[Once in a while, the New York Times does some real reporting.]
So here was Namdar — Taliban chieftain, enforcer of Islamic law, usurper of the Pakistani government and trainer and facilitator of suicide bombers in Afghanistan — sitting at home, not three miles from Peshawar, untouched by the Pakistani military operation that was supposedly unfolding around us.
What’s going on? I asked the warlord. Why aren’t they coming for you?
“I cannot lie to you,” Namdar said, smiling at last. “The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama — it is just to entertain.”
Entertain whom? I asked
And then the retired Pakistani official offered another explanation — one that he said could never be discussed in public. The reason the Pakistani security services support the Taliban, he said, is for money: after the 9/11 attacks, the Pakistani military concluded that keeping the Taliban alive was the surest way to win billions of dollars in aid that Pakistan needed to survive. The military’s complicated relationship with the Taliban is part of what the official called the Pakistani military’s “strategic games.” Like other Pakistanis, this former senior official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of what he was telling me.
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 row 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 reached the point of calling in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.
The mystery, at least part of it, was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred yards from the site of the fight. According to two of these villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local reporter, the Americans started calling 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,” we were told by one of Suran Dara’s 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.”
For years, the villagers said, Suran Dara served as a safe haven for jihadist fighters — whether from Afghanistan or Pakistan or other countries — giving them aid and shelter and a place to stash their weapons. With the firefight under way, one of Suran Dara’s villagers dashed across the border into Afghanistan carrying a field radio with a long antenna (the villager called it “a Motorola”) to deliver to the Taliban fighters. He never made it. The man with the Motorola was hit by an American bomb. After the fight, wounded Taliban members were carried into Suran Dara for treatment. “Everyone supports the Taliban on both sides of the border,” one of the villagers we spoke with said.
Later, an American analyst briefed by officials in Washington confirmed the villagers’ 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 extraordinarily chaotic situation unfolding inside the Pakistani tribal areas, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban, along with Al 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 their 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 its 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. Hoffman says he fears that Al Qaeda could be preparing a major attack before the American presidential election. “I’m convinced they are planning something,” he told me.
At the center of all this stands the question of whether Pakistan really wants to control the Talibs 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 attacks of Sept. 11, President Pervez Musharraf threw his lot in with the United States. Pakistan has helped track down Al Qaeda suspects, launched 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 antiterrorist cause. For such efforts, Musharraf and the Pakistani government have been paid handsomely, receiving more than $10 billion in American money 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.
When the game works, it reaps great rewards: billions in aid to boost the Pakistani economy and military and Islamist proxies to extend the government’s reach into Afghanistan and India.