Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. Taliban-style militias are spreading rapidly out f

"You must understand," says Maulana Sami ul-Haq, "that Pakistan and Islam are synonymous." The principal of Darul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a tall and jovial man. He grabs my hand as he takes me round the seminary. Maulana ul-Haq laughs when I ask his views on jihad. "It is the duty of all Muslims to support those groups fighting against oppression," he says.

The Haqqania is one of the largest madrasas in Pakistan. It produces about 3,000 graduates, most from exceptionally poor backgrounds, every year. The walls of the student dormitory are decorated with tanks and Kalashnikovs. A group of students, all with black beards, white turbans and grey dresses, surrounds me. They are curious and extremely polite. We chat under the watchful eye of two officers from Pakistan's intelligence services. What would they do after they graduate, I ask. "Serve Islam," they reply in unison. "We will dedicate our lives to jihad."

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. For more than two months, the capital, Islamabad, has been held hostage by a group of burqa-clad women, armed with sticks and shouting: "Al-jihad, al-jihad." These female students belong to two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid, a large mosque near one of the city's main supermarkets. I found the atmosphere around the masjid tense, with heavily armed police surrounding the building. Though the students were allowed to go in and out freely, no one else could enter the mosque. The women are demanding the imposition of sharia law and the instant abolition of all "dens of vice". Away from the masjid, Islamabad looked like a city under siege.

A new generation of militants is emerging in Pakistan. Although they are generally referred to as "Taliban", they are a recent phenomenon. The original Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan briefly during the 1990s, were Afghan fighters, a product of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were created and moulded by the Pakistani army, with the active support of the United States and Saudi money, and the deliberate use of madrasas to prop up religious leaders. Many Taliban leaders were educated at Haqqania by Maulana Sami ul-Haq. The new generation of militants are all Pakistani; they emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan and represent a revolt against the government's support for the US. Mostly unemployed, not all of them are madrasa-educated. They are led by young mullahs who, unlike the original Taliban, are technology- and media-savvy, and are also influenced by various indigenous tribal nationalisms, honouring the tribal codes that govern social life in Pakistan's rural areas. "They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar-based columnist on the News. "But they are totally Pakistani, with a better understanding of how the world works." Their jihad is aimed not just at "infidels occupying Afghanistan", but also the "infidels" who are ruling and running Pakistan and maintaining the secular values of Pakistani society. "They aim at nothing less than to cleanse Pakistan and turn it into a pure Islamic state," says Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Lahore-based Post newspaper.

The Pakistani Taliban now dominate the northern province of Waziristan, adjacent to Afghan istan. "They are de facto rulers of the province," says Yusufzai. Waziristan is a tribal area that has historically been ruled by the tribes themselves. Pakistan has followed the policy of British Raj in the region. The British allowed tribal leaders, known as maliks, semi-autonomous powers in exchange for loyalty to the crown. Pakistan gives them the same power but demands loyalty to the federal government. They have been sidelined by the Taliban, however. Pro-government maliks who resisted the onslaught of the Taliban have been brutally killed and had their bodies hung from poles as a lesson to others. The Taliban have declared Waziristan an "Islamic emirate" and are trying to establish a parallel administration, complete with sharia courts and tax system.

Taliban-type militias have also taken control of parts of the adjacent NWFP. In Peshawar, one of the most open and accessible areas of the province, one can feel the tension on the streets. There are hardly any women out in public. The city, which has suffered numerous suicide attacks, is crowded with intelligence officers. Within an hour of my arrival in Peshawar, I was approached by a secret service official who warned that I was being watched. It is practically impossible for outsiders to enter other NWFP towns such as Tank, Darra Adam Khel and Dera Ismail Khan. In Dera Ismail Khan, outsiders - that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country - need police escorts to travel around. You are allowed in only if you can prove you have business or relatives there. Girls' schools have been closed, video and music shops bombed, and barbers forbidden from shaving beards. The religious parties have passed a public morality law that gives them powers to prosecute anyone who does not follow their strict moral code. Legislation to ban dance and music is being planned. Even administration of polio vaccination campaigns has been halted amid claims that it is a US plot to sterilise future generations.

Why is the ostensibly secular government of President Pervez Musharraf not taking any action against the Taliban militants and the parties that support them? Part of the answer lies in the militants and religious parties having served the military regime well. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf used them to neutralise the mainstream political parties - Benazir Bhutto's People's Party and the Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif. "The military and mullahs have been traditional allies," says the Islamabad-based security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa. "The alliance of religious parties that rules NWFP came into power through his support." Musharraf also used the religious militants to destabilise Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. He encouraged extremists preaching jihad to infiltrate India for acts of sabotage.

The same is true of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have been a useful ally against unfriendly governments in Kabul. Even though Musharraf has been forced to go against them under pressure from the Americans, his strategy has been to try to contain them, rather than defeat them. He tried to regulate the madrasas in NWFP and elsewhere in Pakistan that provide recruits for the Taliban, seized their funds and banned them from admitting foreign students. But that's about as far as he wanted to go. Constant US pressure has forced him to send in the army, with grave consequences. Every time the Pakistani army enters Waziristan, it takes heavy casualties. Since 2003, when Pakistani troops first entered the tribal regions, more than 700 soldiers have been killed. Not surprisingly, Musharraf signed a hasty peace agreement on 5 September 2006 allowing the Afghan Taliban to get on with their business. "The military regards the Taliban as an asset," says Siddiqa. "So why destroy an asset? Particularly when the asset could be useful in the future."

That future may not be too far off. Pakistan's foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on the assumption that the Nato forces there will withdraw sooner rather than later, leaving Hamid Karzai's regime to fend for itself. The Karzai government is strongly anti-Pakistani. But the Pakistani army needs friendly rulers in Kabul who would be willing to run the oil and gas pipelines that will serve the newly established port at Gwadar through Afghanistan's provinces (see page 32). So Pakistan needs the Afghan Taliban to exist as a force strong enough to establish the next government in Afghanistan.

Moreover, a pro-Islamabad Taliban-type government in Afghanistan would help establish peace in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, most of the people in power in Kabul are Tajiks, a minority tribe. A sizeable majority of Afghans belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which ruled Afghanistan for centuries. The position of Pakistan's military is that this imbalance "against the political history and tribal culture of Afghan istan", as one army officer told me, is not going to last. Most of the Pakistani Taliban - that is, the vast majority of people in Waziristan - are also Pashtun. And they will not rest until their brothers across the border hold the reins of power. As such, peace in this part of Pakistan depends on who rules Afghanistan.

Musharraf's strategy is to contain the Taliban of Afghan and Pakistani varieties alike, while weeding out al-Qaeda jihadis, or "foreign elements", as they are known in Pakistani military circles. The foreigners are a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war. When the war ended, many of the central Asians who came to fight the Soviets were not welcomed back in their countries. For want of an alternative, they settled in Pakistan. Most of these foreign jihadis are Uzbek. Musharraf has simply bribed the local tribes to attack and eradicate the Uzbek jihadis. The battle between Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qaeda in Wana, southern Waziristan, in which more than 200 al-Qaeda fighters and some 50 tribal fighters were killed a fortnight ago was a product of this policy.

Musharraf's problem is that the Taliban cannot be contained. The Pakistani Taliban have now acquired enough confidence to break out of Wazi ristan and NWFP into other parts of the country. "What's happening at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is a trial run for the rest of the country," says Rahman. "If the Taliban succeed in Islamabad, they will turn Pakistan into Talibistan."

Lawyers in uproar

While Musharraf continues to placate the Taliban, the rest of Pakistan is standing up against Talibanisation. Huge demonstrations have been held in Lahore, Karachi and other cities throughout Pakistan. To begin with, the protests were held to support Chief Justice Iftikhar Moham med Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf in March. Chaudhry, who has become a national hero, tried to prevent the army from selling the national steel mill for a song. The affair was the latest in a long list of scandals involving the military. The openly unconstitutional act caused uproar, leading to countrywide protests by lawyers. But the lawyers have now acquired a broader agenda. They have become a national resistance movement, supported by all sections of society, against military rule and the Taliban.

Musharraf's response to the demonstrations and the Taliban challenge is to try to entrench himself even more deeply. While the country buckles under the pressure of suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, his main concern is his own survival. Constitutionally, he must hold elections some time this year - something he has promised to do, but the whole exercise will be designed to ensure that he continues as president for another five years.

His plan to get "re-elected" has two strands. The simple option is to get the current hand-picked parliament to endorse him for a second term and try to manipulate this vote, which the present sham constitution dictates, to ensure a healthy two-thirds majority. The heads of intelligence, the security services and the police have already been primed to ensure "positive results".

Bhutto to the rescue?

The other option is a bit messy. It involves making a deal with the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto, who has been ousted from power by the military twice, is desperate to get back into power. She has a great deal in common with the general. She runs the People's Party as her personal property, and her social and economic policies - rooted as they are in feudalism and opportunism - are not far removed from those of the army. Her foreign policy would be the same as that of Musharraf; indeed, she is even more pro-American than the general.

So Bhutto and Musharraf, who have been negotiating with each other for almost three years, are an ideal couple. "The problem," says Rahman, "is that Musharraf does not want to give up his military uniform. It is the source of his strength. And the idea of Musharraf remaining military chief is anathema to Bhutto."

But the state of the nation, on the verge of political and religious collapse, may force Musharraf's hand. A deal between the general and the self-proclaimed "Daughter of the East" in which Musharraf retains most of his power as civilian president and Bhutto serves as prime minister may be acceptable to both. Rumours abound in Islamabad that a deal is imminent.

Bhutto's return from the cold would do little to stop Pakistan's slide into anarchy, however. The Taliban sense victory and will not be easily satisfied with anything less than a Pakistan under sharia law, or wide-ranging bloodshed. As Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, makes clear, the country cannot survive its "deep-seated rot" unless the "unrepresentative organs of the state - the military, the mullahs and the all-consuming intelligence agencies - are brought under control". It is hard to disagree with her assessment. But it is even harder to see how these "unrepresen tative organs" can be stopped from dragging Pakistan further towards the abyss - with dire consequences for the rest of the world.

Pakistan: a short history

1947 Muslim state of Pakistan created by partition of India at the end of British rule

1948 First war with India over disputed territory of Kashmir

1965 Second war with India over Kashmir

1971 East Pakistan attempts to secede, triggering civil war. Third war between Pakistan and India. East Pakistan breaks away to become Bangladesh

1980 US pledges military assistance following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

1988 Benazir Bhutto elected prime minister

1996 Bhutto dismissed, for the second time, on charges of corruption

1998 Country conducts nuclear tests

1999 General Pervez Musharraf seizes power in military coup

2001 Musharraf backs US in war on terror and supports invasion of Afghanistan

2002 Musharraf given another five years in office in criticised referendum

2003 Pakistan declares latest Kashmir ceasefire. India does likewise

2004 Musharraf stays head of army, having promised in 2003 to relinquish role

2005 Earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir kills tens of thousands of people

2007 Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering nationwide protests

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain