negotiating his amnesty with the Pakistan army in exchange for pledges not to give succour or sanctuary to foreign fighters, including the Taliban.

‘The evening before the attack Liaquat had been preparing a jirga (tribal council) for the signing ceremony with the government,’ says Pakistan analyst Rahimullah Yousefzai. ‘Why would the Pakistan army authorise an operation that destroys the Pakistan government’s main political strategy in the tribal areas?’ The answer, he suggests, is because the US had called time on the strategy.

The Bajaur agreement was modelled on one signed on 5 September between the government and pro-Taliban tribesmen in North Waziristan, another tribal agency on the Pakistan-Afghan border. During his recent trips to the US and London, Musharraf had sold this deal as a ‘holistic solution’ to the threat posed to his regime and Afghanistan by a resurgent Taliban and Talibanisation. These could only be defeated by ‘dialogue and development’ in addition to military force, he said.

George Bush and Tony Blair lauded the ‘courage’ of the Pakistani leader. Wiser diplomats kept their counsel. They knew ‘holism’ was not born of new political thinking but of defeat.

In 2002, US and Nato forces in Afghanistan presented the Pakistan leader with irrefutable proof that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were finding refuge in the tribal areas. With extreme reluctance – and for the first time in Pakistan’s history – Musharraf sent 80,000 soldiers into ‘autonomous’ agencies such as Bajaur and Waziristan. Four years on, 700 soldiers had been killed, many had deserted and at least six senior officers had been court martialled for refusing to wage war on their own tribesmen. The numbers of civilians killed and displaced in the conflict was even greater.

And the tribes had become radicalised. Power and leadership shifted from the traditional, progovernment elders or maliks to younger clerics or mullahs forged by successive jihads in Afghanistan, bonded in ethnic solidarity with the Taliban and inspired by the debased ‘Islamist’ visions of al-Qaeda.

These clerics and the madrassa students that follow them became the defenders of the tribal areas against the army incursions and acquired the political legitimacy born of resistance. They called themselves the Pakistan Taliban because that is precisely who they are, says Rahimullah Yousefzai.

‘They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and see them as their allies. If you ask them “Who is your leader?” they would say the Afghan Taliban emir Mullah Mohammed Omar. They also fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan’. Nor are their political visions different from their Afghan cousins, he adds. ‘They are Islamist, anti-western and want an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. They believe the system of government and justice that operated under the Taliban in Afghanistan is the purest form of Islamic rule’.

The 5 September agreement reflects their political power, Yousefzai says. In return for verbal pledges by the Pakistan Taliban to end attacks on pro-government tribesmen and prevent infiltration into Afghanistan, the government agreed to free Taliban prisoners, remove checkpoints and return confiscated weaponry. And while the army has fulfilled every one of its commitments, the Pakistan Taliban has observed theirs mostly in the breach. Since the agreement was initialled, at least four tribesmen have been killed by the Taliban, supposedly as ‘American spies’. And Nato monitors have registered a 300 per cent hike in cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan. There is only one area where the agreement appears to be holding, says Pakistani analyst Ismail Khan. ‘It’s the clause which says you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Since 5 September, there have been no (Taliban) attacks on government installations and the security forces have not carried out any ground and air offensives [against the militants].’

Always today, never tomorrow

It was that détente the attack in Bajaur was intended to destroy, say observers, regardless of whether it was undertaken first hand by Nato forces or second hand by its Pakistani proxies. For if there is one sure consequence of the strike, it is that there will be no more peace agreements signed between the government and pro-Taliban tribesmen. A second consequence – one that Nato and its allies seem unable to grasp – is that it will certainly rally more tribesmen behind the Taliban, and especially the poor, the young and the disenfranchised. The third consequence is that there will be revenge, against Nato in Afghanistan and the army in Pakistan.

There is another way to deal with Talibanisation, say civil NGOs and Pakistan’s main secular parties. This calls for education, re-construction and massive investment in areas where over 60 per cent of families live in poverty, 75 per cent have no access to clean drinking water and just 17 per cent of men and one per cent of women are literate. Pakistan’s military regime, like its British precursor, has preferred historically to keep the tribal areas ‘separate’ from rather than integrated into the rest of the country. As for Nato and other western powers that have the resources for such a transformation, ‘they lack the patience,’ says Khan. ‘They want results immediately – always today, never tomorrow’.

The legacy of that approach can be seen in the tribal areas and, beyond their porous borders, in Afghanistan. Its fruit includes the ruins of Bajaur on the one side and the retrograde emirates of the Taliban on the other.

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