Pakistan, Militants In Deadly Border Fight

Jun 6, 2011
Originally published on June 6, 2011 3:36 pm

There is worry that violent militants inside Pakistan could destabilize the country.

American officials want Pakistan to intensify its fight against those militants because they complicate the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Pakistan's army has repeatedly driven out the Taliban from tribal zones near its border with Afghanistan. But the militants won't stay beaten.

Last month, militant violence struck a district along the edge of Pakistan's tribal region. The target was Shabqadar Fort, a 19th-century structure that serves as the headquarters for Frontier Constabulary troops, a paramilitary force recruited from among the local ethnic Pashtun tribes. They're supposed to keep order when a situation grows too violent for the police.

Several hundred recruits were going on leave, and they crowded around the fort's front gate. As they were boarding buses, a motorcycle rider rolled toward them down the street. The motorcyclist blew himself up, killing nearly a dozen people. More were wounded.

As constables rushed to the gate to help, a second attacker was watching.

Law enforcement official Usman Ijaz says that second attacker blew himself up inside the mob that was trying to help the wounded. The attacker had filled the bomb with ball bearings to kill more people.

After the second explosion, 79 lay dead.

Base commander Irshad Alam said the recruits "were lying there just like sheep and goats. I was picking them up with my own hands."

He said "the image kept replaying in front of my eyes."

The experience left Alam demoralized for more than two weeks. "Why are our children being killed?" he asks. "Maybe it's a punishment from God because our behavior hasn't been very good."

'There's No Such Thing As Victory'

Shabqadar Fort has stood against tribal uprisings throughout its history. Peacocks and other birds stroll around the grounds. It's a peaceful place in the middle of a war.

"Things may look normal," Ijaz says. "But they're not that normal."

In recent years, the area has become more secure after Pakistan's regular army deployed in the province. But militants keep filtering back.

Since the bombings, the frontier constables aren't even sure about the people in the bazaar right outside their gate.

Ijaz says it's hard for the army to find the manpower to be everywhere at once.

"They clear one area," he says, "they go to another area."

"We have to do a whole lot of operations at a time."

About 140,000 troops are deployed in the tribal zones and in the adjacent province. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, the region's regular army commander, claims his troops are able to hold the ground they win from militants, but that those efforts limit their ability to strike elsewhere.

"There's no such thing as victory," he says. "It's always relative."

His goal is to establish enough security that civilian officials can work to build infrastructure and encourage development.

Tribal Loyalty

After the bombing at the Frontier Constabulary base, the surviving recruits were sent out to their new units across the district. More recruits arrived for their six-month training course, along with experienced paramilitary troops.

They're all preparing for the next phase of a conflict among their tribes.

Ijaz knows it's a region where tribal loyalty is extremely strong.

"Yes, they are facing this problem" of divided loyalties, he says. "In some cases, it helps them." If a family has a son in the security services, it helps to have another with the militants.

Anayatullah is a member of the Mehsud tribe, whose leaders have been at the heart of the rebellion. He's been a member of the constabulary forces for 24 years.

"We are very worried about this," he says. His family in the tribal zone of South Waziristan faced so many threats they had to move.

Pakistan has seen conflict before, but rarely anything like this. The war could take years to resolve.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Islamabad.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

American officials here are straining to help Pakistan win its fight against militant groups like the Taliban. Some militants complicate the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Pakistan's army has repeatedly driven the Taliban out of tribal zones near the border with Afghanistan. But the militants will not stay beaten. We glimpsed the problem when we visited Charsadda, a district just along the edge of Pakistan's tribal region.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAWKING BIRDS)

INSKEEP: We strolled in a 19th century brick fort with Usman Ijaz, a law enforcement official. He says the soldiers who stayed in this fort once included Winston Churchill, who was then a young British army officer.

MONTAGNE: In 1897, a British campaign came here for the tribals for the Mohmand Agency. There was an uprising in Mohmand Agency.

INSKEEP: Which may be is something to understand about this region. If there was a tribal uprising in 1897, and here you are today and it's a kind of tribal uprising again.

MONTAGNE: It was - this tribal area is always problematic.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, there are peacocks strolling past us, as we stand on this lawn here. Isn't it strange to have such a peaceful looking spot and you're in the middle, really, of a war?

MONTAGNE: Things look normal.And we try to behave normal. But things are not that normal.

INSKEEP: On May 12, several hundred police recruits went to the gate. They were going on leave. As they were boarding buses, a motorcycle rider was rolling toward them down the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE AND TRAFFIC)

INSKEEP: What happened here last month?

MONTAGNE: Last month when some of our recruits, they were boarding the vehicles, a motorcycle rider blew himself up right next to their vehicles and it killed many people - around 10 to 15 people.

INSKEEP: Other people were wounded. And as constables rushed to the gate to help, a second attacker was watching.

MONTAGNE: The second bomber presumably came from that alley of that plaza, and blew himself up right inside the mob which was trying to rescue the people and the injured.

INSKEEP: Came from in between these two buildings and blew himself up where we're standing here. And there, over in - the concrete walls have a bunch of pockmarks all over them. Those are like...

MONTAGNE: The ball bearings...

INSKEEP: Oh, they filled the bomb with ball bearings so that it injures more people.

MONTAGNE: Exactly, yes.

INSKEEP: The Taliban described the attack as revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden. The base commander, Irshad Alam, says the double bombing killed 79 people.

C: (Through Translator) It was very strange for us, because the recruits were lying just like sheep and goats. I was picking them up with my own hands.

INSKEEP: Irshad is a veteran of 29 years, his beard flecked with gray. But for all his experience, the bombing threw him into a depression.

C: (Through Translator) That day my heart was strong; because if it wasn't, the other recruits would be demoralized. The next day I felt really bad. For the next 18 days, I felt bad.

INSKEEP: He told us he was feeling better. But as he spoke, the lines began to deepen around his eyes and his face contorted. He said: The image kept replaying in front of my eyes.

C: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF A SIGH)

INSKEEP: Do you need to take a minute, sir?

U: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR)

INSKEEP: He stepped out of the room, returning a few minutes later.

C: (Through Translator) Why are our children being killed? What mistake have we made? Maybe it's a punishment from God because our behavior hasn't been very good.

INSKEEP: Usman Ijaz says that it's hard for the army to find the manpower to be everywhere at once.

MONTAGNE: They clear one area, they go to the other area. We have to do a whole lot of operations, once at a time, and guarding the foreign border properly. We have to push them, and they have to stop them. And then we have to crush them in between.

INSKEEP: How do you know when you have won the war? What defines victory?

MONTAGNE: OK. First of all, let's not call victory. I think we'll use the word success. You know, there's no such thing as victory; absolute victory is a dream, I think. It's always relative.

INSKEEP: His goal is to establish enough security that civilian officials can work to build infrastructure and encourage development.

U: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

U: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: After the bombing at the Frontier Constabulary base, the surviving recruits were sent out to their new units. More recruits arrived for their six-month training course, along with experienced paramilitary troops. The veterans got a refresher course in how to disassemble their weapons. An officer repeated the names of the parts of a rifle spread out on the ground.

U: Trigger guard group.

GROUP: Trigger guard group.

U: Trigger.

GROUP: Trigger.

U: (Foreign language spoken)

GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Sometimes there must be a man on your force, who his brother or his cousin or his relative, is fighting with the militants. That must happen.

MONTAGNE: Yes.

INSKEEP: Are there some men who struggle with divided loyalties?

MONTAGNE: Yes, they are facing this problem and in some - at some point it helps them.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, so it's better to have one brother in the Frontier Constabulary and another brother in the militants?

MONTAGNE: That's what they think.

INSKEEP: On a dusty parade ground at this base, we met a Pashtun tribesman without this advantage. Anayatullah is a member of the Mehsud tribe, some of whose leaders have been at the heart of the rebellion. Still he's serving in this paramilitary force, as he has for 24 years.

ANAYATULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He says his family in the tribal zone of South Waziristan faced so many threats they had to move. Everyone we've met here thinks the war could take years to resolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING, THEN CLICK OF WEAPONS)

INSKEEP: It's midday now, and brutally hot - but the paramilitary troops stage a parade in their charcoal-colored uniforms. Rifles held in front of them, they move at double-speed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND MARCHING)

INSKEEP: And as they march they begin to disappear in a cloud of dust. Watching the order and the ceremony of this exercise, you could almost forget the ugliness of the war that awaits outside the gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND MARCHING)

MONTAGNE: Steve Inskeep reporting from Pakistan. Tomorrow, we'll ask a Pakistani general why his country hasn't stopped a network of militants who strike Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.