The Taliban blowback
by Declam Walsh
–The Guardian, 16/04/08–
Two recent films feature Pakistan’s lawless North-West Frontier province. The first is Charlie Wilson’s War, a glossy Hollywood tale about how a cocaine-sniffing, skirt-chasing congressman helped goad the CIA into a massive covert war against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In one scene Tom Hanks, who plays Wilson, and Julia Roberts, his flinty southern belle, bring a powerful Washington politician named Doc Long to a squalid refugee camp near Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan. Moved by the plight of the Afghan refugees, Long promises he will send weapons to fight the infidel communists.
“This is good against evil. And I want you to know that America is always going to be on the side of the good,” the pudgy white man declares to the turbaned crowd of Afghan exiles. “Allahu Akbar!” they yell. Long punches the air in return. “Allahu Akbar!” he shouts.
The second film is far from glossy; in fact it is a non-fiction production. Shot in Mohmand, a tribal area in Pakistan’s borderlands near the Afghan refugee camps created by that conflict in the 80s, Revenge is a straight-to-DVD job. It sells for the equivalent of 40p in the bazaars of Peshawar and its budget is evident in the wobbly camerawork and harsh lighting. But the action is all too real.
In the climactic scene, a Taliban gang parades six men, accused of theft and betrayal, before a crowd of perhaps 5,000 tribesmen. The prisoners are badly beaten, naked to the waist and smeared with their own blood. They are shoved before the central figure – a man in traditional shalwar kameez and basketball boots, brandishing a knife as long as his forearm. Amid much ballyhooing, he beheads the prisoners, one by one.
The camera spares no detail. The head-chopping Talib clamps his hand over his victims’ mouths as he hacks at their necks; fellow fighters clamour to take photos with their mobile phones; blood squirts on to the soil. But only one sound is audible. “Allahu Akbar!” the crowd cries. “Allahu Akbar!”
The film exemplifies the fundamentalist fury sweeping Pakistan’s frontier region, a fury that has swelled to alarming proportions. Across the North-West Frontier province that abuts Afghanistan, self-proclaimed Taliban forces – a hotchpotch of religious diehards, foreign fugitives, angry tribals and village thugs – are imposing their influence at gunpoint. Girls’ schools have closed, movie and music stores have been torched and barbers who dare to shave beards have shuttered their pokey little stalls. Perceived enemies are kidnapped or, in some cases, beheaded.
Even more worrying, the violence is spilling into other parts of Pakistan. A cascade of suicide attacks and bombs have rocked the main cities. Recent victims have included a three-star general stalled in traffic, FBI agents at a pizza joint and the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, killed as she left an election rally in Rawalpindi.
In one of the largest attacks, a massive car bomb gutted a seven-storey police headquarters in Lahore. For days afterwards terrified city residents streamed past to gawp at the awesome destruction. “It looks like we’ve been attacked by an enemy country,” said Muhammad Umar, a municipal clerk, staring at the sagging mess.
The bloodshed has stalled in recent weeks as a new, civilian-led government takes control. But few expect the calm to last. Many Pakistanis blame America. Since 2001 the Pentagon has given the Pakistani army more than £5bn to fight militants in the tribal badlands. But for many Pakistanis this is “America’s war” – a fight inadvertently started by Charlie Wilson.
Throughout the 80s the US used Islam as a weapon against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, funnelling billions of dollars in weapons to the mujahideen fighters. The struggle became a cause celebre across the Muslim world, sucking in disaffected young men like Osama Bin Laden.
After the Soviet forces crawled home in 1989, Wilson and the CIA largely forgot about their jihadi creation until the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001, when the realisation came painfully late.
Pakistanis make this argument forcefully and frequently (though usually omitting to mention that their more respected ally, Saudi Arabia, paid for half of the anti-Soviet jihadi budget). But the 80s jihad also spawned a home-grown malignancy – one that now poses a powerful threat.
Recognising the jihadis’ skill with a Kalashnikov and dedication to God, Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) gave them a fresh assignment in the 1990s: Kashmir. Led by Afghan veterans, fighters were secretly trained, armed and funded by the ISI to fight Indian soldiers in Kashmir. The best were later sent to help the Taliban in Afghanistan, then also sponsored by elements within Pakistani intelligence.
But when Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, backed the United States after 2001, the footsoldiers felt betrayed. First they tried to kill Musharraf in 2003; in the past nine months they have launched a blistering offensive against the security forces. A senior Pakistani police official told the Guardian that he believes these elements – loosely termed the “Punjabi Taliban” – have played a central role in the recent violence. Frankenstein’s monster has turned on its master.
“The intelligence agencies were so short-sighted not to see the blowback,” says another figure with front-line experience, Hassan Abbas. He was a sub-divisional police chief in North-West Frontier province in the late 90s, and is now a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “You can switch these guys on,” he says. “But it’s 100% more difficult to switch them off.”
Yet for all that, Pakistan is strangely reluctant to crack down on certain Islamists. While there are those who have been captured or killed, others are allowed to roam free. Some shadowy figures seem almost untouchable: men such as Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
Akhtar, a jihad veteran of three decades’ experience, has seen it all. He has been portrayed as hero and villain, godfather and coupster, idol and assassin. He has skirted American bombs, fought dirty wars and become pals with the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Today his past seems to have caught up with him. He languishes in a Karachi jail, accused of orchestrating an attempt on Benazir Bhutto’s life last October. But if history is a guide, he is unlikely to see a trial. He may be quietly released or, who knows, mysteriously slip from custody. People like him, it seems, simply know too much.
Akhtar wasn’t always seen as the bad guy. Back in 1980, just months after the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, he became a pioneer of the modern Pakistani jihad. He left his home in the city of Chishtian in Pakistani Punjab, and headed north to Peshawar in North-West Frontier province. Teaming up with other religiously minded men, he signed up for the fight. News of the glorious exploits of his group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI), inspired others to follow.
“He was my first amir [commander],” said Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, 35, a baby-faced cleric who heads the Pakistani Ulema (scholars) Council and is a former religious adviser to the government of Punjab. “The Russians were demolishing an Islamic country and it was our duty to defend it. At that time we were the Americans’ sugar babies. They thought we were doing their job. We thought we were doing it for God.”
Men like Akhtar were friends of America, allying themselves to Afghan commanders and, in the bubbling cauldron of jihad, befriending wealthy Arab fighters, such as Osama bin Laden, according to a former Pakistani intelligence officer, Khalid Khawaja. He said he met Akhtar in a training camp in 1987. “He was one of the first Pakistanis to go for jihad,” he said.
After the Russians fled in 1989, a generation of jihadi fighters found themselves fired up with nowhere to go. Pakistan’s ISI spy agency gave them a destination. Within a few years, Pakistani guerrilla groups were infiltrating Indian-controlled Kashmir, all under the control of the ISI. Battle-hardened warriors such as Akhtar led the fight. Saudi-funded madrassas provided a steady flow of recruits.
“It was an arrangement that suited the ISI very much,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, author of The A to Z of Jehadi Organisations in Pakistan.
But Akhtar soon made it clear that his first allegiance was to Allah, not Pakistan. In 1995 he was part of a fanciful plot by a fundamentalist army general, Zaheerul Islam Abbasi, to overthrow Benazir Bhutto’s second government, oust the army and turn Pakistan into an Islamic caliphate. Akhtar’s job was to provide the muscle. Once the generals had been arrested or killed, he would lead up to 300 jihadis into action, said Rana.
The plot failed miserably and Akhtar was jailed. But in a pattern that was to recur, he was quietly released months later. Soon after, he slipped back to his stomping ground in Afghanistan, where the Taliban were sweeping to power.
At a time when the ISI was openly supporting the Taliban, Abbasi became a close adviser to Mullah Omar. “He was a sort of consultant,” said Rana. And that allegiance made him a new enemy after 9/11: America.
In October 2001, on the first night of the US-led offensive aimed at crushing the Taliban and extremist training grounds in Afghanistan, the US air force blitzed a HUJI training camp in Rishikor, south of Kabul. It was later identified as a graduate school for jihadis. Students from Arab countries, Pakistan and Uzbekistan learned how to kidnap, bomb and shoot.
By the time the bombs landed Akhtar had already fled. But he was less lucky a month later. A spokesman for HUJI reported that US bombs had killed 85 Pakistani fighters in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Akhtar, it was said, had gone to Kabul to make preparations for the bodies to be repatriated.
Weeks later, he disappeared. One swashbuckling fable has Akhtar fleeing through the deserts of southern Afghanistan on his motorcycle with Mullah Omar riding pillion as American bombs destroyed the Taliban headquarters in Kandahar. Either way, Akhtar surfaced again three years later, several thousand miles away, in Dubai.
In a highly publicised coup for America and Pakistan, he was seized at Dubai airport and flown to Islamabad. The White House and Musharraf claimed to have nabbed a key al-Qaida player. “Very important,” declared President Bush’s terrorism adviser, Frances Townsend. The Pakistanis accused Akhtar of involvement in two attempts on Musharraf’s life nine months earlier.
Akhtar was kept in custody for almost three years. No court case was lodged, no charges were brought and he disappeared from view. Then last May, amid much public anger about Pakistan’s many “disappeared”, he was dumped on a busy road south of Islamabad. He went home.
Akhtar might have hoped for the quiet life. His lawyer and family say that he had retired from jihad and started building a khanqah, or religious retreat, on the Grand Trunk Road outside Lahore. In December he spent the holy month of Ramadan deep in meditation at the Syed Ahmed Shah khanqah, a collection of neat, low buildings amid maize fields and lychee orchards to the west of the city.
On a recent Friday morning, a group of young men with frizzy beards welcomed me in a small room off the polished courtyard. They offered sweet tea and biscuits but their faces were sour. “You foreigners call us terrorists because of our beards,” snapped one, a clerk from the city’s high court, in Urdu.
But after a few sips of tea the harshness melted. Of course they remembered Akhtar, they said. He stayed in a simple upstairs room, fasting through the day and praying deep into the night, said Rehan Ishfaq. “You could tell he was a commander,” he said. “But he was treated no differently to anyone else.”
To prove the point he named other respected guests who had been treated as equals – Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the extremist Jaish-e-Muhammad, another Kashmir militant group; and Azam Tariq, a sectarian leader gunned down in 2003.
The men were upset that Akhtar was now in jail. It was all Benazir Bhutto’s fault, they said. A few weeks earlier Bhutto’s family had posthumously published Reconciliation, the book she was finishing at the time of her death on December 27. In it, she names Akhtar as the puppet-master for a huge suicide bombing that killed 150 people during her homecoming parade in Karachi last October.
“A bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government,” she wrote.
Akhtar’s lawyer Hashmat Habib says there is no evidence to link his client to the plot. “Qari sahib [sir] is a pious and religious person, yes. But fighting for freedom is no crime,” he said. And he has launched an ambitious libel case against the book’s New York publishers for $200m in damages – the alleged value of Bhutto’s own insurance policy. “A mujahid’s [religious fighter’s] life is worth more than that of a political leader,” he says.
As before, Akhtar is surrounded by more questions than answers. He has not been charged. When the first detention order expired, police flew him to Karachi. When that detention order expired late last month, they renewed his detention for another 30 days. Experts are sceptical he will ever see a trial. A man such as him could shed much light on the intelligence services’ past – and possibly present – links with the murky Islamist underworld.
Suspicions linger that the intelligence agencies have not entirely closed the chapter on jihad – possibly in case its practitioners are needed in any future war with India. “Some people seem to be still in the ‘good books’. The police are afraid to touch them,” said Abbas of Harvard. Several western diplomats echoed this view.
Meanwhile the bombs and the blowback continue. Nobody is safe, not even the family of the man who started it all through his policy of “Islamisation” in contemporary Pakistan – the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan through the 80s and was a key ally of Charlie Wilson. In the movie, the congressman apologises for requesting a scotch on the rocks in the alcohol-free presidency. “I’ll bet that visitors often make that mistake,” he quips. “No they don’t,” says Zia.
A few weeks ago I went to see Ijaz-ul-Haq, Zia’s softly spoken son. Until last year, he served as minister for religious affairs under Musharraf. Sitting under a tobacco-coloured portrait of his father, he looked a little dejected. Now the Islamists were out to get him too, he said.
In late December a bomb prematurely exploded 300 yards from his house in southern Punjab. The police linked the putative killer to the Red Mosque, the radical Islamabad mosque where over 100 people died in a confrontation with the army last summer. Haq had led unsuccessful attempts to find a peaceful solution.
There were other ominous echoes. The killer belonged to a militant group that had fought in Kashmir. He had also been to Afghanistan. And he came from a village close to the home of Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
“This is a whole new phenomenon,” said Haq. “Even during Afghanistan and Kashmir, we never saw suicide attacks like this.” He had raised the walls around his house and erected concrete barricades. Security men roamed the garden. But still he was worried.
“Time is on their side,” he said. “They go slowly. It’s very scary.”
A bearded man wearing a tracksuit, who looked like an ex-soldier, came into the room. A gun appeared to bulge from one pocket. It was time for his employer’s evening jog.
The American who funded jihad is also quietly contrite. After September 2001, Charlie Wilson told biographer George Crile that the 1980s fight was a “glorious” time. But the endgame, he admitted, had gone disastrously wrong.