While both Pakistan and the West have made significant military gains against the Taliban, they are critical of the lack of support they are receiving from their allies, says Con Coughlin.
Con Coughlin in Bajaur, North-West Pakistan
A Taliban patrol in northern Pakistan Photo: AFP/Getty
The young, immaculately turned out Pakistani soldiers responsible for guarding the world’s most inhospitable terrain were finding it hard to conceal their frustration. For the past 18 months, they had been fighting to drive thousands of Taliban militants from their strongholds in the remote tribal regions that straddle Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The campaign reached its climax last month, when Pakistani forces finally dislodged the Taliban from heavily fortified positions in Bajaur, just a few miles from the forbidding mountain passes that lead to Afghanistan.
This week, when I became one of the first Western journalists to reach Bajaur following the Taliban’s defeat, the detritus of battle lay everywhere. Along the roads to the border villages stood semi-demolished houses riddled with bullet holes, where Taliban fighters had made their last, desperate stands. Occasionally, frightened children would peer from dilapidated alleyways and wave nervously at our passing convoy of military lorries.
At the border village of Damadola, where the insurgents lost their final battle, all that remained from their reign of terror was the network of caves they had carved into the surrounding mountains, which were filled with the dusty sleeping bags and clothes abandoned in their haste to escape the military’s advance.
But even though Pakistani forces have inflicted a crushing defeat on the Taliban in the semi-autonomous tribal region of northern Pakistan, their senior officers are furious that hundreds of fighters escaped across the border into Afghanistan, where they are being housed and protected in camps set up by Afghan supporters.
Pakistani commanders insist that they informed their American opposite numbers that large numbers of Taliban were fleeing into territory that is supposed to be under US control, but they failed to intervene. Now the Pakistanis fear the Taliban will regroup in Afghanistan and launch a fresh offensive to re-establish its presence in northern Pakistan.
“We have done everything the West asked us to do,” Col Nauman Saeed told me when we met at the headquarters of the Bajaur Scouts, who spearheaded the campaign against the Taliban. “We feel badly let down.”
Previously, Nato commanders had accused the Pakistani authorities of not taking effective action against Taliban bases on their soil, which have been used to plan terrorist attacks against Western targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Now the Pakistanis are turning the tables on Nato. The irony of these claims will not be lost on the Americans, who faced similar accusations in late 2001, after they led the coalition that overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan. On that occasion, US forces failed to prevent the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies from escaping across the border to Pakistan, undermining attempts to capture Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader.
Since then, the insurgents have exploited the goodwill of Pashtun leaders in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas to build a new administrative structure. They used this to terrorise the population through the strict application of sharia law, and also provided a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists. Pakistani intelligence sources believe that Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of bin Laden’s key lieutenants, was given shelter in Bajaur itself.
The Pakistani military was finally forced to intervene after al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, and the Taliban moved south and seized control of the Swat Valley, close to the capital of Islamabad.
But the fact that, nine years after Western forces first deployed to the region, there appears to be no proper co-ordination between Nato commanders in Afghanistan and their Pakistani counterparts does not bode well for the future success of this campaign.
After all, the whole point of the new strategy devised by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces, is that it involves those on both sides of the border working together to defeat their common enemy.
What I found particularly disconcerting during my visit this week to the war zone in Pakistan was that the complaints I heard from Pakistani officers were not dissimilar to those I heard from their British counterparts when I visited Helmand this year. While both sides have made significant military gains against the Taliban, they are critical of the lack of support they are receiving from their allies.
The British and Americans accuse the Pakistanis of not doing enough to stop Taliban fighters fleeing across the border, while the Pakistanis complain about the ease with which the Taliban can move in the opposite direction.
It is clearly in the interests of everyone that this impasse is resolved quickly, as the glaring disconnect between Nato and Pakistan threatens to undermine the entire international effort to prevent this region from being a haven for Islamist terrorists. And with President Obama sticking to his pledge to start withdrawing American troops from the region in July next year, time is of the essence.
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