Dateline travels to the remote tribal regions of north-west Pakistan, to see how the new civilian government is coping with the Taliban insurgency.
Sunday, February 15, 2009 - 17:46

Sophie McNeill travels to the remote tribal regions of north-west Pakistan, to see how the country's new civilian government is coping with the Taliban insurgency.

Despite the Pakistani army's seemingly determined efforts to root out the militants - they're making little headway.

The fighting is fierce and has already claimed the lives of around 1,500 Pakistani soldiers - three times the number of American soldiers who have died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The troops are also accused of using excessive force - killing innocent civilians and displacing over half a million people.



The good folk of London are definitely no strangers to terror. From the Blitz of the Second World War, to IRA bombers, they've just about seen it all! More recently, though, their terrorists have been home-grown, like the extreme Islamist bombers who attacked London's transport system in 2005. They were raised here, in the UK, but had strong links to Pakistan - the place regarded by many experts as the natural home of international terrorism. But the Pakistani military, as we speak, are now taking on the Islamic militants, including the Taliban. Here's Australia's Young Journalist of the Year, Sophie McNeill.

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

These rugged mountains are the frontline in a fierce battle between the Pakistan army and the Taliban - a war largely hidden from the world. We're about to land in the district of Bajour - one of the many remote tribal regions near the Afghan border, where the Taliban have a stronghold. I'm being given a tour of the army's training and operations here...

SOLDIER: This is training going on right here. ..

And they are keen to show me their efforts to dislodge the militants. This captured position is just down the road from the army's main headquarters.

SOLDIER 2: We cleared it on September 27 last year.

These tunnels, dug by the Taliban, were used to shelter from the army's bombardment.
It just shows how hard it is going to be to get al-Qaeda and Taliban out of these areas here, in Pakistan, because of the guerrilla tactics that they're using.

REPORTER: When you cleared this compound, how many people were killed?

SOLDIER 2: 15 of enemy and there were about 60 miscreants here. Rest of them were able to escape from the tunnel which I was talking about.

Despite the presence of two army battalions, these soldiers still don't have total control of this area.

REPORTER: What are those mortar rounds going off in the background? What's that for?

SOLDIER 2: The mortar rounds? They must have seen some targets.

The Pakistani Army has thrown everything it has at the Taliban forces here and caused massive destruction in the process.

SOLDIER 3: We started off with artillery rounds followed by mortar rounds and then, if the need be, the aircraft also struck all these areas.

This whole area, once a bustling town, is now deserted. Everyone who lived here was ordered out by the army, and it doesn't look like there's anything left for them to return to.

SOLDIER 4: The government took the action to clear off this whole area.

REPORTER: So you just decided to clear this whole place?

SOLDIER 4: Yeah.

But some are now openly questioning whether the army's scorched earth policy is effective.

AHMED RASHID, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: The Pakistan army, they went into Bajour and they said, "We will clean this up in two weeks and we'll be out of there." That was in August of 2008. It's now been nearly five months.

Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid has been analysing developments in this region for more than 30 years.

AHMED RASHID: Now, what you have up in the north is basically conventional forces going up against guerrillas, using conventional high firepower, like artillery and air bombardment. There is very little follow-up on the ground. Now, a good counter-insurgency campaign should include obviously getting the leadership of the Taliban, holding the ground, and then carrying out major development work. We are seeing no strategic plan in the north.

Around 1,500 Pakistani soldiers have already been killed in this war - three times the number of American soldiers who have died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

AHMED RASHID: After the war in Afghanistan, in 2001, it should be remembered that the Taliban were never defeated - they were simply routed by the Americans. Many thousands escaped into Pakistan, including almost the entire Taliban leadership, and they were given sanctuary by the Pakistanis.

It was in these villages, in the north of the country, where the Taliban found that sanctuary - a refuge tolerated by the former military dictator General Musharraf. But when Musharraf was ousted in August 2008, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain political leader Benazir Bhutto, became President of a new civilian government, and with him came a promise of a new direction.

FARATULLAH BARBAR, PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESMAN: We believed in Musharraf was the president, and he would sell this thing to the Western countries that he was fighting the militants. We always suspected that he was running with the hare and hunting with the hound.

Faratullah Barbar is the spokesperson for President Zardari. He says the new government is proud of its efforts to finally crack down on the Taliban.

FARATULLAH BARBAR: And, if we do not check them now, they might well come down to Islamabad, and the other towns of Pakistan, and they might overrun the whole country.

The Taliban are already firmly entrenched. Here, in the north, people belong to the Pashtun tribe - an ethnic group that spans the border of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership is also Pashtun and they have found it easy to spread its influence, taking over villages and towns.

AHMED RASHID: What we have seen in the last two to three years has been the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, which has never existed before, and this has been a result of the radicalisation of the Pashtun tribes in the border regions by al-Qaeda and by the Afghan Taliban.

As they once did in Afghanistan, the Taliban now brutally punish people here who don't comply with strict Sharia law. These men are being publicly whipped for crimes decided by the militant's own Islamic courts. This was filmed just a few weeks ago in the tribal region of the Swat valley, where recent punishments have included beheadings. And this is one of the 200 girls' schools destroyed by the Taliban. They ordered them all to close and bombed those that refused. But it's not just the rural areas of Pakistan that are coming under the influence of the Taliban. The city of Peshawar is just two hours drive from the capital, Islamabad, and it, too, is now under siege.

We are just on our way now to Peshawar, and because of the security situation there, it's really important that I don't look like a Western, so I have to wear all the local clothes, because it's just not a good thing to be Westerner at the moment in Peshawar.

In the past year, over 100 Pakistanis have been killed in suicide bombings and attacks here. It's not safe for me to film openly in the city, so local reporter Mushtaq Yusefzai is giving me a guided tour of Peshawar from the safety of his car.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI, REPORTER: Taliban kidnap people, they are roaming everywhere in the city and they kidnap people from inside the city. So they can do anything even now in Peshwar, especially when they see a westerner and then they kidnap because they think they will pay them in dollars.

Mushtaq tells me that the men in the car in front of us are members of the local Taliban.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: Yeah, actually they are militants.

REPORTER: But, how can you tell that those men in that car were militants?

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: being a journalist, I have been meeting these people, I have been visiting the tribal areas, so I know them very well.

REPORTER: You recognise them?

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: Yeah, I recognise them.

The Taliban are becoming so brazen they've taken to giving press conferences, like this one, held near Peshawar last November. In his first public appearance, the young Taliban commander Hakimullah Mahsud warned President Zardari against continuing the army's campaign.

HAKIMULLAH MAHSUD, TALIBAN COMMANDER (Translation): Now that there is a government, its policies are even stricter than Musharrafs'. If they make the people aware and abandon their policies, then we will not capture Peshawar. But if the Pakistani military refuses, then we will be forced to capture Peshawar and Hangu, we will capture every corner of Pakistan, or we will try, God willing.

Mahsud and his men are already tightening their grip around Peshawar. 75% of materials for NATO operations in Afghanistan pass through this road - the main highway from Peshawar to Kabul.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: These containers are supplying weapons and food items and other things for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In December, Mahsud's men cut this supply line in their most daring attack yet on the city.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: Around 300 Taliban, they were armed with heavy weapons and they set on fire some of the containers which were loaded with weapons and other equipment.

Over 100 trucks and 50 containers were destroyed, the Taliban escaping with some of NATO's weapons. This video, obtained by Dateline, shows Mahsud proudly driving a stolen US Army Hummer. Footage like this is not allowed to air on Pakistani television - the government has banned the broadcasting of what they call Taliban propaganda. Instead, they're trying to give the impression the war is going well.

PAKISTANI MEDIA: The security situation is improving in the tribal regions, due to the ongoing security operations... The government is adamant. This time, Rahman Malik says two of the seven arrested on Wednesday were high-values targets.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI: They make certain claims, that "œWe capture so many Taliban, we killed 60 militants, 40 militants and we secured the area, we flushed out Taliban from other areas." But in fact, it has not happened. Those areas are still in Taliban control, so how can I report it?

What the government can't deny is that over 500,000 people from the tribal areas have been forced out of their homes due to the war. This refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar is home to over 14,000 people. Conditions here are tough. The families were originally told they could go home after a few weeks, but these families have now been stuck here for the past five months.

GIRL, (Translation): There was fighting in the village, there were Taliban.

For the past few years, these Pashtun tribespeople had been living under the Taliban's harsh rule in Bajour. I found this man, 81-year-old Nada Khan, who told me what happened when his family dared to defy the Taliban.

NADA KHAN, (Translation): We have escaped from the Taliban, they would have killed us they would have beheaded us. My son was beheaded, leaving my three grandchildren in my care, they took another of my sons two months ago and I don't know if they have beheaded him.

Despite the horrors of Taliban rule, not one person I met here supported the Pakistan Army's current operations. They are angry at the military and accuse it of using excessive force.

BOY, (Translation): 200, 250 people were killed and houses destroyed, there was fighting and planes flying over, suddenly the planes started bombing the market.

MUSHTAG YUSEFZAI (Translation): Were there civilians or Taliban?

BOY, (Translation): It was all civilians, no Taliban.

22-year-old Farahmoush has heard the army destroyed his home, back in Bajour. He told me life was better under the Taliban.

FARAHMOUSH, (Translation): Under the Taliban there was peace in Bajour, with the Pakistani army things got worse.. we are ordinary people but they are bombing us and using jet fighters against us. Fighter planes should be used against the enemy, not ordinary people. I have a complaint with the government.

REPORTER: But, aren't civilians getting killed in the army's campaign and also having their homes destroyed, and that is making a lot of people very angry with the government and with the army?

FARATULLAH BARBAR: That is true. This is a kind of guerrilla warfare and, in this kind of crossfire, innocent people - innocent citizens also get killed. This has happened in Swat. This has happened in Bajour. This is the price one really has to pay when you are fighting the militants and the extremists.

And that price only seems to be getting higher. A few days ago, Dateline received this exclusive footage that exposes the human cost of Pakistan's war on terror. These people are all from the village of Chaubaugh, in the Swat valley, in Pakistan's north.

MAN, (Translation): There was firing everywhere.. what happened to these people is hard to describe. I am not sure if the wounded were shelled, hit by gunships or shot by soldiers. Whatever it was it was hell on earth.

On Sunday, February 1, the Pakistan army launched an attack on what they claimed were militants hiding in the village. But over 40 civilians are believed to have been killed and many more have been horribly injured.

MAN 2, (Translation): I was hit by a bullet in the leg which shattered my bone, my nephew had also been hit and he died an hour later.

MAN 3, (Translation): They gave the order to open fire and I tried to run away but I could not get away. They caught 18 young men and then they took us to the main road, one of the youths said "œDon't shoot him, he is innocent." They said to me "œYou're a member of the Taliban!" I said "œI'm not a Talib, I am a civilian."

As the civilian toll mounts, the West is urging the new government to hold its nerve, and top officials regularly come courting. Today, the NATO Secretary General is in town. Zardari's government is facing a growing backlash over its handling of the war on terror.

PAKISTANI MEDIA: Our top story this hour - another drone attack. At least 15 people and at least three children have been killed...

Since last August, the US military has stepped up the use of unmanned drones to fire missiles at 'high-value' targets inside Pakistan. The nation is outraged at America's violation of their sovereignty and at the rising civilian death toll.

PAKISTANI MEDIA: 15 people were killed, the second incident claiming the lives of children as well. What's going on?

President Zardari has repeatedly asked Washington to stop the attacks, but even under the new Obama Administration, the raids have continued.

REPORTER: How does the government feel that the Americans are just ignoring their requests?

FARATULLAH BARBAR: That is true that the Americans have not listened to this. They still continue the drone attacks. Only two days ago, there was a very big drone attack in which a number of people were killed. This is really unfortunate.

Opposition politician Imran Khan is capitalising on the public's discontent. This mass rally in the city of Faisalabad is just one of five that Khan is holding today. He is trying to mobilise support against what's happening in the north.

IMRAN KHAN (Translation): First there was the mean-hearted Musharraf and now the mean-hearted Zadari. Our people are dying, our military is bombing us and America is bombing us. Women and children are living in tents while we watch in silence.

This has, rather than winning the war against the terrorists, this has actually been the greatest gift for the terrorists of 9/11/

Khan argues that the government's military campaign is actually creating sympathy for the Taliban, and is calling for a new strategy.

IMRAN KHAN: More and more people have gone onto the other side. There is no end to the recruits and to this war. In effect, what has happened by sending the army in? To get hold of 1,800 or 1,500 people, 1.5 million armed men in the tribal areas are being pushed towards al-Qaeda, or whoever was responsible for 9/11, so this is the most moronic policy.

As the military campaign now comes under fire, the Prime Minister has now raised in Parliament the possibility of talking to the Taliban. It's a big shift, but it may be necessary to ensure Zardari's political survival.

FARATULLAH BARBAR: The Pakistan Government negotiating with the militants has not been liked by some other foreign countries, which are also fighting the militants, but basically this is a fight of the Government of Pakistan, of the people of Pakistan. We will do it the way we think is right and proper. Nobody else really should be dictating to Pakistan how to fight the war against the militants.

Whether force or negotiation will win the war on terror remains to be seen, but it's clear that Pakistan's problems will not be solved without also finding a solution to the conflict across the border. And with a US troop surge imminent that could double the size of American forces in Afghanistan, Imran Khan has this warning.

IMRAN KHAN: All the surge will do is kill more people. More American troops will die. There will be more aerial bombing. They will further alienate the population. This would be a disaster for Pakistan. And Pakistan is a country of 160 million people. A destabilised Pakistan, a radical, destabilised Pakistan is in no-one's interests.






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