Nov 27, 2008

World - Pakistan's spreading Taleban war

Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Peshawar

There are growing fears in Pakistan that the war against the Taleban is widening.

Pakistan's army is opening up new fronts against the militants, who are responding by spreading the conflict, destabilising even the city of Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Deep in Pakistan's frontier a war is raging.

Pakistan's army is on the offensive, pushing into the tribal agencies of Bajaur and now Mohmand, fighting a slow, hard battle against Taleban fighters.

Bit by bit, and at huge cost, territory is being seized back.

With tanks, artillery and airstrikes, the army is trying to clear villages, towns and roads of militants, attempting to drive the Taleban from the sanctuaries they have occupied.

Once each village or town is taken, bulldozers move in, flattening houses so the Taleban cannot sneak back and occupy them again.

Across the tribal areas that border Afghanistan, unmanned US aircraft have also stepped up their activity in recent weeks, launching missile strikes every few days against al-Qaeda targets.

The war against the Taleban has come to Pakistan's tribal districts and the consequences are being felt across NWFP.

Standing among the ruins of the town of Loi Sam, Pakistan's chief army spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, told the BBC last month that its capture had put the militants "at a great disadvantage and had broken their back".

Battered the Taleban may be, but they are retaliating.

Under pressure from the Pakistani offensives and the American missile strikes they are being forced further inland, resulting in the conflict ballooning and spreading to new areas.

First they have struck back near the Khyber Pass, hijacking and burning trucks driving towards the Afghan border.

The vehicles they have been targeting are trucks carrying supplies meant for Nato forces in Afghanistan and the Afghan army.

In the most brazen attack a fortnight ago, Humvee armoured cars destined for Afghanistan were seized.

The Taleban filmed themselves triumphantly driving off with their booty of Nato vehicles.

The alliance's supplies heading for the border were suspended while security was stepped up, and the convoys have only recently restarted.

Just a few kilometres from the tribal areas our BBC team, including cameraman Paul Francis and producer Peter Leng, discovered Nato equipment stacked up in guarded compounds.

It all now needs a military escort to reach the border.

There were Humvees piled on trailers and huge armoured trucks lined up and hidden under tarpaulins. All is vital equipment that has now been held up.


Almost 75% of all supplies for Nato forces in Afghanistan come through Pakistan, the majority through Peshawar. That means that Nato's most important supply route is under threat.

One trucker, Haji Haghaley, showed me his vehicle. It was riddled with holes made by Taleban bullets a few days ago.

Haji Haghaley says three Taleban fired from the side of the road and he drove as fast as he could.

Other drivers we met taking a break at a roadside tea stall have had similar escapes. One, too afraid to talk openly, said his cousin was attacked last week.

"He was carrying US army trucks, and the Taleban stopped him," the man told me. "The Taleban burnt his truck. They took my cousin. They demanded 10 lakh rupees in ransom ($11,500), but then lowered it to 35,000 rupees ($400)."

Also under threat is the NWFP capital, Peshawar.

The war is pushing the Taleban deeper into Pakistan. So Peshawar is now on edge. Westerners have fled, there are none to be seen.

In recent weeks there have been a spate of attacks targeting foreigners.

An American diplomat escaped an assassination attempt because her armoured car protected her, but a US aid worker was killed in a second attack.

'Better equipment'

Iranian and Afghan diplomats have been kidnapped and foreign journalists injured in shootings.

The police have stepped up security in the city, there are new checkpoints, more armed patrols. But Peshawar's police say they are outgunned and ill-equipped for the fight on their hands.

"The militants I think have far better equipment, they have rocket-propelled guns and we have none," Ins Gen Malik Naveed Khan, the head of police for NWFP, told me.

"We have no helicopters, no aerial mobility, in transport we are 50% down on peacetime requirements and presently we are at war," he said.

As for the Taleban's tactics, Ins Gen Khan says they are clear.

"They would like to destabilise the city centres so they can put pressure on the government to get concessions in the tribal areas," he says.

"And they want to open up more fronts for us to dilute the effect of the law enforcement agencies.

"Their agenda is to cause problems for the government to check its commitment and resolve in the war against terror."

On the edge of Peshawar we watched as police searched vehicles entering the city.

There were just a handful of officers, armed only with machine guns, no sand-bagged positions, no heavy weapons, no armoured vehicles.

Beyond the checkpoint lay the tribal areas, the realm of the Taleban.

The few police officers and their light weapons were all that was protecting the outskirts of Peshawar, keeping the Taleban at bay.

Deeper in the tribal lands Pakistan's army is opening up new fronts. Now it's fighting in Mohmand, closer to Peshawar.

The war will probably spread much further too. But just as Nato has found in Afghanistan, the Pakistani security forces are now discovering too that the Taleban is a foe that is hard to corner, even harder to defeat.

No comments: