Dispatch from Pakistan: The Taliban Expands


(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


13 comments on “Dispatch from Pakistan: The Taliban Expands

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  2. Carroll says:

    Well, I never thought we would succeed in Afghanistan either.
    Does anyone outside of the State Department ever study history?


  3. EEKMan says:

    Yes, it will be an ugly world when the Taliban inherit those Pak nukes. Will it be post Iran strike, or some other cluster snaffle that topples ‘our’ dear general like a tree? For some reason I don’t expect a drawn out civil war in Pakistan. We can only pray that the warheads are in locations that lend themselves to a quick snatching, otherwise the revenge of Kahn will assume new meaning.


  4. Marcia says:

    Any terrorist must surely be interested first and foremost in Pakistan that already possesses developed nuclear capacity.
    What is going on about the pipe lines that were to cross Afghanistan, or is our equivalent of the Roman Legions too stretched to guard them?
    For those killed there will be no Bushes at the funerals, they are attending to Ken Lay.


  5. Den Valdron says:

    Beady Eyes, that’s an outrageous and offensive remark. I have no idea what you have against McCain, but you denigration of a war hero and longtime Senator is disgusting and clearly inaccurate. MCCAIN IS MUCH MUCH SMARTER THAN A GERBIL.


  6. Beady Eyes says:

    Agreed. Maybe it’s time to remove this cabal and insert a personality such as Chuck Hagel or Ron Paul (if it really NEEDS to be a GOP replacement) to run this country. At least these two MAY put thought into things and do the right thing.
    I don’t mention McCain because I believe he won’t be much different than Bush. He’ll stay the course even though he’s 1 million times smarter than Bush.


  7. Beady Eyes says:

    Wow…further proof that if the crap hits the fan there and we wind up being attacked here, Bush should be tried for treason.
    He should have stayed the course in Afghanistan and wiped out the REAL purpetrators of 9/11, Al Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors. Nooooooo…too hard I guess. Bush wanted to avenge his daddy and attack Saddam (notice I don’t say we invaded Iraq, WE ATTACKED SADDAM) which is not such a big deal (saddam deserved his fate) but he was ZERO threat to the USA.
    We are screwed. Hizbollah and Hamas are messing with Israel again. Iran’s new Prez will not sit by and watch Israel attack Lebanon. Syria may not either.
    While all this happens, our boys will be stuck in the middle while we AS USUAL let Israel do whatever it wants. Wow…thanks Georgie, you have been the bestest darned President ever (not!).


  8. Den Valdron says:

    Okay, here goes.
    First, I wouldn’t take Israel’s military incursion into Lebanon all that seriously. The bottom line is that Israel is far and away the dominant military power in the region and has a long history of acting with impunity.
    So Israel invades Lebanon this week? Well, the arab states will pass some resolutions, the United Nations will voice its disapproval, and there will be demonstrations in the streets. On the other side of the coin, the Israel apologists in the United States will scream louder than ever.
    But in real terms, nothing substantive will happen. Egypt, which is at peace with Israel, and is paid handsomely for that peace, will sit quietly. The Saudi’s and the Gulf states are too concerned about their oil revenues to get involved. Ditto for Libya. The Jordanians are neutered and impotent. For countries like Turkey and Algeria or Morocco, they’re too far away and have no interests at stake.
    Syria is on the border with Lebanon and Israel, but Assad knows he’s only heartbeats away from a full scale American/Israeli invasion/overthrow, and if push comes to shove, he couldn’t stop it. So he’s going to sit on his hands and do nothing and say nothing.
    Iran might be a bit concerned, but they aren’t in a position to do anything at all. So they’ll talk tough, but that will be about it.
    Which means that the sum total of effective Muslim response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon will be a big fat zero. As it was during the first Invasion of Lebanon and 18 year occupation, as it was during Israel’s raid on Tunisia, as it was during Israel’s raid on Iraq, as it was the last time Israel bombed Syria.
    Israel will remain in Lebanon for as long as it wants to, which will be approximately until it gets tired of fighting a guerilla war with Hezbollah. There’ll be no meaningful achievement of any goals. Then they’ll go home, and it will settle down to both sides lobbing rockets across the border at each other.
    The bottom line, lots of sound and fury, but no real impact for anyone, except those unlucky enough to be killed.
    Turning now to the Talibanization of Pakistan, I would refer you all to the book “Taliban,” by Al Rashid who is a real, honest to gosh journalist. The book is mostly historical at this point, but Rashid does touch on the connections between the Taliban and Pakistan.
    Specifically, if the Taliban is not an actual Pakistani intelligence service creation, it is not far from it. The Taliban militia’s were formed from and drew their strength from Pakistani Madrassas. At points, these Madrassas would actually empty out as they sent their students to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban when hard pressed.
    There was always a close relationship between Pakistan intelligence and the Taliban. Particularly, Pakistan Intelligence hired on the Taliban to open the road to Kabul. This was the beginning of the Taliban’s rise to power. There is substantial evidence that the Taliban were subsequently funded and armed by Pakistan.
    It should be noted that the relationship of the Taliban to various elements in Pakistan is complex. They have at least three supporting constitutencies: 1) The Pathan or Pashtun tribes, who are their ethnic group and whose philosophies and outlook they are a representative though extreme example. 2) The Madrassas which increasingly form the core of whatever passes for an educational system in Pakistan. 3) Pakistan Intelligence/Military in the form of a political alliance. We can add to this an increasingly virulent Islamisization in Pakistan.
    None of this, however, is new or particularly controversial. All of these elements were in place before the US ever invaded Afghanistan. The fact is, they were never dealt with. Ignoring these issues for six years has not improved matters.
    To say we need a new strategy is not novel. The old strategy was bankrupt from the start.


  9. Ben says:

    What does Peter Bergen have to say on the issue of increasing Taliban strength in A & P?


  10. Pissed Off American says:

    Mr. Clemons–if you have time, somebody with your knowledge ~needs~ to post some reaction to what Israel has just done today vis-a-vis Lebanon today. Truly disturbing act of agression, IMO.
    Posted by Punchy
    Here we go. This could well be the spark that ignites an inferno of epic proportions in the ME. Isn’t it comforting knowing that we have a blathering idiot in the Oval Office, and a slobbering antagonistic ass in the UN? I am confident the two of these buffoons can put thier heads together and figure out a plan to make the sitiuation infinitely worse.
    One thing is for sure, AIPAC will be busy fellatin’ our representatives today. These “military excursions” are expensive, and by God why should ISRAEL have to pay for them when they have a direct line into OUR bank accounts?
    Bend over America, we have yet ANOTHER war to pay for.


  11. Punchy says:

    POA says:
    Of all the deceptions that these treasonous bastards in the Bush mob have foisted on us, one of the most despicable is the role they have cast for Pakistan.
    Just wait until India finds out that the bombings were the makings of Pakistan-funded/trained terrorists. How the U.S. will attempt to still be allies with both will be a foreign-policy dance that I cannot even imagine.
    Should the culprits indeed turn out to be Pakistani-related, the hypocrisy of the U.S. “anti-terrorist” alliance with said country will be so high as to be off the charts. Of course, I’m not sure Bush even understands what hypocrisy means.


  12. Pissed Off American says:

    Pakistan is the ultimate example of why the “Global War on Terror” is such a LIE. Who here remembers the Pakistani airlift of Taliban and very probably Al Qaeda operatives out of Afghanistan that we ALLOWED during the campaign in Afghanistan? And what of General Mahmud Ahmed, the Pakistani ISI general who is known to have sent over ten thousand bucks to Mohammed Atta in the weeks leading up to 9/11??? How is it these lying pricks in the White House can illegally track international bank transactions, but have never pursued or prosecuted a Pakistani intelligence chief that is KNOWN to have helped finance Atta???
    Here we have a despotic military dictator whose intelligence agency had a high ranking official actually FUNDING the 9/11 operation. A country that we ALLOWED to evacuate Taliban out of our grasp in Afghanistan. A country whose scientist was busy selling nuclear weapons technology to Iran and N.Korea while these fuckers in Washington were LYING to us about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. AND THIS IDIOT BUSH PROCLAIMS THEY ARE AN ALLY IN “THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR”????? Of all the deceptions that these treasonous bastards in the Bush mob have foisted on us, one of the most despicable is the role they have cast for Pakistan.


  13. Punchy says:

    Writing about the influence of the Taliban in Pakistan is frightening, considering the well-informed have been also warning of its increased re-emergence in Afghanistan, as well. Dare I say our whole military effort (Pat Tillman, anyone?) will be for naught in 3-5 years?
    Mr. Clemons–if you have time, somebody with your knowledge ~needs~ to post some reaction to what Israel has just done today vis-a-vis Lebanon today. Truly disturbing act of agression, IMO.


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