Friday, August 1, 2014

Fighting Taliban, Pakistan finds itself at war

War has come to Pakistan, not just as terrorist bombings, but as full-scale battles, leaving Pakistanis angry and dismayed as the dead, wounded and displaced turn up right on their doorstep.

An estimated 250,000 people have now fled the helicopters, jets, artillery and mortar fire of the Pakistani Army, and the assaults, intimidation and rough justice of the Taliban who have dug into Pakistan’s tribal areas.

About 20,000 people are so desperate they have flooded over the border from the Bajaur tribal area to seek safety in Afghanistan.

Many others are crowding around this northwest Pakistani city, where staff members from the United Nations refugee agency are present at nearly a dozen camps.

No reliable casualty figures are available. But International Committee of the Red Cross flew in a special surgical team from abroad last week to work alongside Pakistani doctors and help treat the wounded in two hospitals, so urgent has the need become.

“This is now a war zone,” said Marco Succi, the spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Not since Pakistan forged an alliance with the United States after 9/11 has the Pakistani Army fought its own people on such a scale and at such close quarters to a major city. After years of relative passivity, the army is now engaged in heavy fighting with the militants on at least three fronts.

The sudden engagement of the Pakistani Army comes after months in which the United States has heaped criticism, behind the scenes and in public, on Pakistan for not doing enough to take on the militants, and increasingly took action into its own hands with drone strikes and even a raid by Special Operations forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

But the army campaign has also unfolded as the Taliban have encroached deeper into Pakistan proper and carried out far bolder terrorist attacks, like the Marriott Hotel bombing on Sept. 20, which have generated fears among the political, business and diplomatic elite that the country is teetering.

Fighting on Three Fronts

In early August, goaded by the American complaints and faced with a nexus of the Taliban and Al Qaeda that had become too powerful to ignore, the chief of the Pakistan military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, opened the front in Bajaur, a Taliban and Qaeda stronghold along the Afghan border.

Earlier this summer, the military became locked in an uphill fight against the militants in Swat, a more settled area of North-West Frontier Province that was once a middle-class ski resort. Today it is a maelstrom of killing.

“Swat is a place of hell,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a minister in the provincial government who has taken refuge in Peshawar. Khan said he was so afraid that he had not been to his house in Swat for a month.

At a third front, south of Peshawar, around the town of Dera Adam Khel, the army recently recaptured from Taliban control the strategic Kohat tunnel, a road more than a mile long that carries NATO supplies from the port of Karachi to the American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, spoke in New York during a visit to the United Nations General Assembly, about how the fight against terrorism was Pakistan’s war, not America’s.

But even as the gruesome effects of the battles slam the national consciousness, there has been scant effort to prepare the public for the impact of the fighting. Public opinion has soured on Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and has strongly opposed military campaigns that inflict heavy civilian casualties.

Pakistani law enforcement officials and residents of Bajaur and Swat say there have been many civilian deaths, but so far, no agency or government body has offered an estimate of those killed.

Hanging in the balance in the fighting is the allegiance of the civilians who have seen their homes wrecked, their cattle and crops abandoned, and their loved ones killed and wounded.

Pakistani Army commanders have said that in order to put down the Taliban, the government must win the hearts and minds of the Bajaur tribesmen.

Losing Hearts and Minds

But in interviews in the camps, and in villages around Peshawar where the displaced are bunking with relatives, many of the people of Bajaur say they are fed up with both sides of the conflict.

In the Red Cross hospital ward, two young brothers, Haseen Ullah, 5, and Shakir Ullah, 8, lay immobile on their hospital beds, their limbs tightly bound in white bandages covering what Dr. Daniel Brechbuhler, a Red Cross surgeon, said were shrapnel wounds.

The father of the two wounded boys, Hajji Sher Zaman, a relatively well-to-do used-car dealer in Bajaur, said he had no patience with the Taliban.

But Zaman said he was furious with the government for not holding anyone responsible for the killing and wounding of civilians.

“In Bajaur, innocent people are being killed as infidels, the dead cattle are lying on the road, the roads are tainted with the blood of the people who have been killed,” he said. On return trips in recent weeks, he said, his village was “full of the rotten smell of dead animals.”

“Why not target the real people, the administration knows where they are,” Zaman said.

In another ward, Amin Baacha, 13, lay with only one arm, his right one had been amputated. An army helicopter had circled his family’s pickup truck as they were fleeing their village and fired on them, the boy said.

An Insurgent Sanctuary

At a briefing at army headquarters in Rawalpindi on Monday, the military said it believed that Fakir Mohammed, the leader of the Taliban in Bajaur, had taken sanctuary in the neighboring Mohmand district. Another important commander, an Afghan Taliban, Qari Ziaur Rehman, had moved back to Afghanistan, it said.

From their side of the fighting in Bajaur, the Taliban have mounted a brutal show of intimidation, aided by money and deep support from across the border in Afghanistan and Mohmand, according to interviews with the displaced and with law enforcement and military officials.

Recently, the Taliban leader, Mohammed, stormed into a gathering of tribal leaders, arriving in a convoy of 20 vehicles, said Habib-ur Rehman, a trader from Bajaur who now lives in a camp for the displaced in Timergara in the district of Dir, just outside Bajaur.

Mohammed, who is described by the army as one of the most skilled Taliban tacticians, told the tribesmen “I’m here to get you to stop the meeting. If you don’t stop, you will have a coffin over your heads,’ ” Rehman recalled.

The Taliban were well financed, some of the displaced tribesmen said.

In Koz Cinari, in Mohmand, the Taliban gathered nightly with a fleet of up to 100 double-cabin pickup trucks, according to a resident of Koz Cinari who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The vehicles were carefully caked in mud for camouflage against possible sightings from government planes, with only a patch of clear glass in front for the driver. The convoys then crossed into Bajaur with men and weapons, the resident said.

Foreign languages pierced the nighttime air as the vehicles were prepared, the resident said.

According to the military officials at the briefing on Monday, many of the Taliban fighters come from Central Asia.

In Swat, the Pakistani Army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months, and still the Taliban hold the upper hand, according to accounts from people who have fled the area.

Reports of Taliban terrorism are widespread.

In one case, scores of Taliban fighters confronted Iqbal Ahmed Khan, the brother of Waqar Khan, a member of the provincial assembly. The fighters ordered Khan, who was with two of his sons, to choose the son he wanted killed, said the president of the Awami National Party, Senator Asfandyar Wali.

After Khan was humiliated into choosing one son, the Taliban killed both boys, Khan and seven servants, Wali said.

On Thursday a suicide bomber blew himself up at Wali’s home, killing four people and narrowly missing Wali, one of the best-known politicians in North-West Frontier Province and a national figure.

Life in a Battle Zone

Many residents of Swat say they are exasperated by the army-imposed round-the-clock curfew that keeps them indoors listening to the scream of jets and the thud of artillery.

To increase the misery, the Taliban blew up the power grid last week, and when protesters gathered in the main street of Mingora, the police fired on them, killing six people.

More than 140 girls schools have been destroyed by the Taliban in the last several months.

In a typical technique to raise funds, the militants ordered the shopkeepers in the mall in the town of Matta to stop paying rent to the landlord, and pay the militants instead.

“There is no light, no gas, no water, no food,” Khan said.

Despite all the distress of the civilians, “only two Taliban commanders have been killed,” he said. “The army has its strategy, but they don’t explain.”

The one hope in the gloom of war, said civilians and law enforcement officials, has been the formation of small private armies by tribal leaders, known in the region as lashkars.

They have traditionally served as a way of dealing with squabbles in Pakistan’s tribal society, but are now being formed in some cases to stand up to the Taliban.

Forming Tribal Armies

In Salarzai, in the northern corner of Bajaur, a local private army has attracted several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, said Jalal-Uddin Khan, a tribal leader.

But whether the fervor of the tribesmen and their ancient equipment can be a match for the ideological zeal, modern weaponry and sophisticated tactics of the Taliban is an open question.

In other places, like Dir, just outside Bajaur, these private armies have pledged to keep both the Pakistani Army and the Taliban from entering their territory.

“Where the army comes, the Taliban come,” said Sher Bahadar Khan, a tribal leader from Upper Dir. His community had organized a militia and persuaded the army not to put up checkpoints. The army was of little comfort because when the Taliban killed civilians, soldiers stood by as a “silent spectator,” he said.

Closer to Peshawar, in the village of Shabqadar, where the Taliban have held sway for months, the local police organized civilians to join them in a display of force against the militants.

The Taliban had terrorized women who did not wear the burqa, and killed men they deemed as “pimps” and threw their bodies in the river.

The police chief of North-West Frontier Province, Malik Naveed Khan, said he had encouraged the new police chief in Shabqadar to organize a “popular movement.”

Last week, about 500 people, led by the local police chief, marched toward a fort controlled by the Taliban in Shabqadar, Khan said.

A 15-hour battle ensued, leaving nine Taliban fighters dead and 28 wounded, the police chief said. On the government side, one man was killed, and five wounded, he said.

In revenge, the Taliban threatened to blow up Warsak Dam, the main water supply for Peshawar. But Khan said he was not deterred. He would not back down. “I told the governor: ‘Open many fronts. We are more than them.’ “