Pakistan: A Jihad Between Neighbors

Mullah Jihad Yar didn't want the Pakistani recruits when they were assigned to his Taliban unit a month ago. He still has reservations: the Afghan likes the Pakistanis' fighting spirit, but sometimes they get on his nerves. Like now. Scanning the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway from a brush-covered knoll in Ghazni province, Yar calls spotters he has stationed miles to the north and south on the road. If they report Americans or Afghan police approaching, the Taliban officer and his men—three Afghans and two Pakistanis on this mission—will close in for an ambush. One of the recruits, Abrar Ahmed, can hardly control his itch for combat. The 25-year-old Pakistani keeps interrupting—"Is it time to go?" With a hint of irritation, Yar tells a NEWSWEEK reporter: "These Pakistanis are too hot-blooded. They want to fight every day."

Taliban commanders say hundreds of impatient young militants like Ahmed have poured into Afghanistan from Pakistan this spring. It's impossible to pin down the numbers precisely, but Western diplomats, NATO brass and U.S. military sources all say there's been a "significant increase" in cross-border attacks and traffic since March, and it worries them. It's not just the usual spring offensive, they say. One detail is especially troublesome: the burst of insurgent activity has coincided with Pakistani government efforts to cut a peace deal with tribal militants who have tormented Pakistan with kidnappings and suicide bombings since last summer. In return for a halt to attacks within Pakistan itself, the Army has agreed to pull back from its forward positions within the tribal areas. The gates into Afghanistan have essentially been left wide open, and the Taliban's friends are running wild. "We are extremely concerned," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, asking not to be named on such a delicate issue.

Islamabad claims to be dealing only with tribal elders, not with bloodthirsty Qaeda supporter Baitullah Mehsud, but everyone knows he's in charge. Over the past two years, Mehsud and his hard-liner friends have killed roughly 200 moderate tribal leaders who dared to oppose them—"which makes a very effective message to the remaining ones," the diplomat adds. While Mehsud has denied responsibility for the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, his network of trained suicide bombers is believed to have carried out more than 50 attacks on Pakistani military targets since last summer. In recent months Afghan security forces have intercepted dozens of intended suicide bombers from Pakistan. "This Pakistani influx is a terrible trend," says the head of Kabul's counterterrorism force, Maj. Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, whose men have apprehended nearly 50 would-be martyrs from across the border in the past year.

Not all the detainees have been willing volunteers—or adults. In a cell at a National Security Directorate lockup in downtown Kabul, an illiterate 14-year-old Pakistani named Shakirullah says he was pressed into service by the extremists. He had been a pupil at a little religious school of 50 or so students in Jandola district, near the North-West Frontier province town of Tank. One night in early March, just before bedtime, his mullah came to the dormitory and announced that Shakirullah had successfully completed his memorization of the Qur'an. In the morning the man gave him more news: the boy had demonstrated himself ready "to join the jihad against the American infidels." There was no need to fear, Shakirullah recalls his mullah promising: if the boy became a martyr, he would soon be born again as an even better Muslim.

The man took Shakirullah by cab to Miram Shah, a border town in North Waziristan largely controlled by militants. The boy was frightened by all the long-haired, bearded gunmen he saw in the streets before the mullah packed him into another taxi with a half-dozen other passengers for the bumpy journey to the Afghan town of Khowst. As they left, Shakirullah heard his teacher phoning ahead to say the boy was coming. "I had lost the will to resist," he says. "I only wanted to go home to see my mother." Another man, an Afghan, was waiting for him in Khowst and took him to a local mosque, where the boy spent the next three nights. Then the man and another Afghan came and picked him up in a car. The boy noticed a large package on the floor in front. On March 21, Afghan police stopped the car at a roadblock and arrested all three. Shakirullah considered himself lucky after the police showed him what was in the package: an explosive device. He remains in custody, wondering whether he'll be convicted as a terrorist or released.

Of course, most Pakistanis with the Taliban are grown men who have joined willingly. Many Pakistanis fought for the Taliban when they held sway in Afghanistan, but cross-border enlistments dropped to practically zero after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. This year the numbers have rebounded, and the pool has expanded beyond the mostly unlettered, Pashto-speaking mountaineers of the borderlands. Yar's impatient recruit Ahmed is clearly motivated by something besides rockbound tribal loyalty; he grew up in Taxila, a historic town just west of Islamabad in Punjab province. And the other Pakistani on the knoll, Sajad Shah, 25, comes from Haripur, an Urdu-speaking area in North-West Frontier province.

Shah is in a talkative mood. The tall, well-built high-school graduate, son of a farmer and shopkeeper, says he was driven to join the Taliban by news coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially stories on the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prison scandals, and by Qaeda and Taliban propaganda DVDs that are widely available in Pakistan. Early this year he met a roving Taliban recruiter who told him how and where he could sign up, and in early March Shah made his decision. He told his family he was going to Karachi to look for work. Instead he wrote his will, entrusted it to a friend and climbed aboard a bus to Miram Shah.

He was sent to a training camp near town where he learned to fire an AK-47 and a grenade launcher and studied basic guerrilla tactics. After two weeks the trainers lined him up with more than 100 other new graduates, ready for assignment to Taliban units inside Afghanistan. About three quarters were from the tribal areas, he says, and most of the others were from North-West Frontier province and Punjab, but a few had come from as far away as Sindh. Several of the Punjabis had some previous combat experience against Indian soldiers in Kashmir. Many of the camp's instructors had fought there, too.

Yar initially balked at the order to get some trainees from Miram Shah. He had plenty of local volunteers, Yar told his provincial commander. But Yar says his boss insisted: "It would be against Islam to prevent a believer from joining the jihad." So Yar made the trip, examined the candidates and chose Ahmed, Shah and another Pakistani. Yar says Taliban subcommanders came to the recruitment fair from as far away as Kandahar and Helmand. One of Yar's neighboring subcommanders, Sher Agha, gleefully tells NEWSWEEK he brought home 14 Pakistani fighters, including several from Punjab, bringing his unit's total strength to 50.

Just before dawn one morning in late March, Yar and his Pakistani recruits crossed the rugged, isolated border on foot, accompanied by two bodyguards. They hiked over goat trails to a pro-Taliban village a day's walk away and went on from there, sometimes by hired motorbike and sometimes on foot, for nearly a week before they reached Yar's base. Shah is clearly enjoying the adventure. "I had a good life back home," he says. "But I prefer this past month's hardships, dangers and struggle to my past 25 years."

Yar appreciates the Pakistanis' enthusiasm but says they can be a problem at times. "Some villagers don't like them," he says. "They make mistakes with the people, as they don't know the local customs and values." Punjabis who don't speak Pashto are especially prone to offend and upset the locals, he says, and they can be picky about their rations, too. They prefer black tea to the green tea local Pashtuns drink, and they crave chili-spiced foods that are not part of the local diet. Even so, Yar adds, the Pakistanis tend to be more aggressive and motivated than some of his local recruits, so their presence is a worthwhile trade-off.

Most Western analysts estimate that Pakistanis still constitute less than 20 percent of the Taliban's total fighting forces. Although the Afghan insurgents suffered heavy casualties last year in Afghanistan, Yar insists that's not why so many Pakistanis are being brought in now. Western military experts agree. "However many insurgents were killed last year—5,000, 7,000 or more—the numbers don't really matter," says a senior NATO officer who is not authorized to speak for attribution. "In a country of 32 million, including 6 million Pashtun [males] from the ages of 14 to 44, that's fertile recruiting ground."

Raw recruits from Pakistan also can't offset the Taliban's most serious losses. More than 100 midlevel Taliban commanders were killed last year, the NATO officer says—and Yar admits the insurgents suffered heavy losses of key men. He estimates that perhaps up to half the deputy commanders in Ghazni have died, seriously impairing the Taliban's command and control capability. As a result, senior Taliban chiefs have ordered their midlevel commanders not to meet in groups larger than two, and to concentrate on small-unit ambushes and on IED and suicide bombing attacks instead of more-conventional ground attacks.

Some Afghan security officials angrily accuse Islamabad of deliberately exporting its problems across the border; the Afghans note the once close ties between radicals who fought in Kashmir, for instance, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "A lot of these Kashmiri groups and their unemployed guys with guns have turned to the tribal areas and the Afghan border," agrees the senior Western diplomat in Islamabad. But the diplomat and other Western officials in the region tend to think the Pakistanis are not directing the radicals to turn their fire elsewhere so much as looking the other way and hoping they do. And the White House has decided to support Pakistan's fledgling democracy even if it does give more breathing space to the Taliban.

The Pakistanis deny condoning cross-border attacks, even tacitly. They say they're negotiating with the tribals from a position of strength: Mehsud's men took a beating earlier this year in their sanctuary in South Waziristan. The Pakistani military brought a group of journalists to a former Mehsud stronghold in the village of Spinkai last week. The mud-and-brick homes stand empty now, apparently abandoned in haste. The Army has dynamited and bulldozed the bazaar and several walled compounds that were identified as bomb factories and schools for suicide bombers. Mehsud's fighters are nowhere to be seen. "We have the entire Mehsud territory encircled," says Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the regional military commander. "Nothing moves in this area except my troops." But that's not entirely true. While the military controls the main roads to the rest of Pakistan, the Afghan border remains wide open. And the Army is preparing to "thin out" its troop presence, pulling back to the largest villages and relinquishing the countryside to Mehsud and his men.

The worst of it is that Islamabad's peace efforts are almost sure to prove useless. Previous deals with tribal militants have collapsed after no more than a few months, the most notable examples being a ceasefire with Mehsud in early 2005 and a similarly doomed attempt in North Waziristan in 2006. Each time, the Army honored its pledges to free captured militants, return their weapons and pull back its troops to neutral areas. The militants, meanwhile, seized the chance to regroup, ignoring their promises to end the flow of fighters to and from Afghanistan and to expel Qaeda Arabs and other foreign jihadists from tribal lands.

Like those deals, the one on the table now has no enforcement provisions—and this one doesn't even bother to ban cross-border attacks. "Every time we go through this drill, the main interest of the Pakistanis is to relieve themselves of being attacked by militant forces," says an experienced Western military officer in Islamabad who asks not to be named speaking so bluntly about his hosts. "They are much less concerned about the militants crossing into Afghanistan." Pakistan's soldiers and their new civilian leaders may welcome the break in the violence for now. But the jihadists across the border will be coming home someday.