Americans allied with Northern Alliance and pushed toward the south. But they failed to block the rear, allowing militants to escape into tribal agencies
A flawed military doctrine pursued by the West in Afghanistan led to the Taliban nearly taking over Pakistan's tribal regions, claims the Pakistan Army.
“Either they [the U.S. Army] lack the capability or the willingness… but this is making my job harder. It is like gas in a balloon. The moment you squeeze the militants on one side, they go to the other. Either we cross the border [into Afghanistan] or they clear it up. Whatever the West says, we are the victims and not the source, Col. Nauman, commanding the Bajour Scouts, told a team of Indian journalists.
Col. Nauman and Brig Zafar-ul-Haq, along with Major General Athar Abbas of the Inter-Services' Intelligence, claim the Americans made a tactical error when they entered Afghanistan. They allied with the Northern Alliance and pushed toward the south. But they failed to block the rear, allowing the militants to escape across the border into Pakistan's tribal agencies. “We are forced to clear the mess.”
“Movement still takes place from the border along the ridges,” says Col. Nauman.
Senior officials point to the mismatch point on either side of the border. About 1.5 lakh Pakistani soldiers are deployed in the anti-Taliban operations in the sliver between the Pakistani mainland and Afghanistan, against one lakh western forces in the whole of Afghanistan. Pakistan has 821 posts on the border compared with just 112 on the Afghan side.
The U.S. drone attacks are another sore point. “Despite so many [2,800] air attacks by the Pakistan military, they did not create the same backlash as the drone attacks . The U.S. drone attacks are seen as a breach of sovereignty, and incapacity of the government to govern,” a senior officer said.
This is besides the Pakistani contribution to keep the western forces in Afghanistan replenished. “Despite the western hype, 84 per cent of the containerised cargo and 40 per cent of the fuel transits through Pakistan,” says a general officer.
The ruggedness is visible from the air. And there is continuing violence, with high casualty rates on all sides. On Friday, an ambush killed seven soldiers, including an officer. Security forces have bled in confrontations with at least a dozen militant organisations, with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) enjoying a year of supremacy in this crescent of steep mountains and lush valleys.
The tribal agencies have witnessed the flow of caravans and armies, including those of Alexander the Great. But the 1980s saw the biggest influx of foreigners — motivators, tacticians, spymasters and fighters —which corrupted the tribal system and ratcheted up the lawlessness. The second such influx, however, did not take place as per the plans of the state. The Taliban and fighters allied with its government escaping the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 crossed the border and streamed into their earlier hideouts from where they had once launched attacks against the Soviets with the backing of the American-Saudi-Pakistani trinity. Since then, the government's writ has frequently become non- existent in one or other seven tribal agencies.
The present crises had its genesis in 2008. Bajour and Swat were almost taken over by men aligned with Behtullah Mehsud, and the state had become non-existent in the agency of South Waziristan. The para-military Bajour Scouts was confined to its main camp just outside the town of Khar in this northernmost tribal agency of Bajour. Applications for opening new businesses began to be approved by the local TTP commander.
This was the best location to launch the Mujahidin against the Soviets because of ethnic contiguity with areas in Afghanistan and the forbidding terrain. “When the Soviets went into Afghanistan, the entire world wanted to contest from the Durrand Line. This was the most suitable springboard for launching operations against the Soviets. The only problem was tribal xenophobia, which was addressed by a huge flow of money and foreign arms, thus corrupting the tribal governance system. Post 1989, the world packed up its bags from the region leaving the consequences of the war here, Col. Nauman says.
“We were a small fry in the anti-Soviet jehad. We were just the facilitators and did not imagine the Holy War would bounce back. While the U.S. could walk away, we couldn't,” notes Gen. Abbas. When those escaping the American-led bombing crossed over to the Pakistani tribal agencies, many headed towards relatives, and several took to their old Soviet era dugouts in the mountains.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found a safe haven in Bajour owing to tribal linkages and Soviet-era links. Top Arabian and Uzbek Al-Qaida leaders have been killed or spotted here in the past nine years. In 2004, the armed forces lost 80 men in one confrontation. Two years later, a suicide attack killed 43 army men limbering up near their base. The lack of socio-economic justice and the erosion of the governance system beefed up the TTP. It systematically eliminated anyone sympathising with the state and the military. “We had lost public support and faced great difficulty. South Waziristan had become a black hole. The operation had to rely on the use of force. There was great destruction,” concedes Maj. Gen. Abbas.
Around this time last year, a year after fruitless jirgas which critics say allowed the Taliban to muster political and military support, the army launched its operations, though it lacked cutting-edge technology, leading to a heavy loss of lives.
The army believes it has more or less done its job. The vacuum due to poor governance that allowed the TTP to step in needs to be filled, the madarsas need attention and, learning from the experience of 2007-08, there will be no deals from a position of weakness. However, the task could be complicated by hostile intelligence agencies in tribal areas and Baluchistan, army officers warn.