Afghanistan Crossroads

Bad two months for the Taliban

I’ve lived in Pakistan for more than two years and this is the worst two-month stretch I’ve seen the Taliban suffer through during my stay. The Taliban are in a slump and much of it has to do with Pakistan’s top spy agency and Pakistani security forces turning up the heat.
 
Consider the facts.

In January a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal region killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. A few weeks later another drone strike killed Mohammad Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the notorious pro-Taliban warlord accused of launching attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Many analysts say the controversial drone strikes are reaching their targets with the help of Pakistani intelligence.
 
Last month the I.S.I., Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, helped capture Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi. Baradar was the Afghan Taliban’s second in command behind Mullah Omar. Days later the I.S.I. nabbed at least four other senior Afghan Taliban leaders. All of them were hiding in Pakistan.
 
This week the Pakistani Army took a group of journalists to the tribal region along the Afghan border to show off its latest victory against the Taliban, the taking back of Damadola, a region in the district of Bajaur, a 30-minute drive through the mountains from Afghanistan. The army calls Damadola a militant nerve center, where insurgents launched attacks against U.S. and international forces across the border. In 2006 a U.S. drone strike destroyed a hillside compound here. Al Qaeda’s number two Ayman Al Zawahiri was the target. 
 
“We know al Qaeda was here,” said Major General Tariq Khan, the Pakistan military’s regional commander.
 
On our trip to Damadola, the army showed us where the Taliban lived, an intricate network of 154 tunnels and caves. It must’ve taken the militants years to gouge out the rocks and debris. The end result was a multi-room apartment complex inside a mountain. Long tunnels connected bedrooms that were lined with old sleeping bags. In one room a pair of old sneakers sat in a corner. An old pink comb and a broken Casio digital watch sat in another. One military official told me one of the caves served as a medical clinic.
 
The military began its offensive here back in August of 2008 but the Taliban fought hard to keep Damadola. Nearly 17 months later of fierce fighting later, the last month focusing on Damadola, the army says it’s now in control.
 
The military says it plans to stay in control with the help of local pro-government militias. Hundreds of armed militia men in Damadola greeted us with song and dance. I’d never seen so many men dance with AK-47s and grenade launchers. 
 
“No, no they can’t comeback now,” said militia member Abdul Satar. “The Taliban have weapons but we’ll show them we have more.”
 
The taking back of Damadola is another important achievement for Pakistani security forces who have been targets of much criticism from Washington. In recent years U.S. military and intelligence officials have accused Pakistan of not doing enough against militants, even helping the Taliban to eventually secure and ally in Afghanistan once U.S. and international forces leave. Washington hasn’t criticized Pakistan much lately. Pakistan’s recent winning streak against the Taliban has a lot to do with it.