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.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit