The secret war – and the hidden lair of the Taliban

Patrick Cockburn investigates the insurgents' mountain hideaway – and a little-known conflict that has killed thousands

The Pakistani army has fought successfully to control mountainous frontier areas once ruled by the Pakistani Taliban, but it remains reluctant to attack the cross-border safe havens of the Afghan Taliban despite American pressure.

Pakistani soldiers in Bajaur district on the Afghan frontier are eager to demonstrate what they have already achieved, showing off captured tunnels dug into the hillside by the local Taliban to protect their fighters against air and artillery attack. On display are some rockets and shells and a broken sign put up outside a building serving as a court house in the last days of Taliban rule reading: "Don't bring any more cases."

In Bajaur, a heavily populated area of mountains and well-watered terraces and valleys, the Pakistani army is once more very much in charge. Col Nauman Saeed, commander of the 3,500-strong Bajaur Scouts, said: "I want to end the misconception that our frontier areas are the most ungovernable in the world."

Even so the Pakistani army is taking no chances. I travelled by helicopter from Islamabad to Khar, the small town which is the district capital, to avoid a 10-hour road trip through at least three mountain ranges. As we drove half a dozen miles along the dusty road from Col Saeed's headquarters, with its neat lawns and beds of roses, to the tunnels and caves where the local Taliban formerly had their headquarters, there was a soldier on guard every few hundred yards. The soldiers did not look as if they expected to be shot at, and the fields around Khar are green with young crops, but there is little traffic on the road and half the shops look closed.

Bajaur may be pacified, but at least a third of Pakistan's half-million strong army is now deployed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of which it is part. Urged on by the US, the Pakistani military have taken back areas once held by the Pakistani Taliban all along the border, but it is reluctant to enter those like North Waziristan which the Americans see as a crucial base of the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani army's campaign in FATA has been largely successful so far. The price has been high in terms of refugees, ruined villages and casualties. In Bajaur the army lost 150 dead and 637 wounded, while several thousand insurgents are claimed dead.

There was little sign of battle damage on Khar, but Col Saeed said that 12 villages totally destroyed in fighting over the last two years have not been rebuilt. Some 70,000 people out of a population of 1.2 million in Bajaur are still refugees, along with a million others from the rest of Pakistan's North West Frontier province.

Many people have died and are still dying in this vicious and little-reported war where it is difficult to get details even when there are many dead. For instance last Saturday some 75 villagers were killed in an air strike by Pakistani jets in the Khyber district of FATA. The army at first said they were Islamic militants, but later admitted that there had been a blunder and victims were being compensated.

Two days after this attack Pakistani officials said that four people had been killed by an American drone hitting a vehicle in North Waziristan. A local resident claimed that in reality 13 civilians, including two children, had died in the explosion.

It may be that local inhabitants are glad to see the back of the Taliban. Officers point out a dry river bed near Khar where people were assembled to watch public executions. But at the same time the area remains very much under military occupation, with frequent checkpoints and fortified outposts. The Bajaur Scouts are recruited from local tribes, but there is also an army brigade in the district.

It is hazardous to draw too many conclusions from an official tour such as the one I was on in Bajaur. There is so much one does not see. But it is impossible for foreign journalists to visit the area without official permission and protection.

Just how necessary this protection is was demonstrated a few hours after I had left Khar when gunmen burst into the house of a local journalist called Imran and shot and badly wounded him and his sister. A press report recalled that Imran's father had been murdered when covering insurgent activities in an earlier incident.

Officially Pakistan decries the use of the American drones, but a senior security official confirmed that the drones rely on information supplied by local agents of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service. Without such intelligence the US officers directing the drones, which are launched from inside Pakistan, would not know who or what to target. Some 73 ISI agents have been killed setting up these intelligence networks. Several of them have been seen on video being ritually beheaded by the Taliban.

The Pakistan army's public denunciation of and private collaboration with the drone attacks is one example of its ambivalent relationship with the US. In American eyes it is reluctant to act against Afghan Taliban safe havens along the border in the same way as it did against their Pakistani equivalents. To many Pakistani soldiers this would be a very different type of war.

Col Saeed says he calls the local Islamic militants "miscreants" who have no aim other than to win power and do not deserve the name of Taliban. He has a much higher opinion of the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and has his own explanation as to why the US forces in Kunar, the Afghan province across the border from Bajaur, have so little success. "They don't have the legitimacy we do," he says.

He believes that the Afghan Taliban become insurgents and are motivated because they are members of the Pashtun community which has been marginalised. His analysis is confirmed by many American officials on the ground. The strength of the Pakistan Taliban was probably always exaggerated in the West. They were never more than a powerful irritant rather than a real threat to the Pakistani state even when they took over the Swat Valley. Their open bloodthirstiness, demonstrated on videos of the public lashing of women, isolated them politically.

Peace has not returned to FATA. Local papers carry stories down-column of suspected Islamic militants' houses being burned, refugees in flight or returning, a girls' school destroyed by insurgents and many killed by American drone attacks. The army is in control, but it is not clear what would happen if it left. It may find it more difficult to get out of FATA than it was to get in.

Frontier area in numbers

70,000 people Out of population of 1.2 million in Bajaur are refugees.

150 pakistan soldiers killed by insurgents in Bajaur.

75 civilians killed in Pakistan air strike in Khyber last Saturday.

News
Food blogger and Guardian writer Jack Monroe with her young son
people
News
people
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Life and Style
The racy marketing to entice consumers to buy Fairlife, which launches in the US next month
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital