'Pain has become the remedy'

Posted in Terrorism | 14-Nov-07 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

(Click here for Part 1: Death by the light of a silvery moon)

NAWA PASS, Pakistan border with Afghanistan - While I was waiting in a village mud mosque, several motorbikes emerged from the evening darkness along a dirt track.

Four strongly built men stopped in front of me and alighted, their faces flushed from their ride. They each gave me a hug, and their traditional Punjabi greeting was music to my ears after listening to a lot of Pushtu.

I asked the obvious question: "Are you Punjabi?" The concern on their faces was immediately noticeable. "No! We belong to this land and like many Afghans we were settled in Punjab [in Pakistan] and therefore learnt Punjabi and forgot Pashtu, but now we are back in our land and have learnt our language again," one of the men explained.

This is perhaps somewhat romantic. Although such Punjabis might have romantic ties with Afghanistan, they actually come from Pakistani Punjab. Before the partition of British India in 1947, Punjab was seen as a loyal colony of the British and their recruits fought against the Afghans. After partition, Punjabis were seen as usurpers who divided the Pashtun tribes in the name of a new country called Pakistan. To many Afghans, Punjabis are opportunists and while they claim to be Muslims, their culture is a blend of Hinduism and Sikhism.

Sadiq is not a commander: he cannot be, because whatever he might say about his ethnicity, for Afghans he is a Punjabi. I watched as he spoke fluent Pashtu to his Afghan comrades, moving from one group to another with a permanent smile on his face. Clearly, he is the natural leader of the diaspora of Punjabi guerrillas now in Afghanistan.

Sadiq was in the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani jihadi group focused on the struggle to regain Indian-administered Kashmir. He was trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to conduct guerrilla operations all across India. He knows how to generate resources and lead sorties.

He joined the Taliban in late 2004 as an ordinary fighter, but because of his skills he quickly rose through the ranks. He became a trainer and honed his men's battle skills. And although he is not a commander, he is more respected and important than many of them. He is the mastermind of all guerrilla operational plans in Afghanistan's Kunar Valley.

An emirate in the making
I said my final prayers of the day and had my dinner. It was tolerably cold, and I sat back and by the light of a gas lamp watched and listened to tired guerrillas discussing their day.

"I was thinking before coming here, how do you say your Friday prayers in the battlefield - I noticed you did not say any today?" I started the conversation with Sadiq.

"First, we are all travelers, so Friday prayers are not compulsory. But most importantly, this region has been declared darul harb [enemy country], so Friday prayers are suspended until it becomes darul Islam [abode of Islam]," Sadiq replied.

I continued this discussion with Sadiq on prayers and the circumstances in which they are suspended and restored, and soon all the people in the mud hut had gathered around and the conversation turned to the new dynamics of the Afghan resistance.

So I launched a series of questions. "It is still not clear who is in whose command. What is the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [leader of the Hezb-i-Islami]? Is [veteran Afghan resistance figure] Jalaluddin Haqqani under [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, or is he commanding separately? Who do the Pakistan Taliban answer to? To Mullah Omar? And what are Pakistani jihadis up to?

Sadiq smiled at the barrage of questions and responded with some breaking news, "Mullah Omar, the Taliban shura [council], al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have resolved this issue once and for all. Soon the mujahideen will announce the revival of a [region-wide] Islamic emirate, and after this - like all fighting groups gathered under a single command in Iraq - all commanders in Afghanistan will fall under the umbrella of the Islamic emirate.

"The Islamic emirate will govern [operations in] Afghanistan and Pakistan, and whether it is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or any other, they will be under a single command and will not be able to defy the emirate because this is Islam," Sadiq said.

The pronouncement of an emirate would be a major development, and I jumped to my feet. "Are you sure that an Islamic emirate will be announced soon?"

"Yes, indeed," said Sadiq smiling.

"Sadiq, you know what this means? It would challenge both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Are the Taliban capable of doing this?" I asked.

"Of course we are," Sadiq replied calmly.

"How?" I asked.

"Three years ago, it was actually a dream, but now circumstances have enabled such an environment. Apart from North Waziristan and South Waziristan [tribal areas in Pakistan], the mujahideen used to move in Bajaur [Agency] and Mohmand Agency as if they were moving in [the Pakistani cities of] Karachi or Lahore. We were terrified of being arrested and of the fact that somebody would be spying on us.

"We used to make secret trips to Afghanistan to conduct occasional raids. On the one side the Americans were after us, and on the other side our own Pakistani army was tracking us. We didn't want to fight the Pakistan army, after all, they are Muslims. We tried our best to avoid fighting them, and still hardly 3% of the mujahideen are fighting against them. However, Pakistan did not think the way we were thinking. They were more cruel and gruesome than the Americans.

"We had a companion who had fought alongside us in Kashmir. His name was Umer, and he was dead against fighting the Pakistani army. Whenever the military conducted operations, he used to desert his companions, saying he could not fight against Muslims.

"One day, he was arrested by the ISI. They hung him by one hand from a roof, and carved stars on his thighs with daggers. They humiliated him in all manners. When he was released, it was thought he would be a broken person.

"But now he is an advocate of jihad against the Pakistani army, bigger than anybody else. These sorts of incidents have turned the mujahideen into our camp. They understand they have been fooled in the name of jihad in Kashmir," said Sadiq, referring to Islamabad's de-escalation of fighting in the Kashmir Valley.

"In 2003, a gathering in Muredkey [the LeT's Pakistani headquarters] was an eye-opener to sincere jihadis. Hafiz Mohammed Saeed [chief of the LeT] introduced us to one Abdullah, a person wearing a prayer cap and a small beard. Many among us knew he was the head of the ISI's Kashmir cell.

"He addressed the gathering and made the point that the Kashmiri jihad could not achieve its objectives and that it was a lame duck. He advised the mujahideen to sit quietly at home until new circumstances developed. This sort of advice turned people into our camp, but the real revolution came because of al-Qaeda," Sadiq said.

"[Senior al-Qaeda leader] Abu Marwan al-Suri was killed [in May 2006] by the Khasadar force in Bajaur Agency. This is a force of peons. Had Marwan been killed by any elite commando force of the Pakistani army, we would not have been so saddened, but for a person like him to be killed by a third-rate force like the Khasadars, it was bad.

"He was traveling in bus when he was identified as an Arab and was asked to descend. He took out his revolver and warned the Khasadars that he was a mujahid and did not want to kill any Muslims, so they should let him go. The Khasadars did not listen to him. You know Arabs, they do not escape - they fight until their last - but he tried to flee to avoid fighting Muslims, and was killed.

"His body was photographed and the pictures were presented to the Americans with pride and the people responsible received medals. Every mujahid felt humiliated. Brother ... our blood is not so cheap to be played around with by any third-rate person. Mujahideen were full of rage. They rose from their hideouts.

"Marwan's body became an inspiration. The aroma from his blood was a legend in Bajaur and his graveyard became a holy site. Reaction swept through Bajaur and in a matter of days the Khasadars' posts were wiped out and blown up. The army came to conduct operations, but was defeated.

"Our victories gathered all tribes around us. You know our biggest commander in Bajaur, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, was trained by the Pakistani army to resist the Soviets [in the 1980s] but after September 11 his brother was detained by the army. He was beaten to death.

"In 2005 the Taliban were limited to South Waziristan and North Waziristan and in Mohmand Agency there were only a few dozen of them, but now we number 18,000, thanks to the operations of the Pakistani army," Sadiq said, his face full of emotion.

"You asked me what makes us think we can establish an Islamic emirate," Sadiq said, and then recited famous Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, who went under the pen name of Ghalib: "Pain has crossed its limits and has become the remedy."

"We have braved all their tyrannies. They cannot be more tyrannical than that. We are hardened and they are tired and now it is our turn and I promise that we will turn the tables on them soon," Sadiq said.

We were all tired, and went to bed, but my brain was racing so much it was a while before sleep came.

The next morning at breakfast we pick up on the same topic.

"Sadiq, whether it is right or wrong, don't you think that the new Taliban plans will create problems within the Pakistani army?" I asked.

"That does not matter. This battle cannot stop now. The mujahideen have been deceived so many times that now they have decided to fight the Pakistani army at all costs," Sadiq said, sipping his tea.

After a long pause, he continued, "You know, the Taliban are blamed for all the problems, but in actual fact it is America which will never allow a ceasefire between the Pakistani army and the mujahideen. The Americans will force the Pakistani army to fight against us and therefore this battle will continue," Sadiq said.

"Man, you are fighting against the army and blaming America," I taunted him.

"I will tell you why. The Americans know exactly how near we are to Islamabad and they are aware of defections in the Pakistani army, and they are also aware that only one or two defections at the level of colonel will mean that the mujahideen will get their hands on some batteries of missiles which can carry nuclear warheads.

"And they [Americans] know the moment the mujahideen get that, the game will turn in favor of the mujahideen both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then nobody will be able to stop our march. So the Americans want a big battle between the army and the mujahideen so that the end game will be that they can step in and destroy Pakistan's nukes under the pretext that the Pakistani army cannot protect them from the mujahideen," Sadiq said.

Shortly after breakfast, the Taliban said goodbye to me. On my way home, as I passed deserted checkpoints in Bajaur, I cast my mind back to the origins of the US-led "war on terror", the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Al-Qaeda carried these out with a particular aim - to invite the wrath of the American "cowboys" who would beat up Muslims to such an extent that a severe backlash would be generated.

Six years have passed, and we have had the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (maybe Iran in the offing). Yet it might be in the tribal areas of Pakistan that the real showdown begins. I can just imagine the dance of jubilation Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri will do on the news of a fresh grand operation by the Pakistani army there - it will only breed more Taliban.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]

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