Late in the afternoon of June 10, during a firefight with Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border, American soldiers called in airstrikes to beat back the attack. The firefight was taking place right on the border itself, known in military jargon as the ”zero line.” Afghanistan was on one side, and the remote Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, was on the other. The stretch of border was guarded by three Pakistani military posts.
The American bombers did the job, and then some. By the time the fighting ended, the Taliban militants had slipped away, the American unit was safe, and 11 Pakistani border guards lay dead. The airstrikes on the Pakistani positions sparked a diplomatic feud between the two allies: Pakistan called the incident ”unprovoked and cowardly”; American officials regretted what they called a tragic mistake. But even after a joint inquiry by the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it remained unclear why American soldiers had called in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.
At least part of the mystery was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred meters from the site of the fight. These villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local journalist, said the Americans had called in airstrikes on the Pakistanis after the latter started shooting at the Americans.
”When the Americans started bombing the Taliban, the Frontier Corps started shooting at the Americans,” said one of the villagers, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being persecuted or killed by the Pakistani government or the Taliban. ”They were trying to help the Taliban. And then the American planes bombed the Pakistani post.”
Another villager said, ”Everyone supports the Taliban on both sides of the border.”
Later, an American analyst briefed by officials in Washington confirmed their account. ”There have been dozens of incidents where there have been exchanges of fire,” he said.
That American and Pakistani soldiers are fighting one another along what was meant to be a border between allies highlights the chaotic situation unfolding inside the Pakistani tribal areas, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban, along with Qaeda and other foreign fighters, enjoy freedom from American attacks.
But the incident also raises one of the more fundamental questions of the long war against Islamic militancy, and one that looms larger as the American position inside Afghanistan deteriorates: Whose side is Pakistan really on?
Pakistan’s wild, largely ungoverned tribal areas have become an untouchable base for Islamic militants to attack Americans and Afghans across the border. Inside the tribal areas, Taliban warlords have taken near-total control, pushing aside the Pakistani government and imposing a draconian form of Islam. And for more than a year now, they have been sending suicide bombers against government and military targets in Pakistan, killing hundreds of people.
American and Pakistani investigators say they believe it was Baitullah Mehsud, the strongest of FATA’s Taliban leaders, who dispatched assassins last December to kill Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister. With much of the North-West Frontier Province, which borders the tribal areas, also now under their control, the Taliban are increasingly in a position to threaten the integrity of the Pakistani state.
Then there is Al Qaeda. According to American officials and counterterrorism experts, the organization has rebuilt itself and is using sanctuaries inside the tribal areas to plan attacks against the United States and Europe. Since 2004, six major terrorist plots against Europe or the United States – including the successful suicide attacks in London that killed 52 people in July 2005 – have been traced back to Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. Hoffman says he fears Al Qaeda could be preparing a major attack before the American presidential election.
At the center of all this stands the question of whether Pakistan really wants to control the Taliban and their Qaeda allies ensconced in the tribal areas – and whether it really can.
This was not supposed to be a major worry. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan threw his lot in with the United States. Pakistan has helped track down Qaeda suspects, conducted a series of attacks against militants inside the tribal areas – a new offensive got under way just weeks ago – and given many assurances of devotion to the anti-terrorist cause. For such efforts, Musharraf and the Pakistani government have been paid handsomely, receiving more than $10 billion from the United States since 2001.
But as the incident on the Afghan border suggests, little in Pakistan is what it appears. For years, the survival of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders has depended on a double game: assuring the United States that they were vigorously repressing Islamic militants – and in some cases actually doing so – while simultaneously tolerating and assisting the same militants. From the anti-Soviet fighters of the 1980s and the Taliban of the 1990s to the homegrown militants of today, Pakistan’s leaders have been both public enemies and private friends.
Pakistan’s game has rested on two premises: that the country’s leaders could keep the militants under control and that they could keep the United States sufficiently placated to keep the money and weapons flowing. But what happens when the militants you have been encouraging grow too strong and set their sights on Pakistan itself?
Late in June, to great fanfare, the Pakistani military began what it described as a decisive offensive to rout the Taliban from Khyber Agency, one of seven tribal areas that make up the FATA. Reporters were kept away, but footage on Pakistani television showed troops advancing behind trucks and troop carriers.
A few days into the military operation, the photographer Lynsey Addario and I, dressed in traditional clothes and with a posse of gunmen protecting us, rode into Khyber Agency. ”Entry by Foreigners Prohibited Beyond This Point,” the sign said on the way in.
After a couple of hours, traveling down a mostly empty road, it struck me: There was no evidence, anywhere, of the military operation that had made the news. There were no Pakistani soldiers, no trucks, no tanks. Nothing.
After a few kilometers, we turned off the road and headed down a sandy path toward a high-walled compound guarded by young men with guns. We had come to our destination: Takya, the home village of Haji Namdar, a Taliban commander who had taken control of a large swath of Khyber Agency.
We walked into the compound’s main building. In a corner, on the floor, sat Namdar – Taliban chieftain, enforcer of Islamic law, usurper of the Pakistani government and trainer and facilitator of suicide bombers in Afghanistan.
Why, I asked him, aren’t the Pakistani forces coming after you?
”The government cannot do anything to us, because we are fighting the holy war,” he said. ”We are fighting the foreigners – it is our obligation. They are killing innocent people.
”The army comes in and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama – it is just to entertain.”
Entertain whom? I asked.
”America,” he said.
In February, nationwide elections lifted to power Pakistan’s first full-fledged civilian government in nine years. The elections followed the tumultuous events of Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile and her assassination.
Pakistan’s new leaders declared they had a popular mandate to steer the country in a new direction. That meant, implicitly, reining in the military and the spy agencies.
At the same time, the country’s new civilian leaders, led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, made it clear that they would not be taking orders from officials in the Bush administration, whom they resented for having supported Musharraf for so long. (Musharraf, facing impeachment, finally resigned from the presidency last month.) Instead of conducting military operations in the tribal areas, Pakistan’s new leaders promised to embark on negotiations to neutralize the militants.
The leader of this new civilian effort in the tribal areas is Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of North-West Frontier Province. Since February, Ghani is said to have embarked on a series of negotiations in tribal areas.
I went to see Ghani earlier this summer at the governor’s mansion in Peshawar. He described a state-of-the-art counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the militants in control of the FATA. He emphasized that the purely military approach to the tribal areas had failed – not merely because the army has been unable to succeed militarily but also because it no longer could count on popular support.
The new approach, Ghani said, would entail negotiations and economic development. Under the plan, the government would pour billions into the region over the next five years to build schools, roads and health clinics. (The United States has agreed to pitch in $750 million.)
”The idea is to drive a wedge between the militants and the people,” he said. ”There will be no negotiations with the militants themselves.”
Ghani’s previous post had been as governor of Baluchistan Province, to the south, where he had weakened an ethnically based insurgency that had churned on for decades. He said he was confident he could do the same here.
”Don’t underestimate the Pakistani desire to confront the militants,” he insisted. ”Ninety percent of the country is behind us.”
While most of the Taliban chieftains share a basic ideology, they appear to be divided into two distinct groups: those who send fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Americans and those who do not. And that is an important distinction for the Pakistanis, as well as for the Americans.
After the rout of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, many militants fled across the border, and the Taliban inside Pakistan grew. At first, they largely confined their activities to the tribal areas themselves, from where they could send fighters into Afghanistan. But last year, militants began moving out of the FATA and into the rest of Pakistan, taking control of the towns and villages in the neighboring North-West Frontier Province. Suddenly, the Taliban was not merely a group of militants who were useful in extending Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan. They were a threat to Pakistan itself.
The turning point came in July last year, when the government laid siege to a mosque in Islamabad called Lal Masjid, the famed Red Mosque, where dozens of militants had taken shelter. After eight days, on orders from Musharraf, security forces stormed the mosque, starting a battle that left 87 dead.
The massacre at Lal Masjid became a rallying cry for Islamic militants across the country. Mehsud and other Islamists declared war on the government and began a campaign of suicide bombings; there were 60 in 2007 alone. In an act of astonishing humiliation, Mehsud’s men captured 300 Pakistan Army soldiers who had come into the agency of South Waziristan; Mehsud eventually let them go. And then, in December, a suicide bomber, possibly dispatched by Mehsud, killed Bhutto.
The bloody siege of Lal Masjid, Western and Pakistani officials say, finally convinced senior military officers and officials from Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani spy agency, that the Taliban fighters had grown too strong.
”Now, the militants are autonomous,” one retired Pakistani official said. ”No one can control them anymore.”
In January of this year, Pakistan opened an offensive into South Waziristan that was far fiercer than any that had come before. It inflicted hundreds of casualties on Mehsud’s forces and caused at least 15,000 families to flee. Then, after just three weeks, the operation ended.
As they had before, Pakistani commanders and Mehsud struck a deal. But this time, remarkably, the deal seemed to stick. The army dismantled its checkpoints and pulled back its troops, and the suicide bombings all but stopped.
What happened? According to a draft of the peace agreement struck between the army and Mehsud, members of the Mehsud tribe agreed to refrain from attacking the Pakistani state and from setting up a parallel government. They agreed to accept the rule of law.
But sending fighters into Afghanistan? About that, the agreement says nothing at all.
And that appears to be the essence of the new Pakistani game. As long as the militants refrain from attacking the state, they are free to do what they want inside the tribal areas – and across the border in Afghanistan. While peace has largely prevailed between the government and the militants inside Pakistan since earlier this year, the infiltration of Taliban fighters from the tribal areas into Afghanistan has risen sharply.
In short, the chaos has been redirected.
On July 28, Gilani, the prime minister, met with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. But Gilani’s first official visit was, by all accounts, not a typical one. That day, as Gilani’s plane neared the United States, a Predator drone had fired a missile into a compound in South Waziristan, killing Abu Khabab al-Masri, a poison and bombing expert with Al Qaeda. Gilani, according to the American analyst who was briefed by officials, knew nothing of the incident when he arrived in Washington.
The Americans pressed Gilani, telling him that his military and security services were out of control and that they posed a threat to Pakistan and to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
After their talks, Bush and Gilani strode to the Rose Garden, side by side, to face the assembled reporters.
”Pakistan is a strong ally and a vibrant democracy,” Bush said. ”We talked about the common threat we face: extremists who are very dangerous people. We talked about the need for us to make sure that the Afghan border is secure as best as possible: Pakistan has made a very strong commitment to that.”
”Thank you,” Gilani said, playing his part. ”We are committed to fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe.
”There are few militants – they are hand-picked people, militants, who are disturbing this peace,” he said. ”And I assured Mr. President we’ll work together for democracy and for the prosperity and peace of the world.”
And then the two men walked together back into the White House.
Dexter Filkins, a correspondent for The New York Times, reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1997 to 2002. He is the author of ”The Forever War.”
September 7, 2008