How the Taliban Defeated the Pakistani Army in Waziristan

Pakistan’s army suffered losses of 700 killed in its unsuccessful effort to push Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan out of their tribal sanctuaries in Pakistan, an Islamabad-based journalist reports. That defeat may explain Islamabad’s reluctance to resume the struggle.

“With every incursion, civilian death and displacement, the Pakistan Taliban grew stronger,” writes Graham Usher in the April 16 issue of The Nation magazine, published in New York. The Taliban “defended villages, ambushed army patrols, killed pro-government elders and imposed their own brand of Islamic’ law and order. ”

“When the army sued for peace with pro-Taliban tribesmen in the Waziristans in 2005 and 2006, it was not because of a new holistic’ strategy for the tribal areas, as sold by (Pervez) Musharraf to Washington,” Usher said. “It was because of the army’s military and political defeat.”

In 56 years of independence, Pakistani soldiers had never set foot in the Waziristans, “part of the trade-off for keeping the tribes loyal,” Usher said, and when they did the numbers of civilians killed and displaced were in the thousands.

Malik Qadir Khan, a tribal leader in North Waziristan explained, “Everyone supported the Taliban when the army came in. It was a people’s revolt. Pakistan had broken its promise, and that’s a big thing in the tribal areas. You don’t break your promise.”

Although U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s advice to Musharraf has been to “go after them,” journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai, an expert on the tribal areas believes, “every use of force is a victory for the militants.” Yousafzai said the answer “must involve a strategy that provides education and jobs for thousands of impoverished and unemployed youth, who are ready recruits for the Taliban.”

The tensions in the tribal regions will not lessen until Pakistan has a civilian government, historian Ahmed Rashid told Usher. “Only a civilian government can bring reform. You cannot have free elections in the tribal areas when there are no free elections in Pakistan,” Rashid said.

Currently, the Pakistan Taliban are the de facto rulers of the areas vacated by the Pakistan Army. In Miramshah, capital of North Waziristan, it is not the elders or police who govern, Usher writes, “It is the mullahs and young men with black shaggy hair and rifles slung over their shoulders.”

Usher said the U.S. “will not tolerate” the standoff and the public response to the retaliatory Pakistani bombings in Bajaur tribal area and South Waziristan has been “ferocious.” Locals claimed the attacks, which killed seminary students and woodcutters, were not executed by Pakistani army helicopters but by U.S. Predator drones flown in from Afghanistan.

Suicide bomber responses to the aerial attacks since then mean the Taliban is saying, according to retired army general Talat Masood, “If you come after us in the name of America’s war in the tribal areas, we will come after you all over Pakistan.”

Two week before the upheavals began last March 9th in Islamabad when Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, Cheney flew into Islamabad to deliver a “tough message” to Musharraf, namely he was upset by peace agreements Musharraf signed with pro-Taliban tribesmen along Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan, Usher wrote. “Bloodied by Iraq, the Bush Administration has realized that Afghanistan could tip the same way.” Since 9/11, Pakistan has received $10-billion in direct U.S. aid and as much again in covert aid, “most of it military,” The Nation article says.

The “crisis” Pakistan’s President-General Musharraf faces today, Usher writes, is the worst since he took power in his Oct., 1999 coup, and the situation in the tribal regions will not improve until democratic elections are held.

Critics of Musharraf have taken to the streets not only to defend an independent judiciary. “They want Musharraf to stand down, exiled civilian leaders like Benazir Bhutto to come home and free and fair elections to be held so that Pakistan can once again be a democracy,” Usher writes. This would mean “an end to policies based on military might, political abdication and panicked American dictates” but “so far no U.S. government official has called for a return to civilian rule in Pakistan.”

SHERWOOD ROSS is an American writer who covers political and military subjects. Reach him at