Revenger's tragedy: The forgotten conflict in Pakistan

The arrest of Faisal Shahzad for planting the Times Square car bomb has forced America to confront the bloody conflict in Pakistan that inspired his actions. The West has ignored this war for too long, writes Patrick Cockburn

It has been a hidden war ignored by the outside world. Up to last week nobody paid much attention to the fighting in north-west Pakistan, though more soldiers and civilians have probably been dying there over the last year than in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In reality, this corner of Pakistan along the Afghan border is the latest in a series of wars originally generated by the US response to 9/11. The first was the war in Afghanistan when the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, the second in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, and the third the renewed war in Afghanistan from about 2006. The fourth conflict is the present one in Pakistan and is as vicious as any of its predecessors, though so far the intensity of the violence has not been appreciated by the outside world.

Western governments and media for long looked at the fighting in the tribal areas along Pakistan's frontier with Afghanistan as a sideshow to the Afghan war. Washington congratulated itself on using pilotless drones to kill Taliban leaders, a tactic which meant that there were no American casualties and apparently no political fall out in the United States.

This has now all changed, since Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square in New York last week. Within days the US press and television was camped outside the locked gate of his family's compound in Peshawar, the effective capital of the north-west frontier region, and were trying to interview his relatives in the streets of his ancestral village of Mohib Banda, outside the city.

The Pakistan Taliban had been saying that they would seek revenge for the drone attacks by striking directly at the US, but nobody took them seriously. Their first claim that they were behind the Times Square bomb was disbelieved as being beyond their capabilities. It is difficult to see why the idea of their involvement should have been treated with derision, since suicide bombers from the Pakistan Taliban are blowing themselves up every few days along the north-west frontier.

Mr Shahzad told his interrogators that he received training in Waziristan, further south – though it cannot have been very serious given the amateurism of his later efforts. But a high degree of technical expertise is not necessary since even the most botched and ineffective bomb attack has a powerful political impact so long as it happens in the US, as was demonstrated by the Nigerian student who tried and failed to blow up a plane over Detroit at Christmas by detonating explosives in his underpants.

One outcome of the abortive Times Square attack is that it has drawn the attention of the world to the seriousness of the fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which stretch along the Afghan border. Last year the violence there and in other parts of North-West Frontier Province was enough to send 3.1 million refugees running for their lives. Many of these, particularly from the Swat valley, in the northern part of the province, have now gone home, but hundreds of thousands of others are now taking flight because of army assaults on Pakistan Taliban strongholds in FATA. These mass movements of people in obscure places like Orakzai or Kurram are hardly noticed – even within Pakistan, where they are reported without much detail on the inside pages of the newspapers.

The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Makhdoom Qureshi, believes that what happened in New York was "blowback" for the US drone strikes in Pakistan, which he says killed 700 Pakistani civilians last year. This may be true, but it is also hypocritical since the drones are launched from inside Pakistan and senior Pakistani security officials confirm that the information on the whereabouts of Taliban leaders, enabling the drones to target them, comes from Pakistani military intelligence (ISI) agents on the ground. Without the ISI involvement the drones would be ineffective.

The attacks of the Predator drones are highly publicised and Mr Shahzad told his interrogators that they were one reason why he made his abortive attack on Times Square. But the drones only cause a limited number of casualties and most of the destruction in what until recently was called the North-West Frontier Province are the result of heavy fighting between the Pakistan army and the local Taliban. Villages are destroyed and whole districts emptied of their inhabitants as the army imposes government authority in the seven "agencies" (sub-divisions) of FATA where the Taliban had its strongholds. The army is winning, but the Taliban is not retreating without a fight. Suicide bombings have become as frequent and as devastating as in Kandahar or Baghdad.

I recently visited Bajaur, a well-watered and heavily populated hilly agency on the Afghan border north of Peshawar from which the army has driven the Taliban over the last two years. Col Nauman Saeed, the commander of the Bajaur Scouts, a 3,500-strong force made up of tribal levies, says that the Taliban have been defeated and driven out of Bajaur and into Afghanistan and will never be able to return. But the area looks as if it is wholly under military occupation, with checkpoints every few hundred yards, little traffic on the roads, and many shops closed in the villages. Col Saeed says that 12 villages have been completely destroyed.

It is the same story south of Peshawar. I drove down the main road running to Lakki Marwat, just east of Waziristan, where there continues to be frequent suicide bombings. One had demolished part of a village police station just a few hours before we passed through, killing seven people. People are wary, and there is an atmosphere of subdued menace. I was glad to be riding in a well-armoured civilian vehicle with bullet-proof glass, protected by the bodyguards of a powerful tribal leader, businessman and senator. "I tell people that this vehicle will only stop pistol bullets," explained a former army colonel who is head of this leader's security. "In this area, if you tell them that your vehicle can stop an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] round then they will fire something even heavier at you."

The Taliban had gone but nobody believes they had gone very far. "People don't want to co-operate with the army, because they think the Taliban will find out and take revenge," said one man from a nearby village. Probably they will never come back in full force, but they show on a daily basis that they are still a force to be to be feared. When one village, called Shah Hassan, asked the local Taliban to leave, they retaliated by sending a suicide bomber into a crowd of young men playing volley ball. He detonated his explosives and killed 100 people.

Civilians are being squeezed between two implacable forces. The army's tactic is to order the civilian population out of whatever district it is trying to clear of Taliban, and then freely use its artillery and air power on the assumption that all who remain are Taliban supporters.

It is a policy heavy on destruction that would be widely reported by the media if it occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Pakistan it does not attract much criticism because places like Waziristan are almost impossible for Pakistani or foreign journalists to reach as they are too dangerous except under the protection of the army. But travellers who do go there are aghast at the extent of the devastation. "What I saw was the stuff nightmares are made of," writes Ayzaz Wazir, a former Pakistani ambassador who travelled on a bus through South Waziristan. "Houses, shops, madrassahs and even official buildings on the roadside stood in ruins or demolished. There was no sign of any human or animal life, except for a few cows wondering about in the deserted villages."

As the army marched in, some quarter of a million refugees have come flooding out of South Waziristan, according to the United Nations. The army is keen for them to return home, but most are refusing to do so because they say it is not safe – and they are almost certainly right. "The army has control only of the roads, and we are present in the forests," one Pakistan Taliban commander was quoted as saying. A further reason is that the Pakistani army may be expert at blowing things up, but the civilian government is not good at rebuilding them. Wherever I went along the frontier, people complained of the absence of any help from officials sent by the central government. They complain that no representative of the government dared attend the funeral of the 100 young men playing volleyball killed by a bomber at Shah Hassan village.

The Pakistani army defends itself by saying it has the legitimacy and popular support to use maximum force against the Pakistan Taliban. Officers point to the movement's cruelty and bigotry, with girls' schools being blown up and Taliban fighters at checkpoints ripping out CD players from cars if they hear music being played. In the Swat Valley, film of the Taliban flogging a girl turned opinion against them across Pakistan. It is also true that in the long run the government in Islamabad could not tolerate the Taliban running a state within a state.

The army is successful militarily but civilian rule has not returned to FATA. Local people suspect that if the soldiers relaxed their grip the Taliban would return. They also fear that the crisis facing them is about to get worse as the US demands that the army invade North Waziristan, a district that is a stronghold of the Afghan Taliban. Officials say this is going to happen, and construction companies are hard at work widening and improving the main military supply route leading to Waziristan.

The US has long believed that closing down the Afghan Taliban's safe enclaves in Pakistan might be the trump card in winning the war there. No doubt the loss of the enclaves would be a blow to the insurgency, but the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is 2,600 kilometres long and officials repeatedly stress it cannot be sealed.

Senior officers also give the impression that moving against the Afghan Taliban is something they would only do with reluctance. They refer to the Pakistan Taliban as "miscreants" who lack the legitimacy and popular support of the Taliban in Afghanistan – whom they see as a resistance movement defending the Pashtun community.

The US will almost certainly succeed in persuading the Pakistan military to invade North Waziristan, and this pressure can only grow since Mr Shahzad claims to have been trained there. But invasion and military occupation will not end the conflict in north-west Pakistan, which will continue to fester, with America being blamed by Pakistanis for both the drones and the actions of the Pakistani army. This will probably be enough to motivate young men like Mr Shahzad to give up their careers and go on their doomed missions of revenge.

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