WHAT CAN we do about Pakistan, you ask, the source of so many troubles for the United States? You wonder: Why can’t or won’t Pakistan eject the Taliban terrorists from their safe havens, or stop them from crossing the border to kill our boys in Afghanistan?
Let me be your guide. If you want to hear a different narrative, come with me for a visit into the so-called “lawless tribal territories’’ on the Northwest Frontier where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. Here the trouble is that the Americans aren’t stopping the Taliban from crossing over from their safe havens in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan.
Come, you have been invited to lunch at the officers mess of the Bajaur Scouts, gleaming with the regimental silver and leftover traditions from the British who once tried, but never succeeded, in taming the Pashtun tribes. Semi-autonomous tribes traditionally rule themselves rather than be under the direct control of the government.
But first we must drive over the storied Malakand Pass, leaving behind, as Winston Churchill described it, “under the haze of heat’’ the flat lands, up where “the landscape is wild and rugged,’’ and down again into a broad valley like a cup.
“The country of the plains is left … A single step has led from peace to war … and we have we entered a strange land’’ he wrote a century ago, and it still holds true today. For then as now, Pashtun religious zealots, then called Ghazis and now called the Taliban, are making trouble in the tribal territories.
In 2008 they had just about taken over Bajaur on the Afghan border by killing elders, destroying schools, and imposing their strict brand of Islam. The 26th Regiment, and the Scouts, cleared, held, and now they are building. The casualties were heavier than most American units have suffered across the border in Kunar Province.
Unlike the regular army, the Scouts are all Pashtuns themselves. The British formed these frontier Scouts on the theory that it takes a Pashtun to catch a Pashtun. But the Scouts tell us that they had forgotten what their grandfathers and great grandfathers had known, and had to re-learn the guerrilla warfare of which the Taliban are masters.
Today Bajaur is all but pacified, at least for now. The markets are open, people can move freely, teachers are back in their schools. It’s a success story, and that’s why we have been invited here. Don’t be alarmed that we are escorted by pickups full of armed Scouts with machine guns mounted on the cabs. That’s just a precaution. You are not in danger, except, perhaps, “from suicidals,’’ the scouts say, or perhaps a roadside bomb.
Listen to the tribal “elders.’’ They once again represent tribal authority which the Taliban broke down. In town the Scouts have left one of the telephone poles which was refitted to be a gallows by the Taliban. You can see caves that the Taliban dug to hide in — “like the Viet Cong,’’ says one of the Scouts who has read about the tunnels of Cu Chi in Vietnam.
But come and look at this map. Those hatched marks are the bits where Taliban are still active, to be mopped up. There, straddling the border, there’s the weak point! The British drew the border separating members of the same tribe, so the tribesmen have always wandered back and forth at will.
No matter how successful the Scouts and the 26th Regiment have been in clearing out the Taliban from Bajaur, they say the Americans and the Afghan Army in Kunar Province aren’t preventing the Taliban from coming over from their safe havens in Afghanistan. It’s not for lack of will. It’s just the reality of porous borders and frontier fighting.
Whether Pakistan’s national leaders want to keep good relations with some Taliban in other parts of the frontier, as a hedge against when the Americans leave, is a matter above the Scouts’ pay grade. All they know is that Talibs from safe havens in Afghanistan are coming over to kill their boys.
Not quite what you’re hearing back home?H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe