Page 1 of 2 ON THE MILITANT TRAIL, Part 1 A battle before a battle
Peshawar - the High Fort - is the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)
and the administrative center for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of
Pakistan. It was one of the main trading centers on the ancient Silk Road and
was a major crossroads for various cultures between South and Central Asia and
the Middle East.
Located on the edge of the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border, Peshawar, with a
population of several million, is the commercial, economic, political and
cultural capital of the Pashtuns in Pakistan.
Peshawar and its surrounds are also now the epicenter for the
Taliban and other militants in their struggle not only in Afghanistan and
Pakistan but also in their bid to establish a base from which to wage an
"end-of-time battle" that would stretch all the way to the Arab heartlands of
Damascus and Palestine.
In a series of articles exploring the region that will examine the differing
natures and strategies of various Taliban groups, Syed Saleem Shahzad begins
his journey in Peshawar.
Restive North-West Frontier Province is not the destination of choice these
days. Those who travel there go for business or family reasons, and the flight
I took from the southern port city of Karachi to Peshawar was half empty;
clearly, the region is no longer on the tourist map.
After touring the city for an afternoon and speaking to a variety of people, I
was struck by its eerie similarity to Baghdad when I visited that capital soon
after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 - it has the distinct
atmosphere of impending chaos.
That evening I chatted with a senior al-Qaeda member who told me that the group
considered NWFP and southwestern Balochistan province as already wiped off the
map of Pakistani as they were now militant country. Although not entirely
accurate, it portends a chilling turn in the "war on terror" in which
Washington will be more concerned over the stability and security of Pakistan
rather than that of Afghanistan.
The indications are that a major battle will be fought in Pakistan before the
annual spring offensive even begins in Afghanistan this year.
Last December, the US Defense Department pushed for Pakistan to be given
US$2.64 billion to buy better weapons and to provide more training for its
police and Frontier Corps, which are at the vanguard of the battle against
militants in the tribal regions.
The new administration of US President Barack Obama has appointed veteran
diplomat Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, a
newly created position, so that he and Hillary Clinton - in her role as
secretary of state - can work closely to try to get Kabul and Islamabad to join
forces in the fight against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda militant groups,
especially those located in Pakistan.
A deceptive calm
On the surface, life appears normal in Peshawar. Shops, public offices, banks
and schools are all open, but they disguise disturbing events that are
happening with increased regularity.
Heavily armed militants have begun attacking container terminals for North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply trucks on their way to Afghanistan,
destroying dozens of them, and there have been a series of high-profile
abductions, including those of Afghan and Iranian diplomats.
Pushto stage and drama artist Alamzeb Mujahid was seized from Peshawar's
Hayatabad area this month, while the beheaded body of a faith healer was found
last week with a warning note attached saying that those involved in the
business of faith-healing would meet the same fate.
According to militant sources, five dozen people have been abducted in the past
30 days, including Shi'ites and ex-army men and their relatives. Some were
released after a ransom was paid, a few were killed and the remainder are still
being held hostage by the militants.
Most of these incidents have involved militants claiming to be Taliban.
However, criminal gangs have also jumped onto the bandwagon to abduct traders
for ransom. Different traders' organizations have grouped together to display
black banners in the city urging the government to stem the abduction of
In the face of this, security arrangements in Peshawar are extraordinarily
tight. In the upscale neighborhood of University Road, which houses several
international non-government organizations, United Nations offices, residences
and the American Club, every nook and cranny is manned by either the police or
by intelligence sleuths in civilian dress.
This has created an atmosphere of fear among people, who believe that a major
showdown between militants and the security forces is imminent.
The situation was a blessing in disguise for me as I easily found a very
comfortable, well-equipped room at a 20-room guest house with high-speed
wireless Internet at a much cheaper price than I paid on my previous visit last
year. When I checked in, I was the only guest.
Later, I spoke to Mehmood Afridi, the editor and owner of the English daily the
Frontier Post. "I chose to set up my office in a bungalow because at least I
can watch over the threat compared to any office in a building downtown, but
still I have to spend a huge amount on armed guards."
It took almost one-and-a-half years for the US and NATO to realize the real
dangers of the lawlessness in Pakistan. In 2007, Western decision-makers
watched the instability in Pakistan with a smile.
Militant ideologues based in the tribal areas, such as Tahir Yuldashev, chief
of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Shiekh Essa, were emphasizing their
aim to topple the then-government of president General Pervez Musharraf before
taking on NATO in Afghanistan.
A tide of insurgency swept from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but Western leaders
were not too concerned as they thought this would make it easier for them in
Afghanistan and that the militants would be defeated in Pakistan.
This did not prove to be the case in regard to both countries. The insurgency
in Afghanistan had its most successful year in 2008, and militants have grown
in strength in Pakistan. In February 2008, suicide attacks in Pakistan
outnumbered Iraqi suicide attacks and strong enclaves of militants have been
established in Pakistan where they never before existed.
For instance, in the strategic Khyber Agency, through which 80% of NATO's
supplies pass on the way to landlocked Afghanistan, militants have gained a
foothold. In Mohmand and in Bajaur tribal agencies, which cover the whole of a
strategic corridor into Afghanistan which goes all the way to the capital Kabul
through Kunar, Nooristan and Kapisa provinces, militants have established a
An insurgency in the hitherto peaceful Swat Valley prompted Pakistan to carry
out military operations, but this only turned the whole valley into hostile
territory for the Pakistan army and a new nursery for the Afghan resistance.
Never before had so many well-trained and battle-hardened militants swarmed
from the Swat Valley, Bajaur and Mohmand into Afghanistan, and they are
preparing to do so again this year. NATO has had to seek an alternative and
much more expensive supply routes through Central Asia.
As a result, the US, where strategic journals and think-thanks had been selling
the idea of Pakistan's disintegration up to 2007, and promoted the concept of a
united Pashtun land, is now completely geared to take all measures to protect
the unity of Pakistan.
It is now believed that if Pakistan goes down, it will take its neighbors with
it, with ramifications all the way to Europe and America.
Apart from a few divisive incidents, such as the Pakistan-linked terror attack
on Mumbai in India last November, this realization is keeping all players,
including Pakistan, the US, Britain and even India at closer levels of
coordination. However, this has happened late in the game, perhaps too late.
The rise and rise of militancy
Following the ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan by US-led forces in late
2001, militancy in the region only began to grow at a phenomenal pace over the
past few years.
In 2005, a major regrouping of the Taliban began, leading the next year to
meetings in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and an agreement to fight
against NATO under the command of Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani.
In April 2006, the militants verbally agreed on a ceasefire with