‘Absence of anvil’ leaves room for Taliban


By Iftikhar Gilani

BAJAUR: For a journalist who has covered the Kashmir conflict for over two decades, the sights were familiar as an eight-member Indian media team zoomed past markets and villages of this erstwhile Taliban stronghold under heavy security: alert soldiers frisking people lined up in nearby fields, destroyed markets, bombed schools and charred petrol pumps.

Although the Pakistan Army facilitates local and western journalists in visits to “liberated areas” quite often, it had – for the first time – invited an Indian media troupe, including three TV reporters, to witness first-hand the battle against terrorism.

The telltale signs of the world’s toughest battles – fought in the lush green Bajaur Agency, the northern-most tip of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan’s Kunar province – are glaring. The agency’s border with Afghanistan’s Kunar province makes it of strategic importance to Pakistan and the region.

The Pakistan Army’s local commanders reject the notion created by western writers that socio-economic indicators were responsible for the ascendancy of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the region. The area looks like a typical Kashmiri countryside – green fields and streams bounded by robust Hindukush mountains. “They are not aborigine tribes. The road density here is 3.28 square miles, much better compared to South Asian standards,” boasts Col Muhammad Nauman Saeed, who briefed the Indian team in the operation room of Bajaur Scouts in the dusty town of Khar – the headquarters of Bajaur Agency.

Then why an uprising that devoured thousands of lives? A ready answer by Pakistan Army officers is that anti-Soviet operations launched by the West – coupled with the flow of money – corrupted the age-old tribal governance system.

“When the Soviets left and others packed up as well, the region was left at the mercy of warlords and criminal gangs,” said Col Nauman, commander of the Bajaur Scouts.

While Pakistani military officers point out that a faulty US strategy in Afghanistan pushed militants into the Tribal Areas, they fail to reply when asked why a similar strategy is being employed by Islamabad as well.

“Military campaigns work under the hammer and anvil strategy. The US-led NATO forces used the hammer but ignored the anvil… the reasons are best known to them,” said Nauman, who was flanked by Brigadier Zafarul Haq, commander of 27th Brigade of the Frontier Corps.

But where are these Taliban now? They have crossed over to Kunar province of Afghanistan, which is now being touted as a stronghold of Taliban. Of Afghanistan’s 36 provinces, the Taliban run a shadow administration in as many as 33. “That reflects the increasing influence of the Taliban across [the border] and to be candid, our job is difficult. Whatever the West says about us, they are still failing to put an anvil, or block,… [as follow up of] our hammer. We are still vulnerable even though we have cleared areas,” said Col Nauman, who single-handedly mounted a tank and entered the Taliban stronghold of Damadola village, 11 kilometres from Kunar. His deputy, Major Ejaz hid himself in a field for three days, with just a bullet in his rifle, until air attacks paved the way for reinforcements.

Col Nauman even goes to the extent of saying that either the Pakistan Army should be allowed to cross the border to eliminate the Taliban for the sake of permanent peace in the region, or the international community must decide and evaluate its operations in Afghanistan.

In the middle of the military offensive in Bajaur, US forces left the border unattended, and did not intercept fleeing Taliban. They repeated the act when the Pakistani Army launched an offensive in South Waziristan. Such developments – coupled the US Army’s retreat from Afghanistan’s Korengal valley – have sparked fears in Pakistan that Americans are walking away from a key military agreement.

Unconfirmed western media reports suggested the sighting of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri in Damadola village, leading to US missile strikes on January 13, 2006, that killed 18 people. It is said that the Taliban leader in Bajaur, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, had hosted a dinner for Al Zawahiri shortly before the US strike. On October 30, 2006, the first US drone strike also hit the same area, killing 80 people, mostly children. Maulana Liaqat, the head of a local madrassa, was also killed in the attack.

Pakistani military officials admit they faced tougher resistance in Bajaur compared to anywhere else since the launch of military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2003. The Taliban had carved out over 150 caves and tunnels in the mountains over five-to-seven years. These engineering marvels are never short of oxygen. Captain Ali of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) says that even “daisy cutter bombs”, which penetrate the earth, are useless when it comes to these tunnels.

Notwithstanding government claims over Bajaur having been cleared, leading Taliban leaders, including Qari Ziaur Rahman and Faqir Muhammad, continue roaming just 25 kilometres away in Kunar across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. There is lurking fear that in the absence of a “hammer and anvil” strategy, the Taliban may stage a comeback in the region. The Pakistan Army also believes that US drone strikes lead to negative public opinion, which in turn facilitates the swelling of Taliban ranks.

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