By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan's government is losing its war against emboldened insurgent forces, giving al-Qaeda and the Taliban more territory in which to operate and allowing the groups to plot increasingly ambitious attacks, according to Pakistani and Western security officials.
The depth of the problem has become clear only in recent months, as regional peace deals have collapsed and the government has deferred developing a new strategy to defeat insurgents until Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, can resolve a political crisis that threatens his presidency.
Meanwhile, radical Islamic fighters who were evicted from Afghanistan by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion have intensified a ruthless campaign that has consumed Pakistan's tribal areas and now affects its major cities. Military officials say the insurgents have enhanced their ability to threaten not only Pakistan but the United States and Europe as well.
"They've had a chance to regroup and reorganize," said a Western military official in Pakistan. "They're well equipped. They're clearly getting training from somewhere. And they're using more and more advanced tactics."
Pakistan's military, on the other hand, is considering pulling back from the fight -- at least partially -- in the face of mounting losses, the official said.
"They're not trained for a counterinsurgency. It's not their number one priority. It's not even their number two priority," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "These are the reasons things aren't going their way."
Pakistani military officials concede they are searching for a new strategy now that the old one has gone awry. But with Musharraf struggling to stay in office and expected to soon step down from the military, no decisions are likely until questions over the country's leadership are settled.
"The federal government is busy with its problem of legitimacy. Getting Musharraf elected for another five years -- that is keeping everything on hold," said retired Brig. Gen. Mehmood Shah, who until 2005 was a top security official in the tribal areas.
In recent years, Pakistan has relied on deals with insurgents to keep them from launching offensives. But two such agreements -- in North and South Waziristan -- fell apart this summer when insurgent leaders abruptly announced they were backing out.
The main criticism of the deals, both in Pakistan and in the West, had been that they gave al-Qaeda and the Taliban sanctuary in which to train, plot and launch attacks.
Now, security experts say Pakistan is paying the price for not confronting the problem head-on, with insurgent groups capitalizing on their newfound strength.
Last month, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying workers with the nation's hugely influential spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, killing 22 people. Just a week later, a bomber reportedly wearing a military uniform breached one of the most secure army installations in the country, where elite commandos train. The assailant detonated his explosives in the officers' mess during dinnertime, leaving 17 soldiers dead.
The latest blows came Monday, when a suicide bomber killed 15 people, including four policemen, in the northwestern town of Bannu. Late Monday night, more than 20 Frontier Corps troops went missing after their post near Bannu came under attack.
The insurgent strikes represent a humiliating breakdown in security for the world's sixth-largest army. But most embarrassing is the fact that about 250 soldiers remain in Taliban hands more than a month after they were taken hostage.
The soldiers were traveling in a supply convoy through the hostile terrain of South Waziristan on Aug. 30 when their route was blocked by a group of local fighters. Although they were vastly outnumbered, the fighters managed to persuade the soldiers to surrender without firing a shot. Since then, the government has been unable to win the soldiers' freedom because the Taliban is seeking major concessions.
"This kidnapping is a lesson to the government to honor its peace deal with us," said Zulfiqar Mehsud, a spokesman for the Taliban, which blames the government for violating the agreement. Mehsud's group wants to transform Pakistan into a radical Islamic state modeled after Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The troops' surrender has called into question the army's commitment to fighting an unpopular war that requires Pakistanis to kill their countrymen. It has also exposed the army to ridicule.
"In Waziristan, people are laughing at the army," said Lateef Afridi, a tribal elder and lawyer. "I really feel pity for these soldiers."
One of those soldiers, Najmul Hasan, 29, recently spent 50 days in Taliban captivity in Waziristan. "The ringleaders would threaten on a daily basis to behead us if the government didn't release their members," Hasan said. He and two others eventually escaped, but other soldiers were, in fact, beheaded. The Taliban videotaped one such incident in which an execution was carried out by a teenage boy.
While Waziristan is believed to be the operational headquarters for the insurgency, militant groups have expanded their reach significantly over the past year. They now have a firm grip not only on the tribal areas that line the Afghan border but on other sections of northwest Pakistan as well.
Residents of this frontier city are beginning to feel besieged, with the surrounding countryside falling under insurgents' sway and assailants occasionally carrying out attacks in Peshawar.
Even hard-line religious leaders are not safe. Last month, one of Peshawar's most prominent clerics, Maulana Hassan Jan, was assassinated as he rode in his car to evening prayers. Although he had been outspoken in his criticism of the United States and was revered among many who want to bring Islamic law to Pakistan, he was not radical enough to satisfy insurgent groups, who are blamed for his killing. He had, for instance, shunned the pro-Taliban clerics at Islamabad's Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, when they instigated an armed standoff with the government in July.
"Traditional religious and political leaders are losing ground because people consider them very soft against Pervez Musharraf and America," said Qibla Ayaz, dean of the Islamic studies program at Peshawar University. "Among the youth, their influence is weakening."
The United States has pumped about $10 billion into Pakistan since 2001, the vast majority of it for the military. But the aid does not seem to have won the United States many friends here. Nor has it successfully prepared the Pakistani army to battle insurgents.
"The sad thing about it is that a lot of these militants are better off than the Frontier Corps," said the Western official, referring to the Pakistani force that is supposed to be on the front lines fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The militants "have rockets. They have advanced weapons. And the Frontier Corps has sandals and a bolt-action rifle."
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has sought to exploit the Pakistani military's deficiencies and its unpopular ties to the United States. Last month, he released an unusual audio recording in which he focused almost all of his wrath on Musharraf and called on Pakistanis to overthrow their government.
Shah, the retired general, said that knowing how strong al-Qaeda has become, Pakistani officials are deluding themselves if they think insurgents will back down anytime soon.
"Pakistan should have no doubt about what these people have done, and what they can do," he said. "They have declared war on Pakistan. Now the army must make a war plan."
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.