Eric Campbell on the Pakistan Taliban
Islamabad looks as colorful as ever, but even the capital is on constant warning. Pakistan is under aggression from within. More than 5,000 Pakistani soldiers have been executed and nearly 9,000 injured battling militants on the western border. Some of the terrorists are Afghan and Arab fanatics who escaped from Afghanistan, but most are Pakistani stimulated by the external militants to massacre, cripple and bomb their own people.
The casualties aren’t just soldiers. There are assaults on noncombatants, like the bombing of a police commencement ceremony. The main wrongdoers are the Pakistani Taliban. They’re product of the Afghan Taliban and they’re even more barbarous. For ten years Pakistan’s leading specialist on extremism, Ahmed Rashid, has advised of their ascent.
From being a very small band ruling an insignificant area they have spread. They now have recruited militant groups in Karachi, Punjab, Sindh, Kashmiri and many other places. There is now a total extremist activity in Pakistan that is trying to eradicate the State.
Here is the transcript of the report:
CAMPBELL: Islamabad looks as vibrant as ever, but even the capital is on high alert. This entire country is under attack from the inside. I’m on my way to a military hospital to see some of the victims.
These soldiers were sent to the heart of a conflict that’s been largely hidden from the world. They’ve come back profoundly damaged and disabled.
MAJOR DR MUHAMMAD ALI: “Well most of the patients we are receiving now at Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine are coming from the western borders of Pakistan where the war on terror is in progress. The mine blast injuries are the most common causes which they are having in those areas as they are deployed there”.
CAMPBELL: Major Dr Muhammad Ali gets new amputees to treat every week.
MAJOR DR MUHAMMAD ALI: “As you have seen, one of the patients here, he has got three limb amputations – that is one above elbow, and bilateral trans-femoral amputations – that is above knee amputation. They are pretty tough men and at every stage of life I personally learn so many things from them, at how motivated and how robust they are that even with this challenge they are living a successful life”.
CAMPBELL: In the past nine years more than 5,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed and nearly 9,000 wounded fighting militants on the western border. Some of the enemy are Afghan and Arab fanatics who fled from Afghanistan, but most are their own people – Pakistanis inspired by the foreign militants to kill, maim and bomb their fellow countrymen.
AMPUTEE SOLDIER: “I have lost my leg, but I am ready to sacrifice for the country. I am ready to fight again. I will serve in the army and we will defeat the criminals. I am ready to sacrifice my life for the country”.
CAMPBELL: The victims aren’t just soldiers. There are nearly daily attacks on civilians, like this July bombing of a police graduation ceremony live on TV. The main culprits are the Pakistani Taliban. They’re an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban and even more ruthless. For ten years Pakistan’s foremost expert on extremism, Ahmed Rashid has warned of their rise.
AHMED RASHID: “From being a very small group controlling a small area they have expanded. They now have enlisted the support of militant groups in Karachi, in Punjab, in Sindh, Kashmiri groups who are fighting the Indians in Kashmir. There is now a full scale extremist movement in Pakistan that is trying to overthrow the State”.
CAMPBELL: The inspiration and agents of some of the worst acts of terrorism inhabit these remote landscapes – a place called Waziristan. According to US intelligence, even the Bali bombings that killed 88 Australians can be traced back to this frontier.
Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan is wide open to smugglers and terrorists. Since 2002 it’s been the real home of al Qaeda and the Taliban. They simply relocated here after the US-led invasion.
[travelling in car] “While the world has been focussed on Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan has been fighting an even costlier war in its own territory. This border region we’re heading to is normally off-limits to most Pakistanis let alone foreigners, but we’ve been given unprecedented access to go inside Pakistan’s war on the enemy within”.
We head west through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province British colonialists called the North-West Frontier. It’s the end of Pakistan proper. Beyond here is a kind of no-man’s land called the tribal agencies. Since colonial times, Pashtun tribesmen here were allowed to run their own affairs, but since the US invasion of Afghanistan, they’ve been taken over by militants.
AHMED RASHID: “In the tribal areas half the population have fled, not so much because of the army but because of the Taliban. They hate the Taliban, they’re scared of the Taliban and they fled and they’ve… some have fled as far as Karachi and Dubai in the Gulf, others have fled to refugee camps just outside the tribal areas”.
CAMPBELL: It’s taken months for us to get permission to travel to the tribal belt. The army has agreed to take us to a part it says it’s liberated, but we have to travel in a heavily-armed convoy with two mounted machine guns. The army will also call the shots on what we can film.
Our destination is the tribal agency of South Waziristan. In 2009, under intense US pressure, Pakistan sent in the army to clear out the Taliban. Soldiers fought village by village and mountain by mountain. Many Taliban were killed but many more simply retreated just beyond the army’s reach into a forbidding wilderness.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “There’s an operation basically in a location which is overlooking some of the approaches, which can be used by the terrorists”.
CAMPBELL: Colonel Hussain is one of the frontline commanders trying to hold on to this hard-won territory, but the terrain gives a clear advantage to insurgents.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “Be careful. If you fall here, it’s at the cost of something, so be very, very careful”.
CAMPBELL: “So this must have been incredibly difficult terrain to fight in, when you tried to take these hills”.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “It’s very difficult. Life is very difficult, at the post. You know, the people fetch water from downstream”.
CAMPBELL: “Yeah…. wow”.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “It’s really very tough – but you know it’s part of a soldier’s life”.
CAMPBELL: The rugged landscape isn’t the only challenge. The enemy retains a home-ground advantage – they grew up here.
“They would have known this land very well, the Taliban… the locals.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “Yes, obviously, the Taliban – they’re locals from this area so anyone who has been, you know, grazing his animals here for thirty years… he knows every stone of this area”.
CAMPBELL: On windswept mountaintops like this, they scan the area for Taliban and drill for attacks.
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “So I just wanted to show you the wilderness of this area, you know the mountains, the valleys and you know virtually it’s not possible to hold each and every peak, so you have to have domination at the top from where you can see different places where it is emerging and then you can observe the moment”.
CAMPBELL: “Big job!”
COLONEL HUSSAIN: “And it’s a difficult one”.
CAMPBELL: These are some of the men they’re fighting. A local journalist filmed this rare footage in winter of the Pakistani Taliban moving secretly though south Waziristan. They’re allies of the Afghan Taliban, but they have their own leaders and agenda.
Unlike the Afghans, they’re not trying to rid the country of foreigners – they want to replace their own government with a Sharia dictatorship.
HEKIMULLAH MEHSUD: “Democracy is part of the infidels, because it was created by the Jews. It was created to divide Muslims”.
CAMPBELL: Hekimullah Mehsud is one of their most powerful leaders.
HEKIMULLAH MEHSUD: “I can tell you that the Pakistan government is a slave to Americans and they worship Obama. Pakistanis obey Obama and Americans, like we obey our God”.
CAMPBELL: South Waziristan is now under complete military control. It feels like a wasteland. Most of the villages are still deserted. Civilians were ordered to leave so the army could launch its operation. The few men who’ve been given permission to return have had to surrender their traditional weapons.
The only women we see are fully veiled. Army minders order us not to film. In this culture, women can’t show their faces to strangers.
Waziristan, now divided into a north and south agency, has a long history of militancy. The British colonialists had little control here beyond the forts they built along the road to Afghanistan. They had to bribe tribal elders, called Maliks, to allow their soldiers safe passage.
“What I find really striking about this place is that even the villages are built as fortresses. There are two main tribes here, the Mahsuds and the Wazirs and historically when they haven’t been united fighting outsiders, they’ve been fighting each other. This is a land where war has traditionally been a part of life, where life is governed by an iron tribal code, and where offences of honour have to be settled in blood. It’s no wonder the British, who had the misfortune of trying to conquer Waziristan, called it Hell’s Doorknocker”.
Like the British, Pakistan has decided it can’t defeat the militants by force alone. It’s begun a second campaign for hearts and minds. The army is rebuilding much of what it destroyed in the fighting. It’s constructed a new technical college alongside new homes and cottage enterprises. The aim is to create jobs so these young people aren’t tempted to join the Taliban.
But when we visit one of the army built markets, the mood is more resentful than grateful. Some reckon the army’s operation against the Taliban did more harm than good.
SHOPKEEPER: The Taliban that were here were all Pakistanis. Even at that time the situation was good – it was not bad – but when the operation was done, the situation was worse. All our homes were destroyed during the operation”.
CAMPBELL: “Were you scared of the Taliban when they were here?”
TRIBAL MAN: “Nobody was afraid because they were all locals, and all were Pakistanis. They were locals and nobody was afraid. Everything was open… markets…everyone was roaming around as normal. Everything was normal”.
CAMPBELL: “So when you came back and saw everything was destroyed, how did you feel?”
TRIBAL MAN: “When we came back – the media doesn’t know about it – but the reality is that everything was destroyed, everything was finished. Schools are still mostly closed and teachers are absent. Three or four years have already been wasted for them. Everyone knows about this, how much time has been wasted for these children”.
CAMPBELL: Perhaps the Taliban went out of their way to keep these locals onside. Or maybe people are still scared of Taliban retaliation. Surrounded by soldiers, it’s hard to gauge what anyone really thinks. Inside this store, the merchant Abdul Ghafoor assures us all is fine.
“So are there any problems now?”
ABDUL GHAFOOR: “There is no problem. Life is good, and we are very thankful to God. We have been helped, the army also helped – and we’re having a very good life, no problems”.
CAMPBELL: “So what was it like when the Talban were here?”
ABDUL GHAFOOR: “They were also good days”.
CAMPBELL: “Really, why were they good days?”
ABDUL GHAFOOR: “Good days”.
CAMPBELL: “Why were they good days when the Taliban were here?”
ABDUL GHAFOOR: “We didn’t face any problems”.
CAMPBELL: “Have there been any bad times here?”
ABDUL GHAFOOR: “Never”.
INTERPRETOR: “No never”. [laughing]
CAMBPELL: “Life is good! How is business? It’s good is it? I thought it would be”.
We leave just as onlookers start joking about kidnapping us, something the Taliban did often for money.
MAN IN SHOP: “Shall we sell them? Shall we sell them?” [crowd laughs]
SHOP KEEPER: “One of them can speak Pashto, so be quiet. They are laughing, so let’s laugh too”.
CAMPBELL: It’s not surprising that the locals are unwilling to criticise the Taliban – there are sympathisers with a keen sense of hearing and there are fears the militants could return at any time. When they were here the Taliban didn’t hesitate to kill anyone who stood in their way, from tribal elders to local soldiers and police.
[on cricket field] “It’s relatively peaceful now but this place has seen some horrors. There used to be a fort bedside this cricket field and when the Taliban stormed it in 2008 they captured 38 soldiers and cut their heads off. Then they set up their headquarters in the school on the other side of the stadium. When the army re-took the fort a year later, 1200 people died in a single week. The war destroyed most of the village. The army’s now rebuilt it to try to lure people back but it’s going to be a long, slow process”.
Only a handful of villages have been repopulated. Most people are still living in camps or with relatives around Pakistan. But there is one striking improvement here. For the first time, girls are going to high school.
The army has built a new school for girls up to the age of 18. It’s a surprising sight in an area where females are all but invisible. An independent aid consultant, Australian Jennifer McKay, one of the few daring to come to this area, has been raising money to outfit it with textbooks and uniforms.
JENNIFER MCKAY: “An exciting thing about this school is that despite what people think about girls’ education in Pakistan, particularly the tribal areas, is that the community here wants girls to go to school so they donated the land for this school, the army built the school, and so a bunch of friends we’re helping fit it out”.
CAMPBELL: Jennifer McKay first came to Pakistan in 2005 to help with earthquake relief and decided to stay on. She found hardly any outside aid was coming to Waziristan, partly because of negative perceptions that she says are wrong.
JENNIFER MCKAY: “I think what really keeps me here is the hospitality and generosity of the people. Even here in Waziristan the communities are extraordinarily welcoming, which wasn’t really what I expected”.
CAMPBELL: But it soon becomes apparent this is still a deeply conservative place. While the principal is happy to teach older girls, he doesn’t want us to film them.
JENNIFR MCKAY: [trying to convince principal] “It’s very special but it would be good to at least be able to show something of what is here because this is a very special school and so it’s a story that’s worth telling. It’s one that’s worth telling in pictures”.
CAMBPELL: “So it would be possible, we really need to have some pictures of just the young girls, the little children”.
Finally, after long appeals from Jennifer McKay he allows us to see the youngest children.
JENNIFER MCKAY: “Education’s a critical part of peace building and stability. The country needs a lot of help with education anyway, a lot of schools are quite deprived. But here in post conflict areas, education is really critical to you know countering extremism and just generally the future prosperity and peace, so it’s a very useful investment, important investment.
CAMPBELL: “So it’s one way of keeping the Taliban at bay?”
JENNIFER MCKAY: “Yes it is, it is. To educate girls is really important, because they bring up healthier children, they make sure that both their girls and boys go to school so education whether it’s for boys or girls plays an important role in keeping, yes, the Taliban at bay”.
CAMPBELL: Most of the Taliban retreated across the mountain into North Waziristan, where they roam freely. This video footage filmed by a Pakistani journalist shows militants in control of the main city of Miranshah, while the army is hunkered down in a nearby fort. The government has so far been afraid to launch another big operation.
AHMED RASHID: “The big danger is that if this continues indefinitely, the Taliban will become more powerful than the army”.
CAMPBELL: The Taliban even have a media studio in North Waziristan. It makes internet videos like this one teaching children to be suicide bombers. Pakistan’s now trying desperately to stop this insurgency. The irony is that it may have helped create it. For many years Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, secretly supported militants in Afghanistan. The aim was to make sure Pakistan had a compliant neighbour no matter which side won the war.
AHMED RASHID: “There’s been this double game that has gone on for many, many years of Pakistan supporting the NATO presence in Afghanistan and at the same time allowing the Afghan Taliban to operate against the NATO forces”.
CAMPBELL: “So by trying to enhance Pakistan’s security by supporting the Afghan Taliban, they’ve actually undermined their own security because of the effect it’s had on the Pakistan Taliban?”
AHMED RASHID: “Exactly, exactly. I think that’s the best way of putting it. I mean the fact was you know, and people like myself were warning, in my writings, you know,I have been warning the Pakistani Government since 2003, because I visited some of these training camps and I saw what the army and ISI were doing in 2003 and I wrote about this. And of course, you know, they didn’t like it but I said the more you do this – encourage the Taliban to attack in Afghanistan – the backlash is going to come on Pakistan, because these camps and this set-up and this radicalisation is all taking place in Pakistan with the help of Pakistani tribesmen who are then going to get radicalised and of course that’s exactly what happened. You had the growth of the Pakistani Taliban”.
CAMPBELL: The US isn’t waiting for Pakistan’s permission to strike back. It’s using drones to attack Taliban bases like this Waziristan training camp. It was completely destroyed in a recent strike and this commander was killed, but each successful attack creates more enemies among the public.
There is one bright spot. Back in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, we were taken to meet some former Taliban operatives who the army captured. They’re being held in a special de-radicalisation centre outside the frontier city of Tank. We were allowed to film here on condition we don’t show their faces in case the Taliban take revenge on them.
Waseem, who’s 22, was a civil engineering student when the Taliban recruited him two years ago.
WASEEM: “They don’t come to college, they don’t do it openly, but they have places where they recruit. They tell people that Islam is facing danger and that a lot of atrocities and torture are being done against Muslims – and add more things to it. They try make people feel they should help – so they attract people to them”.
CAMPBELL: The inmates are learning new trades and getting religious re-education from anti-Taliban mullahs. Surrounded by soldiers, all tell us they now see the error of their ways.
WASEEM: “We are all Muslims, so they showed us one side of the picture and we thought it was necessary to do jihad because I did not know the other side of the picture. Then when I came here the army people told us the other side of the picture and I think this is right”.
CAMPBELL: It’s hard to know who to believe, from the lowliest foot solider to the height of government. The army at least seems determined to fight the Taliban’s rise in any way it can, but the biggest challenge may be yet to come. By the end of the year, almost all the Coalition’s combat troops will leave Afghanistan. Militants on both sides of the border are waiting.
AHMED RASHID: “They’re preparing not to make peace but rather to escalate the war which they feel that they will be able to do in a better way once the western forces have left”.
CAMPBELL: “So they see it almost as a retreat?”
AHMED RASHID: “Oh yes without a doubt. This is very similar to the circumstances in which the Soviet Union left Afghanistan”.
CAMPBELL: Australia and the US are about to end their longest-ever military engagement – but the war isn’t over. It’s just starting its next phase.