The Taleban


The Pakistani Taleban

There arose one of those strange and formidable insurrections among the Pathans which from time to time sweep across the Frontier mountains like a forest fire, carrying all before them. As on previous occasions there followed a reaction, but the fire is not wholly put out. It continues to smoulder dully until a fresh wind blows.

(Olaf Caroe)1

As described in earlier chapters, the world of Sunni Islamist extremism in Pakistan embraces a range of different groups, with significantly different agendas. The sectarian extremists described have long been carrying out terrorist attacks against Pakistani Shia and Christians. These and others in 2008 – 10 also turned to increasingly savage terrorist attacks in alliance with the Pakistani Taleban against state targets, ‘Sufi’ shrines and the general public, in response to growing military offensives in Bajaur, Swat and Waziristan. The terrorist threat from Islamist extremists is therefore now present across Pakistan. It will almost certainly grow further, and may end by radically changing the Pakistani state.

As of 2010, however, Islamist rebellion is not widespread. So far, mass insurrection has been restricted to parts of the Pathan areas of Pakistan, and has been due more to specific local factors and traditions than to wider Islamist and Pakistani ones. Among the Pathans, the Taleban can draw upon traditions of Islamist resistance to the Soviets, and long before that to the British; and indeed on a hostility, which dates back to time immemorial, to the rule of any state. Just as the backbone of the Taleban and their allies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is to be found among the Pathans, so any settlement of the conflict with the Taleban in both countries will have to be one which brings a majority of the Pathan population on board.

As explained in previous chapters, the deeper religious, ethnic and tribal roots of the Pakistani Taleban date back hundreds of years, and were revived by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the struggle against it. The upsurge of militancy among the Pakistani Pathans after 2001 was due overwhelmingly to the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the influence of the Afghan Taleban.

Contrary to a widespread belief, Pakistan was not responsible for the creation of the Taleban in Afghanistan. As recounted by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a member of the core Taleban leadership, they had their origin in groups of madrasah students from Kandahar and surrounding provinces, who came together in the early 1980s to fight against the Soviet occupation and the Communist government. They were trained by the Pakistani military – but with arms supplied by the US. Men from these formations then gathered spontaneously in Kandahar province in 1994, in response to the dreadful anarchy which had gripped the region after the Mujahidin’s overthrow of the Afghan Communist regime in 1992.2

As of 1994, the Afghan group which was being supported by Pakistan was the radical Islamist and ethnic Pathan Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which the Taleban later defeated in their drive north to Kabul. By then, however, Hekmatyar had been at war for two years with other Mujahidin parties mainly representing the non-Pathan nationalities but, despite terrible bloodshed, had failed either to capture Kabul or to bring order to the Pathan areas. When the Taleban consolidated their authority in Kandahar, and protected Pakistani trade in the area, a section of the Pakistani security establishment led by the Interior Minister in the Bhutto government, General Nazeerullah Babar, identified them as a force worth supporting.

There were a bizarre few months in 1994 and 1995 during which the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (responsible to the Interior Minister) and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, responsible to the military) were supporting the Taleban and Hekmatyar against each other; but by 1996 Pakistan was fully committed to the Taleban, and Pakistani arms supplies, military advisers, training and Islamist volunteers played an important part in their subsequent victorious campaigns.

The Pakistani security services also encouraged some of their old Pathan allies in the war against the Soviets to join the Taleban – notably the formidable Jalaluddin Haqqani and his clan along the Afghan border with Pakistani Waziristan, who continue as of 2010 to play a key part in fighting against Western forces and the Kabul government and to enjoy close ties to the Pakistani military. According to Western intelligence sources, the ISI encouraged and helped the Haqqani group to carry out a destructive attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008. Nonetheless, as Mullah Zaeef’s memoir also makes clear, the Taleban leadership never fully trusted Pakistani governments and the Pakistani military, and since 2001 there has been in some Taleban circles active hatred of the Pakistani military because of the way in which they sided with the US after 9/11.

The reasons for the Pakistani security establishment’s support for the Taleban are not complicated, and as far as the high command are concerned stem from strategic calculations and not Islamist ideology (which is not to say of course that the strategy has been a wise one). Lowerlevel operatives, however, engaged since the 1980s in helping the Afghan Islamist groups on the ground undoubtedly developed their own strong local allegiances.

The strategic root of support for the Taleban is witnessed by the fact that the initiator of the strategy, General Babar, was a minister in Benazir Bhutto’s PPP government, and that Pakistan’s approach continued unchanged under governments with very different attitudes to Islamism. Certainly General Musharraf, a convinced Westernizing modernizer, can by no stretch of the imagination be accused of ideological sympathy for the Taleban.

Musharraf, however, did for most of his career share in the basic reason for Pakistan’s Afghan strategy, which is fear of encirclement by India, and of India using Afghanistan as a base to support ethnic revolt within Pakistan. This fear is exaggerated, but is held with absolute conviction by almost all the Pakistani soldiers with whom I have spoken, and indeed by most of the population in northern Pakistan. In the words of Major-General Athar Abbas, head of military public relations in 2009 (and one of the most intelligent senior officers in the army):

We are concerned by an Indian over-involvement in Afghanistan. We see it as an encirclement move. What happens tomorrow if the American trainers are replaced by Indian trainers? The leadership in Afghanistan is completely dominated by an India-friendly Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance’s affiliation with India makes us very uncomfortable because we see in it a future two-front war scenario.3

In consequence, Pakistani governments and military leaderships have believed that Pakistan must have a friendly government ruling in Kabul or, failing that, at least friendly forces controlling the Pathan areas of Afghanistan adjacent to the Pakistani border. This was necessary also because of the perceived threat that Kabul, backed by India, would return to the Afghan strategy of the 1950s, of supporting Pathan separatist revolt within Pakistan.

This fear has been kept alive by the support of the Kabul government and India – albeit very limited – for Baloch rebels in Pakistan; and by the Karzai administration’s refusal to recognize the ‘Durand Line’ between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hence the absurd but passionately held belief among many Pakistanis that India is the principal force behind the Pakistani Taleban. In the 1990s there was also a belief among Pakistani strategists that Afghanistan could become a corridor for the expansion of Pakistani trade and influence in former Soviet Central Asia. Today, however, this hope is held only by Pakistani Islamists.

Despite the Taleban’s striking military successes, it was obvious to more intelligent Pakistani officials as early as 1998 that its Afghan strategy was going badly wrong. This was above all because of the entry on to the scene of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Forced to leave their former refuge in Sudan, they had returned to Afghanistan, where they had fought against the Soviets and Communists and forged close links with local Pathan Islamists.

Al Qaeda ingratiated themselves with the Taleban partly though ideological affinity (and the prestige which Arab origins have long possessed in this part of the world); partly through money; and partly because they came to serve as shock troops for the Taleban in their campaigns in northern Afghanistan, where many of their Pathan troops were unwilling to fight.

On 7 August 1998 Al Qaeda carried out bomb attacks against the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, killing more than 200 people. In response, the Clinton administration ordered cruise missile attacks on Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, passing across Pakistani territory. In the following years, both the Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf governments asked the Taleban to expel Al Qaeda and seek better relations with the US. Pakistani officials whom I have interviewed have also claimed credit for the Taleban’s drastic reduction of heroin production in Afghanistan in 2000 – 2001, aimed at persuading the West to recognize the Taleban’s rule.

These Pakistani moves, however, were not backed by real pressure (for example by withdrawing Pakistani military assistance or restricting Afghanistan’s vital trade through Pakistan). The bankruptcy of Pakistan’s policy, and the greater influence of Al Qaeda, were drastically revealed when in March 2001 the Taleban destroyed the great Buddhist statues at Bamian, despite a strong personal appeal by Musharraf.

Nonetheless, the Musharraf administration could still see no alternative to Taleban rule in Afghanistan that would be favourable to Pakistan, and Pakistan was therefore still linked to the Taleban when, on 11 September 2001, as a Pakistani general said to me, ‘the roof fell in on us’. Musharraf’s statement that US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to ‘bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age’ if Pakistan failed to co-operate in the US attack on Afghanistan seems to have been greatly exaggerated; but if the language was more diplomatic than that reported by Musharraf, the threat from the US to Pakistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 was undeniable.4 Given the mood in America and in the Bush administration at that time, hesitation by Pakistan would indeed have been very dangerous for the country.

With the agreement of the rest of the Pakistani High Command, Musharraf therefore agreed to help the US by establishing two US air bases in Pakistan to support the campaign against the Taleban in Afghanistan; supplying US forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan; arresting Al Qaeda members in Pakistan; and blocking Taleban forces from retreating from Afghanistan into Pakistan. The first two promises were substantially kept, but the third only to a very limited extent.

Musharraf was apparently able to extract from Washington one major concession in Afghanistan: the evacuation by Pakistani aircraft of an unknown number of Pakistani military advisers and volunteers with the Taleban, trapped in the northern city of Kunduz by the advance of the Northern Alliance and in danger of being massacred. This made good sense, as such a development would have been hideously embarrassing to both Washington and Islamabad. Many of those Taleban fighters who surrendered to the Northern Alliance forces near Mazar-e-Sharif were indeed massacred, or herded into containers in the desert and baked to death.5 An unknown number of Taleban fighters were also evacuated by the Pakistanis from Kunduz.

Along the border with Afghanistan, the Pakistani army fought with and arrested some Arab and other foreign fighters trying to escape Afghanistan, but seem often to have turned a blind eye to Afghan and Pakistani fighters. It is not known how exactly Osama bin Laden, Aiman al Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders were able to escape into Pakistan. If Pakistani troops were lax or complicit, so too were the Afghan troops which the West employed to capture Al Qaeda’s stronghold of Tora Bora on the Pakistan border in December 2001. In the end, there were simply not enough troops on either side of the Durand Line to control one of the most rugged frontiers in the world.

Musharraf was able for a while to sell his policy of helping the US in Afghanistan to the Pakistani establishment and people by his convincing argument that America would otherwise join with India to destroy Pakistan. In other words, it was a continuation of the general Pakistani view that India is Pakistan’s greatest challenge. However, the alliance with the US over Afghanistan was never a popular strategy in Pakistan, and between 2002 and 2004 it was loaded with new elements which increasingly crippled Musharraf’s popularity and prestige.

Firstly, the US insisted that Pakistan extend its withdrawal of support for the Afghan Taleban to the Pakistan-backed groups fighting India – which have a much deeper place in the hearts of many Pakistanis and especially Punjabis. Secondly, the US invasion of Iraq raised the already high level of hostility to America in the Pakistani population until it was among the highest in the Muslim world. Finally, the withdrawal of the Afghan Taleban from Afghanistan into the Pathan tribal areas of Pakistan, and the mobilization of Pakistani Pathans in support of them, led the US to demand that Pakistan launch what became in effect a civil war on its own soil.

While Pakistan was beginning to create one enemy for itself in the Pathan areas on Washington’s orders, it was also more and more being required to suppress the anti-Indian militants which it had backed since 1988. Washington’s insistence that Pakistan extend its opposition to Islamist militancy to Pakistan-backed groups in Kashmir and India was inevitable, given the general terms in which the Bush administration framed the ‘Global War on Terror’.

American pressure was greatly accelerated by the actions of the terrorists themselves. On 13 December 2001, terrorists linked to the Pakistan-based groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed launched a suicide attack on the Indian parliament. In response, India massed troops along the border with Pakistan. Under intense pressure from Washington, in January 2002 Musharraf banned these two groups, and in a major new departure declared that Pakistan was opposed not just to the Taleban and Al Qaeda but to Islamist militancy in general.

He promised India and the US that his administration would prevent further terrorism against India from Pakistani soil, but also demanded that India and the international community move to solve the Kashmir issue, which ‘runs in our blood’. 6 The Musharraf administration did move effectively to stop militants crossing into the province from Pakistan, and the following year declared a ceasefire along the Line of Control. Musharraf wound up a number of militant training camps, and declared an official ban on Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and other groups. In practice, however, these groups remained in existence under other names. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s parent organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, retained and expanded its large network of schools and charitable organizations, and in 2005, with military encouragement, played a leading part in helping the victims of the terrible Kashmir earthquake. After 2002 the Pakistan government’s moves against the militants did lead to a drastic reduction in violence within Indian Kashmir, and a limited warming in Indo-Pakistan relations.

Musharraf himself stated his administration’s approach as follows:

Al Qaeda has to be defeated militarily, period. They are foreigners who have no right to be in Pakistan. With the militant Taleban, it is more complicated. They are local people who are not so easily recognized, and they have local roots. So we have to deal with them militarily when necessary, but we also need to wean the population away from them by political means and through social and economic development, and negotiate so as to draw away more moderate elements. This is not an easy job. We may be double-crossed. We may fail. But we have no choice but to pursue this course because we cannot use military means against the whole population ... After all, previously I was the only one saying about Afghanistan too that the West needed a political strategy there to wean away some parts of the Taleban from the terrorists. Now Western leaders also accept this.7

In the wake of 9/11, Musharraf’s administration did therefore take strong action against Al Qaeda operatives in the heartland of Pakistan, arresting hundreds, including some of the group’s leaders, together with Pakistani sympathizers. This was later to help destroy Musharraf’s administration, when the Supreme Court demanded an account of what had happened to some of these ‘disappeared’ people (the general assumption in Pakistan being that many had been illegally handed over to the US and were being held at US bases in Afghanistan).

For almost three years the Musharraf government avoided taking strong action against Al Qaeda and the Taleban in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. One reason was the strategic calculation of the Pakistani security establishment concerning future Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. The view of important parts of the army and the political establishment is that a Taleban-ruled Afghanistan, though problematic in many ways, would still be vastly preferable to one dominated by Afghanistan’s non-Pathan nationalities, in alliance with India.

On the other hand, such an outcome is in the view of the Pakistani establishment clearly not worth risking the existence of Pakistan by provoking a US attack on Pakistan; so while the leadership of the Afghan Taleban has enjoyed a measure of shelter in Pakistan (especially in northern Balochistan and the city of Quetta, where several of them are credibly reported to be based), Pakistan has not actually supported the Afghan Taleban, in the way that Pakistan, the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and other countries supported the Afghan Mujahidin against the Soviets. This is obvious from the Taleban’s lack of sophisticated weaponry and training. Indeed, even in June 2010, according to a briefing by the British military which I attended, they were still far behind the Iraqi insurgents even in the construction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

This evidence strongly contradicts a report of Matt Waldman of June 2010 alleging close Pakistani military assistance at the highest level to the Afghan Taleban (a report based on exclusively Afghan sources and containing some highly improbable anecdotes, including a personal meeting between President Zardari and Taleban leaders in which he pledged Pakistani support). It should also be a reminder of how much more the Pakistani military could do to help the Afghan Taleban (and other anti-Western groups) if the relationship between Pakistan and the US were to collapse completely.8

The Musharraf administration adopted a strategy of trying to placate the Americans by encouraging local tribesmen to drive out foreign Islamist fighters aligned with Al Qaeda (Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and others), while leaving fellow-Afghan Pathans alone. In mid-2004 the administration changed this strategy somewhat, partly in response to assassination attempts against Musharraf which were traced to militants in Waziristan; but much more importantly because the Afghan Taleban, using Pakistani territory as a base, had begun their successful counter-offensive against the US and its allies in Afghanistan. The Taleban were enormously helped in this by the diversion of US military effort to the war in Iraq, and by the failure to create a working administration in Afghanistan. Pakistan therefore came under intense growing US pressure to launch an offensive in its tribal areas, and especially in Waziristan, the heart of Taleban support. Musharraf was accused by the US media and members of Congress of ‘double-dealing’, and the longstanding links between the Pakistan army and the Taleban were repeatedly brought up for discussion.

This much is obvious. A much more difficult question is how far, and how many, ISI operatives on the ground actively sympathize with and help the Taleban and other militant groups. Indeed, this question would be impossible to answer without access to the top-secret files of Pakistani Military Intelligence (MI – not to be confused with the ISI), which monitors internal discipline in the armed forces. Some of them must have such sympathies, given the public attitudes of retired senior officers such as former ISI chief Hamid Gul, and a number of retired lower-ranking officers with whom I have spoken.

This personal closeness of parts of the military to some of the Islamists stemmed from three campaigns: the Zia-ul-Haq administration’s sponsorship of the Pathan Islamist Mujahidin groups who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan after 1979; the Pakistani military’s mobilization of Islamist radical groups to fight against the Indians in Kashmir after 1988; and the belated decision of the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1994 to back the Afghan Taleban in their campaign to conquer Afghanistan and create Islamic order there.

On the other hand, Musharraf made a determined effort to weed out radical Islamists from the senior ranks of the army and ISI, and there is no evidence whatsoever that his successor as Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, has any Islamist sympathies. On the contrary, the heavy fighting with the Pakistani Taleban which broke out in 2007 and intensified in 2009 has, I am told, led to still further vigilance against possible Taleban sympathizers in the officer corps. ‘After all, we are not suicidal idiots,’ an officer told me.

The really important difficulty with Pakistani military attitudes to the Taleban from 2001 – 10, it seems to me, goes deeper. It stems from the fact that, while the Pakistani military is deliberately shaped so as to make its members – of all ranks – feel a caste apart, they are still in the end recruited from Pakistani society. They have parents, grandparents, siblings, in-laws. They go back to live with them on leave. Most of Pakistani society – especially in those areas of northern Punjab and the NWFP from which the rank and file of the army are recruited – is not Islamist. That is obvious from the election results. What it is, is bitterly anti-American, for reasons set out in earlier chapters. This anti-American feeling did not lead most of the population, even in the Pathan areas, to support the Pakistani Taleban, and terrorism and Islamist revolution within Pakistan. It did, however, contribute to overwhelming – indeed, in many Pathan areas, universal – sympathy for the Afghan Taleban in their struggle against the US presence in Afghanistan.


An additional factor in delaying Pakistani military intervention in FATA was that, with very brief exceptions, neither the Pakistani military nor the full authority of the Pakistani government had ever been extended to the tribal areas. Pakistan had continued the indirect British form of rule there, but, remembering the repeated bloody campaigns that the British had had to launch in the region, in 1947 withdrew most regular Pakistani troops from FATA. The Pakistani military move into Waziristan in 2004 was therefore not exactly the restoration of Pakistani authority in the region, but in some ways represented something radically new.

There was a widespread fear in the military that to invade FATA (which is what it amounted to) might be a military and political debacle; and one can believe this version, because a debacle was what it turned out to be. Remembering the repeated tribal revolts against the British military presence in the region, Pakistan had always kept a light military presence there, relying on the Pathan-recruited Frontier Corps rather than regular soldiers. Waziristan in particular has long been famous for armed defiance. A British report of 1901 declared of the Waziris that: ‘From the early days of our rule in the Punjab, few tribes on the frontier have given greater or more continuous trouble, and none have been more daring or more persistent in disturbing the peace of British territory.’9

When in March 2004 the Pakistani army moved into south Waziristan to attack the Afghan Taleban and Pakistani militants, the result was a revolt of local tribesmen under the leadership of radical local mullahs. In fierce battles, several villages were destroyed and hundreds of local people killed, including women and children. The army too suffered hundreds of casualties; and, most worryingly of all, there were instances of units refusing to fight. Several officers were reportedly dismissed from the military as a result. Meanwhile the army’s assumption of political responsibility for an area of which it knew little helped destroy what was left of the delicate mechanism of ‘indirect rule’ inherited from the British.

Faced with a sharply deteriorating situation, the government made the first of several peace deals with the militants led by a local mullah, Nek Mohammed Wazir, guaranteeing the withdrawal of troops and an amnesty in return for a promise to exclude foreign militants and cease attacks into Afghanistan. These deals were always inherently fragile, however. The militants were ready enough not to attack Pakistan, but insisted on their right to go on helping the Taleban’s jihad in Afghanistan. When the US struck back against them with missile strikes – or persuaded Pakistan to attack them – they alleged treachery on the part of the Pakistani government, and abrogated the agreement. This happened for the first time when, two months after the April 2004 peace deal, Nek Mohammed was killed by a US hellfire missile.

Heavy fighting in south Waziristan then continued intermittently until, in February 2005, the government signed a second deal along the same lines with Nek Mohammed’s successor, Beitullah Mahsud. In September 2006, this truce was extended to north Waziristan. These agreements prevented major battles, but intermittent skirmishes continued; and the militants used the withdrawal of the army to extend their local power, execute or expel local enemies, and impose their version of Shariah law. They also of course continued to help the Afghan Taleban conduct their war against the US and the Karzai administration in Afghanistan. In response, the US continued to strike targets in the tribal areas with missiles.

The tribal areas in these years presented a bewildering picture to Western eyes, of local truces with the militants in some places even as heavy fighting took place elsewhere. This was widely assumed in the West to be the result of the duplicity of the Pakistani government and military. It certainly reflected a deep unwillingness to launch a general assault in the whole region, partly for fear of the internal consequences for Pakistan, and partly because, with most of the army deployed against India, there were simply not enough troops available for this task.

The mixed picture on the Frontier also reflected local realities, which the British learned to understand and manage during their hundred years in the region. It always made sense to try to play divide and rule, because the tribal society of the Pathans meant that the enemy was naturally divided; and if the Pakistani state was attacking some militant groups while seeking agreements with others, this was also true the other way round – that is to say, the Pakistani Taleban were attacking in some areas while seeking accommodation in others.10

Raising local lashkars (independent militias) to fight is an ancient Pathan tradition – indeed, the Taleban in Afghanistan operate largely through temporarily raised local lashkars – and was also much used by the British. Like the Pakistani army today, they would raise a lashkar from one tribe or clan who were local rivals of another clan which had revolted. As of 2008 – 9 this was being touted by the Pakistani military as a key part of their new strategy, but it carries obvious risks both of multiplying local civil wars and of creating Frankenstein’s monsters.

Until mid-2007, militant attacks outside the tribal areas were restricted to individual acts of terrorism, such as the murder of Daniel Pearl, and attacks on French technicians and the US Consulate in Karachi. In July 2007, however, an incident took place at the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) complex in Islamabad, which led to the end of the truce, to an explosive growth of militant action in the tribal areas and beyond, and to the formation of the Pakistani Taleban, or Tehriq-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), under the leadership of Beitullah Mahsud.

Since January 2007 the Red Mosque complex had become a base for militants who were launching vigilante raids on video stores and Chineserun ‘massage parlours’ in adjacent areas of the city. In the NWFP and FATA this kind of thing was happening constantly without the government taking action, but the Red Mosque is situated less than 2 miles from the presidential palace and the parliament. The damage to the government’s prestige was becoming intolerable.

On the other hand, the mosque is the oldest in Islamabad, and the clerical family which ran it was exceptionally well connected within the Pakistani establishment. Moreover, the complex included a religious college for women, and many of the militants engaged in vigilante actions in Islamabad were women from this college. The government was extremely afraid – and, as it turned out, with good reason – of the effects on public opinion of a battle in the mosque leaving women dead. However, when Chinese massage girls were arrested by the militants, the Chinese government sent a strong message to President Musharraf that he had to act. Given China’s importance to Pakistan both as a strategic ally and as a source of development aid, that message was listened to (in response, militants killed three Chinese engineers in the NWFP).

On 10 July 2007, after repeated negotiations for surrender had failed, Pakistani troops stormed the complex. According to official figures, a total of 154 people, including 19 soldiers and some of the women militants, were killed in the ensuing battle, during which militants retreated to the cellars of the building and fought to the death.

The Red Mosque affair illustrates some of the appalling dilemmas faced by Pakistani governments in confronting Islamist militancy. In the months leading up to the military action, the Musharraf administration was constantly reproached by the Pakistani media for its failure to take action. He was accused not merely of negligence, but of deliberately helping the militants in order to prove to Washington that he was facing an Islamist revolt and therefore needed unconditional US support – something for which there is no actual evidence whatsoever.

When Musharraf finally ordered an assault there was a storm of condemnation from the media and civil society. Leading members of the Human Rights Commission and of the Lawyers’ Movement have told me that, even after resigning from office, Musharraf should be imprisoned or even hanged for ‘murdering thousands of people at the Lal Masjid’, and that ‘this issue could have been resolved through negotiations but General Musharraf intentionally spilled the blood of innocent people to please his foreign masters’.

The then Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, saw this coming. He told me in early May 2007:

It’s true that we shouldn’t have allowed things to go so far at the Lal Masjid, but you see we really don’t want to see body-bags of the people there appearing on television, least of all of women from the age of ten up. Then the same editors who are criticizing us for inaction would criticize us for brutality, ordinary people would be disgusted, and terrorism and extremism in the country would certainly increase enormously. So far, these people at the mosque are not carrying out terrorist attacks. They are an irritant, not a menace, and so we will try to negotiate a peaceful end to all this if we possibly can.11

Much criticized at the time by Pakistani and Western liberals, these turned out in retrospect to have been very sensible words.

As Shaukat Aziz predicted, the storming of the mosque led to a wave of insurgency in the Pathan areas, a huge increase in terrorism, and a revulsion in Pakistani public opinion which helped lead to the downfall of the Musharraf administration. In reaction, militants in Waziristan called off a truce with the army, in force for the previous ten months, and launched a new wave of attacks on military and official targets. All over Pakistan, sympathizers with the Taleban with whom I talked used this incident to justify Taleban terrorism against the state.

In December 2007, different militant groups operating in the Pathan areas came together to form the Pakistani Taleban (TTP), a loose alliance with Beitullah Mahsud as amir or overall leader. The TTP declared itself to be an ally both of the Afghan Taleban and of Al Qaeda in a defensive jihad against the US occupation of Afghanistan. Their statements on Pakistan have varied considerably. On occasions they have declared that they have no quarrel with Pakistan and are only fighting the Pakistani army because it attacked them on US orders. On other occasions, however, they have declared their hostility to the existing Pakistani state as such, and their determination to achieve an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

As a senior Pakistani general said to me, ‘We on our side should avoid calling these Pakistani militants “Taleban”. It’s exactly what they want. It means that they are associated with religion, study of religion and above all what our people see as the legitimate jihad against the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.’ And indeed, the view of the mass of the Pakistani population on Afghanistan was summed up pretty well by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, leader of one faction of the JUI:

If a dog fell into your well, would you remove the dog or would you empty the well? Once a red dog fell into the Afghan well, and the international community helped to get the dog out. Now a white dog has fallen in, and what are they doing? Trying to empty the well, one bucket at a time. Haven’t they learned anything from Afghan history? But our people, the Pakistanis, support those who are trying to remove the dog.

In order to understand the growth of militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it is essential to understand the weak nature of the border dividing the Pathan tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan: weak in terms of physical control by the two states, but even more importantly in the minds of the tribesmen themselves. As noted, the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s weakened this border still further, with Pakistani Pathans encouraged by both Pakistan and the West to see Afghan refugees and the Afghan Mujahidin as their brothers and to fight alongside them.

Furthermore, while the Afghan Taleban have not explicitly drawn on Pathan nationalism since 2001, and their propaganda avoids insults against other ethnicities (in the hope of winning over the non-Pathan ethnicies of Afghanistan), their identity and propaganda are nonetheless suffused with Pathan culture, imagery and identity. The importance of motifs of resistance and Islam in that culture gives the Taleban a very strong appeal. A speech by Mullah Omar the day before the start of the US bombing campaign in 2001, refusing to surrender Al Qaeda to the US and vowing to resist US attack, has, for many Pathans, a Shakespearean or Churchillian force. He stressed that victory would come only in the long run, and in the short term the Taleban could expect defeat and death:

I know that my power; my position; my wealth; and my family are in danger ... However, I am ready to sacrifice myself and I do not want to become the friend of non-Muslims, for non-Muslims are against all my beliefs and my religion ... I insist on sacrificing myself, and you should do likewise ... [I am] ready to leave everything and to believe only in Islam and in my Afghan bravery.12

The militants who later formed the Pakistani Taleban revolted in 2004 against the Pakistani army in order to defend what they saw as the legitimate jihad in Afghanistan, their sacred code of hospitality for Muslims and Pathans fleeing from infidel attack, and their own ancient tribal freedoms. We may well argue that what they did went horribly against the real interests of their own people. We cannot argue that they betrayed their own code.

So while the Afghan and Pakistani Talebans have separate leaderships and face in different directions, they draw their inspiration from the same sources. However, it does seem that as the struggle with the Pakistani state and army intensified after the storming of the Red Mosque in 2007, the Pakistani Taleban leadership may have become obsessed with this struggle to the detriment of the Afghan jihad.

Mullah Omar declared several times that the Pakistani state was not the enemy, and that Muslims should concentrate on fighting the real enemy, which he says is US forces and their allies in Afghanistan. This presumably reflected pressure on Mullah Omar from the Pakistani army, but by the same token it probably reflected genuine fear that the Pakistani Taleban might wreck his relationship with that army, and with it his chances of long-term victory in Afghanistan.


The Pakistani Taleban is not nearly as tight a movement as the decentralized Afghan Taleban, but is, rather, a loose alliance of autonomous Islamist radical groups and commanders, under the nominal leadership of an amir. The first amir was Beitullah Mahsud; when he was killed by a US drone in August 2009, Hakimullah Mahsud took over. Both are from the notoriously unruly and fanatical Mahsud tribe of south Waziristan, which was a thorn in the British empire’s flesh for 100 years.

Pakistani journalists who have travelled in the tribal areas have described needing passes and permissions from as many as half a dozen different local Taleban commanders in order to move from one Agency to another. Some of the local Pakistani Taleban groups are close to Al Qaeda and are heavily influenced by international jihadi agendas. Others, especially in Swat, have agendas more focused on local power and the transformation of local society. All, however, are committed to supporting the jihad in Afghanistan, and most seem capable of co-operating effectively against the Pakistani army when it penetrates their territory. While all now say that they are committed to Islamist revolution in Pakistan, all also claim – and probably believe – that their movement began as a defensive action against the Pakistani army’s ‘invasion’ of Waziristan in 2004, and against US drone attacks on FATA.

The Pakistani Taleban draw much of their funding from taxing the heroin trade and other illegal activities, and some are directly involved in kidnapping and other crimes. In the Taleban case the distinction between ‘taxation’ of local transport and business and ‘extortion’ is impossible to draw. In most areas of FATA it seems that their demands are not too heavy, or at least not heavy enough to drive the population into revolt against them.

After their association with what is seen as a legitimate jihad in Afghanistan, the other reason which every Taleban sympathizer I met gave for his support was the Taleban’s implementation of Shariah law. This is not the same as support for revolution and, what is more, the ‘law’ that the Taleban enforce is often not really the Shariah at all, but a sprinkling of the Shariah mixed with the pashtunwali and a rough form of communal justice. However, for reasons set out in Chapter 3, a great many people see this as preferable to the appallingly slow, opaque, alien and corrupt Pakistani judicial system.

The Taleban also gain credit for crude but tough and effective enforcement of their version of the law. One of the reasons why the Taleban is popular, including with many small businessmen from FATA and Peshawar with whom I talked, is that they have cracked down very hard on freelance kidnapping, and on local drug-dealing which helps fuel crime. They also sort out small-scale business disputes. In Peshawar, I talked to a ceramics trader from Landi Khotal in the Khyber Agency. He deeply disliked the Taleban, and despite his limited means had sent his son to study in Britain for fear that he might fall under their influence or just be conscripted to help them. However, he also described how for almost fifteen years he had been trying to recover a Rs800,000 debt from another businessman through the Pakistani courts: ‘bribe after bribe, and nothing happened; because of course the other side was bribing too, and so the case was delayed and delayed’.

Eventually, he went to the Taleban, ‘and they sorted it out in a week’. His erstwhile partner had to pay him Rs500,000. The Taleban asked for 10 per cent of that as a fee for their help, ‘but I thought it wise to give them 15 per cent,’ he said with a rather melancholy twinkle. This kind of thing can sometimes be accompanied by a rough humour which appeals to Pathan sensibilities. Faced with two cousins who had been quarrelling for many years over some land, an independent Islamist warlord named Mangal Bagh locked them in the same room and told them that they would stay there till they came to an agreement – which they did.

My friend in ceramics said that while the Taleban tax the drugs trade passing through their territories (‘because they don’t care if Westerners take drugs’), they crack down very hard on local drug-dealing, thereby earning much credit in the local population and especially from parents. So if the Taleban are bandits, they are often what Max Weber called ‘rational bandits’ – and rational banditry in his view was the original basis of taxation and the state.

It is critically important to remember that in the propaganda of the Pakistani Taleban, and in the view of the majority of Pathans and Punjabis with whom I have spoken, the Pakistani Taleban war is not intended as a war against Pakistan and was not initiated by Beitullah Mahsud and his allies but by the Pakistani government and army. These Pakistanis portray this struggle as a defensive action to protect the legitimate Afghan jihad from a treacherous stab in the back by the Pakistani servants of America, who also ‘massacred innocent Muslims’ at the Red Mosque.

This is not to say that a majority of the people with whom I spoke in Peshawar, Abbotabad and the towns of the Peshawar valley actively support the Pakistani Taleban – if that were so, then the situation in the region would be much worse than it is. The overwhelming level of sympathy for the Afghan Taleban does not result in similar levels of support for the Pakistani Taleban. Outside the tribal areas, a large majority of the people I met denounced both the harshness of the Taleban’s implementation of the Shariah, and their terrorism and attacks on the Pakistani army and police – even if, as stated, they often qualified this by saying that such attacks are really the work of Indians or Americans, since ‘Muslims would not do this.’

Rather, the notion of a defensive jihad helps create a sense of moral equivalence between the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani army, in which people criticize both sides, and mass support for tough military action against the Pakistani Taleban is undermined to the point where fewer than 20 per cent of the people I surveyed in the NWFP in the summer of 2008 were prepared to support it, with the rest demanding peace talks.

From one point of view the idea that the Pakistani Taleban is acting from purely defensive motives is nonsense, since plots to assassinate Musharraf by militants based in Waziristan predated the army offensive in the region and were partly responsible for that offensive. Moreover, the propaganda of the Pakistani Taleban also speaks of their goal of creating an Islamist revolution in Pakistan. However, a very large number of ordinary Pakistanis believe that the struggle of the Pakistani Taleban is ‘defensive’, and this has a powerful effect in wrecking their support for military action against them. Again and again, on the streets of Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan, people told me that, in the words of one Lahori shopkeeper, ‘The Taleban are doing some bad things, but you have to remember that they are only doing them in self-defence, because the army took American money to attack them.’

The revolt of the Pakistani Taleban therefore stems in the first instance from the Western presence in Afghanistan and the struggle of the Afghan Taleban against that presence and the Afghan forces it supports. The movement, however, has much deeper and older roots. These lie in ancient Pathan traditions of religiously justified resistance to outside rule; in the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the Afghan resistance against that occupation; in the nature of the support given by Pakistan and parts of the Arab world to that resistance; and in social change on the Frontier, which has undermined the old British – Pakistani system for managing the tribes.


The marriage of tribal revolt and religious revival is not specific to the Pathans, but is one of the oldest traditions of the Muslim world, including the Maghrib, West Africa and the Arabian peninsula itself. As Ernest Gellner remarks, echoing the great fifteenth-century Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun:

What would happen if bellicose tribesmen outside the walls had designs on the city? Most often nothing at all, for these tribal wolves are generally at each other’s throats, and their endless mutual feuds, often fostered by the ruler, neutralize them. They lust after the city anyway, but their internal divisions prevent them from satisfying their desire ... But what would happen if some authoritative cleric, having with some show of plausibility denounced the impiety and immorality of the ruler, thereby also provided a banner, a focus, a measure of unitary leadership for the wolves? What if he went into the wilderness to ponder the corruption of the time, and there encountered, not only God, but also some armed tribesmen, who responded to his message?13

Ibn Khaldun wrote of this coming together of religious purification and plunder in the history of the Bedouin tribes of North Africa:

It is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess. Their sustenance lies wherever the shadow of their lances falls ... When they acquire superiority and royal authority, they have complete power to plunder as they please. There no longer exists any political power to protect property, and civilization is ruined.14

Yet at the same time, in Khaldun’s analysis, when united under the banner of religious puritanism and regeneration, these plundering but courageous tribes are also the force that overthrows corrupt and decadent kingdoms and refounds them – for a while – on a stronger basis. The Wahabis in eighteenth-century Arabia, in alliance with the tribe of Saud, were a late but impressive manifestation of this tradition. In Gellner’s words:

The manner in which demanding, puritan unitarianism enters tribal life, and the manner in which tribes are induced on special occasions to accept overall leadership, are the same. The exceptional crisis in the tribal world provides the opening, the opportunity, for that ‘purer’ form of faith which normally remains latent, respected but not observed.15

Tribal dissidence and religious radicalism have therefore been partners in the Muslim world for many centuries. On the one hand there is the anarchy of the tribes, ordered only by their own traditions: in the Arabic of the Maghrib the bled-es-siba, in the Pathan lands and Iran yaghestan: the land of unrest (or ‘the land of defiance’, as Afghanistan has sometimes been called in both the Persian and Indian traditions): opposed to the bled-es-makhzen or hukumat, the land of government. A rather gloomy Pathan proverb sums up the disadvantages of both ways of life: ‘Feuding ate up the mountains, and taxes ate up the plains.’

The great majority of the Pathan tribal revolts against the British were orchestrated by religious figures in the name of jihad: all of them, naturally, described by the British as ‘mad’. These included the Akhund of Swat in the 1860s, the Hadda Mullah, the Manki Mullah, the Fakir of Buner and the Powindah Mullah in the 1890s, and in the 1930s the Fakir of Ipi, against whose rebellion the British deployed two divisions (including my maternal uncle’s Gurkha battalion).

The Fakir of Ipi’s rebellion took place in Waziristan, later the heartland of Taleban support after 9/11 and the US overthrow of the Taleban. Incidentally, all these revolts were influenced to a greater or lesser extent by news from other parts of the Muslim world (albeit often extremely twisted) about clashes between Muslims and the Christian imperial powers; so the notion that Pakistanis being influenced by developments in Palestine or Iraq marks a new departure is completely wrong.

Waziristan was also the site of major uprisings in the 1890s, and in 1919 when the Wazirs and Mahsuds rose in support of the Afghan invasion of India. It may be noted incidentally that just as at the time of writing the US and Pakistani forces have not yet killed or captured much of the top leadership of Al Qaeda or the Taleban, so, despite deploying some 40,000 troops in Waziristan, the British never caught the Fakir of Ipi, who died in his bed in 1960 – by that stage, interestingly enough, preaching Pathan nationalism and an independent Pashtunistan.

Almost forty years before the emergence of the Afghan Taleban, the great anthropologist of the Pathans, Fredrik Barth, wrote the following about the orchestration of revolt in the name of Islam:

A more temporary organization [than the regular relationship between a local saint and his followers] may be built around persons of less established sanctity, based on the Islamic dogma of the holy war and the blessings awaiting the soldier (ghazi) who figures in one. This line of appeal requires considerable demagogic powers and is mainly adopted by mullahs. Essentially, it depends for its success on the presence of a fundamental conflict in the area, and the ability to play on ideals of manliness and fearlessness so as to whip up confidence among the warriors of the community.16

The Taleban, however, are a new variation of this old pattern. They are an alliance of newly risen younger mullahs, rather than single ‘authoritative clerics’ possessing individual baraka. Their chief leaders, like Beitullah Mahsud and Fazlullah, emerged to prominence when they were in their late twenties or early thirties. This is not quite such a shift as the Pakistani elites make out. The Pathan tradition in general is far more egalitarian in spirit than those of the other parts of Pakistan, and, within that tradition, those of some of the tribes of the Frontier have always been famous for the unwillingness of the tribesmen to bow to hereditary chieftains. ‘Traditionally, the dominant characteristic of the Mahsud was his independence – in a sense, every man was his own malik.’17 Leadership has generally been through merit, and especially courage and skill in fighting. Though of course the leaders of the Pakistani Taleban are very pious Muslims, unlike previous leaders of revolt against the British such as the Mullah of Hadda they are not regarded as saints by their followers, but only as especially able and tough military commanders.

The Taleban are much more effective than previous religiously led revolts, above all because they have far more organization, discipline and therefore stamina. The revolts against the British arose suddenly and spread rapidly, but were also mostly rather brief. A few bloody defeats and the tribesmen melted back to their villages. The Taleban by contrast have gone on absorbing very heavy casualties for many years. As I was told when travelling with the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s, ‘Pashtuns are brave, but not deliberately suicidal.’ That has obviously changed, as far as some of the Taleban fighters are concerned.

Relative Taleban discipline and endurance probably owe a great deal to the unprecedented network of local cadres provided by young local mullahs. This in turn has been part of a social upheaval in FATA whereby, through the Taleban, members of this previously powerless and even despised class have seized local power from the landowning maliks.

I am reminded of something said by Imam Shamil, the great nineteenth-century Islamist resistance leader in the north Caucasus, after he finally had to surrender to Russia – that the Russians should really be grateful to him for making their rule possible; because by rigorous implementation of the Shariah he had accustomed the Chechen tribes to government, where previously none had existed. Shamil’s Islamic state in Chechnya and Daghestan lasted for almost twenty-five years, in a much smaller territory than the Pathan tribal areas, and against far larger numbers of Russian troops than the British ever had to deploy against their rebels – who (like Shamil’s Chechens) were fighting largely to prevent any kind of state being imposed on them.

Unlike many previous leaders, the Taleban leaders also do not derive their prestige from deep Islamic learning, but only from rigorous practice. Rather than simply leading a movement of tribal chieftains, they have replaced those chieftains with their own rule. Inspired in part by the Wahabis, their rule has been far more consistently dogmatic in their insistence on their version of the Shariah than any previous movement among the Pathans.

Previously, while religious figures led tribal revolts in the name of Islam, the struggle was also very much in defence of the tribal customs summed up in the pashtunwali – many of them pre-Islamic. They were certainly not encouraged to try to change those customs in accordance with strict Koranic Islam. The few who tried generally came to a bad end, as with Syed Ahmed Barelvi, abandoned by his followers after he interfered with their marriage customs – though in his case, the fact of being a non-Pathan from India doubtless also played a part. In fact, there is a Pathan saying that ‘Pathans are always ready to die for Islam, but find it very difficult to live by Islam.’

All the same, the Taleban are close enough to Khaldun’s and Gellner’s picture to make clear that what we are facing among the Pathans is not simply a product of the last thirty or for that matter the past 150 years of Pathan history, but has roots which go back to the very origins of Islam, and have never failed yet to put out new shoots in each new era. In the Frontier territories, this has run together throughout modern history with a determination to maintain tribal independence from outside control. As Sana Haroon writes:

This hinterland of successive, contradictory jihads in support of Pakhtun ethnicism, anti-colonial nationalism, Pakistani territorialism, religious revivalism and anti-American imperialism generated, in turn, fluid and fluctuating political allegiances within the Tribal Areas. Only the claim to autonomy persisted unchanged and uncompromised, and within that claim the functional role of religious leaders as social moderators and ideological guides was preserved. From outside, patrons recognized and supported that claim, reliant in their own ways on the possibilities that the autonomous Tribal Areas and its mullas afforded.18

These possibilities were quickly recognized by the US, Pakistani and Arab backers of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets after 1979. The tribal areas of Pakistan, and to some extent the Pathan areas in general, became the safe havens of the Afghan Mujahidin, just as they are the safe havens of the Taleban today. The distinction between the Pathans on different sides of the Afghan – Pakistan border – never very strong – was blurred as more than 3 million (mainly Pathan) refugees from Afghanistan fled into Pakistan. In these areas the Mujahidin were housed, armed and trained by the Pakistanis, Saudis and Americans.

The training was both military and ideological, as thousands of young Afghans studied alongside Pakistanis and Arabs in Deobandi madrasahs in the Pathan areas of Pakistan, funded by Arab money and, in consequence, increasingly influenced by Wahabi thought and culture. The first leader of revolt in Waziristan, Nek Mohammed, was the product of such a madrasah, and had fought with the Mujahidin in the 1980s and the Taleban in the 1990s.

The importance of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s for subsequent history cannot be exaggerated. The Frontier was flooded with international arms, many of which, lovingly preserved, are still in use by the Taleban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After decades in which the Pakistani state had tried to build up a Pakistani Pathan identity separate from Afghanistan, young Pakistani Pathans were now told that Afghanistan’s war was their war, and that it was their religious and ethnic duty to fight alongside their Afghan brothers.

Today, many Pakistani Taleban fighters did not originally intend to fight in Pakistan, but volunteered to fight with the Taleban in Afghanistan – with the full support of their communities, and the tacit acquiescence of the Pakistani authorities. But, of course, they came home radicalized, and deeply bitter at the Pakistani government for, as they see it, stabbing the Taleban and their jihad in the back.

Because of the prestige they earned as ‘Mujahidin’, they are now used by the Pakistani Taleban as the first-line cadres when it comes to spreading propaganda and influence in their home areas of the Frontier. From the propaganda point of view, the dead are just as important as the living. In the years after 2001, the funerals of ‘martyrs’ (shahids) killed in Afghanistan became important and well-attended events in FATA and the NWFP, and in some cases their tombs have become places of pilgrimage. This is a tradition which goes back through the war with India in Kashmir in 1947 – 8 and to revolts against the British, but which also received a tremendous boost from the Pakistanis who fought and died in the war against the Soviets, when of course their public funerals received full state support and approval.

Finally, the local mullahs of the region not only were radicalized by their exposure to Wahabi influences and Arab Wahabi volunteers such as Osama bin Laden and his comrades, but saw their social prestige – hitherto usually very low – greatly increased by their association with the jihad in Afghanistan. Many younger ones actually fought with the radical Mujahidin in Afghanistan, alongside the Arabs. This change coincided with wider social changes in FATA as traditional tribal structures of authority were undermined by the influx of new money both from the Afghan jihad and the drugs trade.

One aspect of the Pathan tradition on which the Taleban have built with great success is the role of religious figures in resolving or limiting disputes and, on occasions, uniting the tribes in jihad. The absence of any other authority over the tribes meant that ‘it was almost impossible for opposing factions to approach each other through any other means than mulla-led arbitration’.19

The British administrator W. R. H. Merk wrote:

Mians and Mullahs fulfil much the same secular purposes as the monks of Europe did in the middle ages; they act as trustees and custodians of property, as the protectors of women and children committed to their charge, and are the mediators of messengers in family or tribal strife. Their intimate cohesion and the ramifications of their class through the tribes makes them an admirable instrument for organizing a popular movement.20

The line you often hear from the Pathan upper classes, that traditionally mullahs had little prestige in Pathan society, being little better than common village servants, paid in kind to perform prayers at marriages and funerals, is therefore only partially correct.

Or rather, it is correct enough as far as the lowly village mullah is concerned. As with your average Catholic parish priest in the Mediterranean in the past – semi-literate, venal and living in sin with his ‘housekeeper’ – the population needs their sacred services, but not their advice. They are in fact regarded rather like a service caste, one step above the potters and plumbers (or how plumbers would be regarded if there were any plumbing). This is especially true because, as in the villages of traditional Catholic Europe, the population knows very well not only all the mullah’s personal failings, but also how much he is under the thumb of the local landlords. ‘You wife of a mullah’ is a common Pathan insult. Or as another saying has it, ‘The mullah should have his milk, be it from a bitch or a donkey.’

As with medieval Catholic Europe, however, this ironical attitude to the local priest in no way implies mockery of the sacred as such, or blocks admiration for figures who seem to have a direct relationship with the sacred. In the Pathan lands, as elsewhere, this is associated originally with a successful claim to be a Sayyid, or descendant of the Prophet. Such figures never become village mullahs, or ‘imams’ of local mosques – this is far beneath them. Sayyids have always played an immensely important and prestigious role in local society. According to Barth:

The status of saints makes them particularly suited to the role of mediator or arbitrator ... In making political use of their role as peacemakers, saints must take numerous variables into account and in fact be rather clever. In the words of one prominent saint, ‘I look like a simple man; I live simply – but oh! The things I do!’ The settlements which a saint proposes must be justified by reference to some rule or ideal. They must also take cognizance of de facto situations, and the saint must be skilled in inventing compromises and face-saving devices ... But without some force to back them, such manipulations sooner or later fall to the ground. The necessary force derives from several sources, but if the saint himself disposes of some military power, however little, this greatly enlarges his field of manoeuvre.21

One last element must be mentioned in the historical genealogy of jihad on the Frontier. This is the role of non-Pathan Islamists from elsewhere, who move to the region partly to find safe havens, and partly to mobilize the warlike Pathans to join in wider international struggles and agendas. From the early nineteenth century, radical Islamists in India intermittently moved to the tribal areas, as the only unconquered areas of the Indian subcontinent, and home to famously warlike people who might be inspired to join in jihad, first against the Sikhs, then against the British. A century later, in the wake of the First World War, another Islamist, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, wrote of his group’s anti-British strategy:

Without violence, evicting the angrez from Hindustan was impossible. For this, a centre, weapons and mujahidin were necessary. Hence it was thought that arrangements for weapons and recruitment of soldiers should be conducted in the area of the ‘free tribes’.22

The veteran Frontier political agent and last British governor of the NWFP, Sir Olaf Caroe, wrote that such forces from outside, as well as the Pathans’ own religious leaders, were unable to sustain jihad for long:

A leader appears, and unites tribal sentiment in a surge of enthusiasm that carries all before it. For a while internal jealousies are laid aside, and an enthusiastic loyalty is forthcoming. Individuals are found ready to face death for a cause, and no one counts the cost. The idea of sacrifice is in the air. The crest of the wave bursts over the barrier, and the victory seems won. Then the leader gives way to vainglory, the stimulus which gave unity fails, envy and malice show their heads. The effort, steady and sustained, which is needed to maintain the position won proves to be beyond the tribal reach. The ground won is lost, and the leader forfeits confidence and is discarded.23

In this respect, however, the Taleban do seem to represent something new. Western writing likes to dwell on their internal divisions, but by the standards of any previous Pathan jihad – our own Mujahidin of the 1980s included – they have so far displayed formidable unity and stamina. One explanation for this would seem to be that while certain Pathan cultural and ideological traditions have continued little changed, Pathan society has in some respects changed quite radically.

In particular, the power of the greatest traditional source of Pathan fragmentation – the tribes and their chieftains – has been greatly diminished as a result of thirty years of war in Afghanistan and its overspill in Pakistan. With the power of the maliks greatly reduced, the local mullah is really the only available semi-educated leader of local society – unless you count the drugs lords, of course. So, politically incorrect though it may be to say it, the Western and Pakistani official policy of trying to re-energize the tribes and tribal chieftains, and of creating tribal lashkars under traditional command, actually represents a step backwards in historical terms, compared to Taleban organization.

These changes in Pathan society have also produced a new feature of the Taleban, which marks them out from the old jihads. They are an alliance not of a handful of prominent religious figures from Sayyid backgrounds and allied chieftains, but of many ordinary local mullahs and religious students from poor and simple backgrounds. Speaking of another ostensibly Islamist warlord on the borders of Peshawar, Mangal Bagh Afridi, again and again educated people in Peshawar would ask me rhetorically, ‘Who on earth can respect a former bus conductor as a leader?’ Those readers who have not already guessed the answer can turn to the next paragraph for the solution – one which had never occurred to my educated Peshawari interlocutors.

The answer of course is another bus conductor. In other words, it is precisely the lowly origins of the Taleban and related figures which endear them to the Pathan masses. A strong though mainly unstated element of class feeling has therefore also entered into the struggle. By contrast, all the non-Islamist parties in the Frontier – the ANP, the different branches of the PPP and Muslim League, and Imran Khan’s followers – are overwhelmingly dominated by khans and maliks, and the JUI is linked to this class in many ways. Because so many of the Pakistani elites – even in the Frontier – are so obviously Westernized, as well as being deeply corrupt, a certain feeling exists in the population, as in Iran in the 1970s, that ‘it is the poor who are Muslims’.


At least in Peshawar a large majority of the ordinary people with whom I spoke on the street and in the bazaars denounced terrorism, and said that although they supported the rule of the Shariah in principle, they opposed Taleban attempts to impose it by force. It was very different in the part of FATA that I visited. On what seemed to me to be reasonable grounds of self-preservation, I did not go to those tribal agencies like Waziristan, where the Pakistani Taleban have been in effective control for several years.

A visit to a relatively peaceful part of the Mohmand Agency in September 2008 was quite alarming enough, in terms not of any visibly direct threat to me (though, on this one occasion, I did have a sense that such a threat would have appeared if I had stayed for a few days), but of the opinions of the people. Following the Red Mosque battle in July 2007, the Taleban in the agency had come into the open and established a headquarters at Kandhura and a number of training camps in parts of the agency closer to Bajaur in the north and the Afghan border in the west. These areas had seen repeated clashes with the army and the Frontier Corps, in which sometimes one side and sometimes the other had got the upper hand, but the areas closer to the Peshawar valley were still supposedly under fairly firm government control.

That many Mohmands sympathize with the Taleban would, once again, not have come as a surprise to those British officials who were once responsible for keeping them in hand. The Durand Line cut the tribe in half, but failed as elsewhere to cut tribal ties of sympathy with the Mohmands of Afghanistan. Nor, as elsewhere, did it create anything like a regular international frontier. Throughout the years following 2001, the mountainous parts of the Mohmand Agency have been an important route for Taleban infiltration into north-eastern Afghanistan.

The great tribal rising of 1897 was led in these parts by the Mullah of Hada, whose religious authority extended to both sides of the line, and who was imprisoned by the Amir of Afghanistan just as he was pursued by the British. For a long time, trade on the roads was taxed not by the two states but by the clans themselves – just as, today, it is taxed by the local militias making up the Pakistani Taleban, and the occasional independent warlord like Mangal Bagh Afridi (who, however, also acts in the name of Islam).

Between the British arrival in the region in the 1840s and the creation of the Durand Line, in the words of the British official W. R. H. Merk, ‘by the tacit consent of the governments concerned, those of [British] India and of Kabul, a modus vivendi was established by which either government dealt with the clans as if the other [government] did not exist.’24 A quaint formulation but, to judge by the experience of recent years, perhaps the only way the Afghan and Pakistani states of today will ever find to co-exist in this region.

I went to the Mohmand Agency to visit a local malik family of my acquaintance, whose father is a senior official in Islamabad but who maintain a house in their ancestral village near the town of Shapqadar. This town itself is a monument to the British Raj, having grown up around the fort which the British built to bar the entrance from the Mohmand territories into the Peshawar valley.

The villages around Shapqadar were founded by rebellious Mohmands from the hills, resettled by the British under the guns of the fort, and placed under the regular British Indian legal code, not the Frontier Crimes Regulations. So the area is one of the numerous anomalies of the Frontier – a ‘settled’ part of a tribal agency, but one whose inhabitants retain the legends of their old unsettled past. In 1897 the fort was attacked by the followers of the Mullah of Hada, who left 300 of their number dead before its walls – part of the campaign described by Winston Churchill in ‘The Malakand Field Force’, which he accompanied as an officer-cum-war correspondent.25

The prestige and wealth of the ‘Akhundzada’ family whom I visited near Shapqadar came originally from their descent from another local ‘Sufi’ religious figure, Akhund Zafar, who led yet another revolt under the banner of jihad against the infidel. ‘His shrine is only thirty minutes’ drive from here, but now it is Taleban territory and too dangerous for us to visit,’ I was told. Like many saints, he is also famous for having cast out demons, and people with psychologically disturbed relatives will take them to his shrine to be exorcised, a fact mentioned deprecatingly by the family.

As with the Gailanis of Afghanistan, there is an old and familiar irony here: the semi-Westernized noble family whose local influence originally came from an anti-Western struggle, a new version of which is aimed at them and their class, and from ‘superstitious’ beliefs which they now disown, trying to maintain their power in the face of a new wave of ‘fanaticism’, with which their ancestor would probably have been wholly in sympathy.

Shapqadar is still a barrier to getting out of or into the Mohmand Agency, but now the reasons are the roads and the traffic. Bypass roads are unknown in small towns in Pakistan and we had made the mistake of travelling on a market day. Traffic jam doesn’t begin to describe the results – more like a double reef knot. The crossroads in the centre of town was a maelstrom of dust and exhaust fumes, apparently sucking into it cars, buses, trucks, scooter rickshaws, horse-carts, donkey-carts, men pushing carts, men on horseback and one understandably depressed-looking camel, all mixed up with a simply incredible number of people on foot for such a small town, as if the heavens had opened on a Sunday morning and rained humanity on Shapqadar. Out of the dust-shrouded mêlée the brightly painted lorries with their great carved wooden hoods loomed like war elephants in an ancient battle.

In the middle, two policemen in a state of frenzy were lashing the cars with their sticks as if they were recalcitrant animals, while a third leant exhausted against a column. ‘Sometimes you even have to feel sorry for the police in this country,’ the daughter of my host – an elegant, attractive lady from Islamabad – said with a sigh, adjusting her headscarf against any inquiring glances from the men practically jammed against our windows.

Everyone is afraid of them but no one actually listens to them. They are not really monsters, they just lash out from frustration at their miserable lives ... As to Shapqadar, you could come back here twenty years from now and nothing will have changed except that the traffic will have got even worse. After all, nothing has changed in the past twenty.

It took us almost an hour and a half to get through this insignificant place; a long study of the grim, drab concrete ugliness of most Pakistani urban life. So universally grey and dust-coated were the buildings that I could not immediately tell a local landmark from the houses on either side – four blackened music and video shops torched by the Taleban a few months before as part of their campaign against vice.

This is a common step in the Taleban campaign to take over a given area, once they feel they have enough local support. Because the video shops often do show pornographic films in their back rooms, even those men who frequent them may be ashamed of the fact and feel obliged to denounce them in public; and, for the same reason, they are also very unpopular with local wives and mothers – who of course never set foot in them but deeply fear the effects on their menfolk.

Half an hour further on, the village to which we were travelling lay snoozing in the baking heat of early September, looking very much on the outside as if it hadn’t changed in twenty years, or even twenty centuries. The khaki colour of its walls was set off nicely by the rather beautifully coloured viscous green scum on the stinking stream running through its middle. We swept through a gate – really more a gap in a mud wall – and were in the family’s compound. A lengthy wait ensued, while the key of the main house was sought – for the rest of the family had not arrived yet – and I had leisure to look around, through the sweat which began to pour down my face as soon as I left the car’s air-conditioning.

The wide outer court had a small mosque on one side, and on the other sides the hujra (male guest-house or gathering place), and a sort of open pavilion where the family’s workers sprawled on charpoys in the stupefying heat, some attended by their small sons. The buildings were all whitewashed, or at least had been at some point in their history. In one corner of the court, the shafts of an old broken-down horse-drawn carriage drooped with a melancholy air.

The maliks had not long ago dominated the village economically, but their holdings had been radically reduced by land reform and repeated divisions between brothers, and now the compound of the elder was only one of several belonging to brothers and cousins on the old family property. The eldest son – whom I was visiting – now held only 180 kanals of land (43 acres), and his influence had presumably also suffered from his being absent most of the time at his job in Islamabad, though on the other hand this also enabled him to use his influence to get some local people jobs.

The main house, in the inner court, bore clear signs of the family being absent much of the time. Much of the furniture was under dust covers, and damp stains stretched down some of the walls. Rich by the standards of the local peasantry, it was poor and simple by the standards of the urban elites – a reminder once again not to use the word ‘feudal’ as if it implied wallowing in luxury. Power cuts meant that the atmosphere inside was stifling, and that there was nothing cold to drink.

In fact, I was just about to sink hopelessly into slumber when I was jerked awake by the sight of a very familiar acquaintance from another life, or even as it seemed to my superheated brain another planet: a small tapestry of that absolute staple of the Soviet middle-class household, that emblem of respectable Russian domesticity, Ivan Shishkin’s Morning in a Pine Forest (with mist and bear cubs) – at 100 degrees or so in the shade. This was one of those not infrequent moments in Pakistan when I wondered whether sanity is not a much-overrated attribute which it would be easier simply to abandon.

In the car on the way from Peshawar a certain Russian, or at least Chekhovian-Gogolesque, atmosphere had already begun to grow, as my hostess complained of the rise of the lower classes in the village:

I loathe these new people. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help it. They should be shown their place. My father got their sons jobs in the junior civil service, and now that they have made money from bribes they build themselves big brick houses and try to set themselves up as maliks, deciding on local disputes. My father has threatened to have some of them thrown out of those houses – after all, he owns the land they’re built on.

As will become apparent, he would probably be very unwise to do any such thing.

The Chekhovian impression deepened with the appearance of the family’s steward or general factotum, Shehzad, a scrawny middle-aged individual with a long horse face, greying hair, crooked teeth, a pen clipped to the outside of the breast pocket of his shirt as a mark of status, and a manner which mixed the ingratiating and the overbearing – not, as is usually the case, when dealing with people of different status, but in talking to a person of higher status; a small, offbeat sign of Pathan egalitarianism.

No sooner were we out of the car than he began to harass my hostess unmercifully about a new mobile phone that he said that she had promised him. ‘You gave me your word more than a year ago and still I am stuck with this rubbish. This is not Muslim behaviour!’ This promised cell-phone hung around for the whole of my stay, emerging every time the conversation threatened to flag. ‘What can I do?’ my hostess asked with an only half-comical sigh, ‘He harasses me unmercifully, but he has been with my father for ever. We can’t possibly get rid of him.’

Then Shehzad took me out to the hujra to meet the agricultural labourers and tenant farmers, at which point things ceased to be comical, and I was in no danger of falling asleep. Just as the impending Russian revolution formed the looming background to Chekhov’s gentry, so it turned out that my hosts – without fully realizing it themselves – were sitting on the crust of a river of lava.

Shehzad himself, as he told me with complete candour, like the vast majority of the tenants and the village in general, is a strong sympathizer of both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban – something of which his master and mistress were wholly unaware, but which he revealed to me with no hesitation whatsoever. In fact, he went further than most sympathizers with the Taleban:

It is not terrorism when you attack Pakistani government employees like at the Wah factory because they were making weapons so the army can kill their own people. The government is taking American money to do this, and they should be fought. Ninety-nine per cent of people in this village support the Taleban, because the Taleban just want to fight the American occupiers of Afghanistan and bring Islamic Law, and everyone agrees with that.

As we sat there on broken chairs on the verandah of the hujra, more figures drifted up to support these views. The keeper of the hujra – not a very dutiful one, to judge by its appearance – came and sat with us. Under his thick black beard he had a naive smile and a surprisingly boyish face, almost as if the beard had been stuck on that morning at a village fête. He told me that his brother was fighting with the Taleban, ‘maybe in Bajaur against the Pakistani army, maybe in Afghanistan against the Americans. Wherever they send him on jihad, he will go.’

I asked why his brother had joined the Taleban.

He joined the Taleban because he believes in Islam, and because the Americans attacked Afghanistan without cause. Afghanistan is an occupied country like Kashmir. He and the other Taleban do not want to fight the Pakistani army, but they have no choice because the army is attacking them on the orders of America. The Taleban would like to make an agreement with the government here so that they can go and fight in Afghanistan. But America doesn’t allow the government to do that. It wants war in Pakistan so that Muslim will kill Muslim.

I asked about Taleban pay.

Yes, it is true that the Taleban pay him Rs12,000 a month, and the police only get Rs6,000. That is a reason. For two years he could not find any steady work. Then the Taleban came and offered to take him. Our family are very happy that he went, because he is on jihad against America and everyone here supports that ... It is true that some of our relatives have jobs with the Pakistani state. For example, I have a cousin in the police. But I am not worried about him being killed by the Taleban. He is fighting for America, and it is better that he should be killed. No one here wants to join the police or army any more.

A tenant farmer, Tazmir Khan, a solid-looking middle-aged man with a sort of universal farmer’s look and huge hands planted on his thighs, joined the conversation. He farms 30 kanals (3.75 acres), 4 kanals of which he rents from the malik, to his unhappiness. ‘I work, work and then I have to pay here.’ Tazmir has been quoted in Chapter 3, on justice, explaining why the Taleban are better than the state courts and police. He added:

The Taleban have driven out criminals and bad characters. They are doing much good work stopping drug-dealing and kidnapping. There has been no more of that since they came here. We can travel in the middle of the night without problems. Before, everyone was home by 10.00 p.m. for fear of dacoits. And mothers want their sons to join the Taleban. Yes, it is dangerous, but it is honourable and for Islam, and it is better than joining some gang and getting into God knows what dirty business ...

In Bajaur, Musharraf and the government have killed too many people. The Taleban are just killing Pakistani soldiers in response. The Taleban are good. If the government targets them, only then they will fight back. Otherwise they will just fight the Americans and not trouble the Pakistani army. Everyone here is against the Americans.

I asked Shehzad about how the Taleban spread their influence and enforced their authority.

They started with a few men, often ones they had recruited from round here coming back here, and going round the hujras and mosques, talking quietly about the Taleban and what they want, and persuading people to support them. Then, when they thought they had enough support and could start acting, they put up banners and posters all over this area saying what they will not allow, telling people to be good Muslims. If you sell alcohol or drugs or do other bad behaviour, the Taleban will warn you twice and then if you don’t change or leave, they will take you to a Shariah court and execute you, or maybe let you off with a fine and a beating. In Mansuqa, a nearby village, a local mullah publicly mocked the Taleban and was killed by them a few weeks ago.

Although appointed by the maliks, the mullah of the family mosque, Zewar, endorsed these views.

That afternoon, I went out to talk to people on the streets and in the shops of the village and, with rare exceptions, it was the same picture. I talked to forty-eight people in all in that village, and every single one of them sympathized with the Afghan Taleban. All but seven also sympathized with the Pakistani Taleban. Those seven – local shopkeepers plus one visiting minor civil servant – condemned them categorically for their attacks on the Pakistani army and police. But it was difficult to say just how deep this condemnation went, since they too – as far as I could make out from the shouting match which developed on several occasions – often blamed such actions on Indian agents.

As afternoon drew towards evening, I sat with my hosts on their verandah as the family of the mullah came to pay their respects, with a mixture of deference and affectionate familiarity. Some of the herd of clerical offspring came to be admired and patted on the head. Afterwards, my host, a compact middle-aged man in the neatly pressed shelwar of the civil servant, with a military-style clipped moustache, began to speak in confident tones of the struggle against the Taleban – and indeed it seemed that he had little idea of the state of feeling in the village, or even among his own servants.

He said that he had not heard of any preaching or other activity by the Taleban in the neighbourhood, and he was sure they did not have majority support. ‘If the government really wants to get rid of the Taleban it can; it just needs to be ruthless. In the end, they are just a few troublemakers.’ But as the shadows lengthened, so his mood darkened:

It is true that the local police have largely given up, so nobody is doing much to stop the Taleban. People think that the present government and all the political parties are corrupt, and do nothing for the people, and the worst thing is that it is true. So people may not support the Taleban, but they have become indifferent, and that is also bad ...

This, remember, as of September 2008 was supposed to be not a Taleban area, but a peaceful area under government control. By the end of my stay I had come to the conclusion that all this really meant was that, unlike in Swat or other areas, the Pakistani Taleban had not publicly announced their takeover or attacked government positions. Yet already, in a nearby village, the Taleban had seized the hujra of a local malik politician from the ANP and turned it into a Shariah court, and the malik and his family had had to flee to Peshawar. ‘And they will never come back,’ I was told, ‘because once you have shown that you are scared, people don’t respect you any more, so you can no longer lead even if the Taleban are defeated one day.’ I was reminded of a saying I had once heard about life in an American prison, that this was a world in which, ‘if you once take a step back, you will never take another step forward’.

As far as public opposition, state authority or the power of the maliks and their mullahs were concerned, there seemed little enough to stop the Taleban if they did decide to take over in that village. Remembering my Russian landowning ancestors in similar circumstances, I was left with the hope that perhaps old ties of kinship and respect would mean that the local Taleban would not directly target their maliks, or at the least would eventually allow them to depart in peace.

However, as will be described in the next chapter, this pessimism proved exaggerated. The Pakistani state and army still do have the resources to fight back effectively against the Taleban; and perhaps, equally importantly, the Taleban, like many revolutionary movements, are chronically given to overestimating their strength and overplaying their hand. In the spring and summer of 2009, this hubris led to nemesis for the Taleban of the Swat valley.

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