(Nicholas Schmidle on trip to India.)
A good friend and collaborator in organizing last September’s mega-conference on reframing the terrorism challenge, “Terrorism, Security and America’s Purpose” — Nicholas Schmidle is a smart, ultra-blonde, Lawrence of Arabia type combined with the tough travel-journalistic instincts of a Robert Kaplan. He has spent a great deal of time in Iran and is now in some of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan, traveling and writing in the region on a two-year fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs.
“Migration Season: The Taliban and their Expanding Influence in Pakistan” is Schmidle’s latest dispatch, which is well worth reading in full (be sure to check out the reference to “Brokeback Mountain”).
Here is the first bit of his commentary on the Talibanization of Pakistan:
In early February, the Taliban distributed a DVD showing a public execution in North Waziristan. The Taliban, whose name in Arabic means “students” or “seekers,” hang five alleged criminals from a metal tower that looks like an oil derrick. After the five men’s bodies go limp, they are lowered, decapitated, and then re-strung, upside-down and headless, from the scaffold.
The picture and sound quality of the video is grainy, and at times, images and words are difficult to discern. But the message is clear. In the Islamic State of Waziristan, the Taliban are in charge.
Waziristan, which is divided into North Waziristan and South Waziristan, belongs to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region of Pakistan roughly the size of Connecticut running alongside the border with Afghanistan. Since the Taliban were chased out of power in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in the winter of 2001, they have gained strength and support throughout all of FATA — and particularly in Waziristan.
Many Pakistanis tell me they are concerned that “Talibanization” will soon engulf the whole country, starting with Waziristan and ending in the capital, Islamabad. They described the phenomenon using medical references, comparing the expansion of the Taliban’s influence to a cancer. But a visit this May to a sensitive part of Pakistan where the Taliban are gaining support convinced me that the spread of the Taliban owed more to political and military decisions taken in Islamabad than to any Islamist ideology.
Waziristan’s recent history explains much about why it’s at the center of attention today.
During the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s, American, Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies worked together to provide the mujahideen with ideological and military training in camps set up throughout the tribal areas. The CIA typically supplied high-tech weaponry, such as the lethal surface-to-air Stinger missiles, while the Saudis built thousands of madrassas where fighters could be educated in the finer points of jihad.
The majority of those fighting the jihad were Pashtuns, the ethnic group dominating western Pakistan and southeastern Afghanistan. The Pashtuns follow a strict code of tribal law, the Pukhtunwali; the first two laws are badal, which means taking revenge, and melmastia, which means showing hospitality without any expectation of return or favor.
Today, U.S. officials allege that local tribesmen are sheltering members of al-Qaeda and Taliban, and giving them areas to train. In the tribal areas, after all, the state, officially, doesn’t function. In FATA, tribal law supersedes everything else.
The Pakistani penal code is irrelevant, its judges and courts don’t exist, and the police aren’t allowed in. Technically, neither are foreigners. As you approach any checkpoint bordering the tribal agencies, white, interstate-highway-sized signs, say, in English, No Foreigners Allowed Beyond This Point.
Without proper clearance and escorts from the Pakistani government, entering FATA is illegal — and life threatening.
But for someone like Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, the tribal areas are ideal: rugged terrain that is almost impossible for outsiders to navigate, a hospitable — and fiercely loyal — culture, and tons of weapons. “[The tribal areas] are probably the best place in the world to hide,” said Yusuf, a balding contractor and tribesman from a town just outside of the tribal agency of North Waziristan. “You can escape the law there.”
It seems clear from reports such as this that the crucial “hearts and minds” battle is not going well in the region and that while America flounders in Iraq, and gets ready to square off with Iran, dangerous trends are clearly underway in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Seriously, new game plan needed.
— Steve Clemons