The Magazine

Al Qaeda's Pakistan Sanctuary

Musharraf appeases the Taliban.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By BILL ROGGIO
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The security situation in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province continues to deteriorate. Once again, Western pressure on the government of President Pervez Musharraf has failed to prevent Pakistan from handing over territory to the Taliban, this time to a group called the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws. On March 17, a Pakistani "peace" committee struck a verbal agreement with the Mohmand tribe, under which the government promised to cease military activity in Bajaur in exchange for the tribe's promise not to shelter "foreigners" or allow cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

A look at the players shows this agreement to be another pact with the devil. The tribal militants are led by Faqir Muhammad, government sources told Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, the day the agreement was made. Faqir Muhammad is a senior leader of the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws, which provided the ideological inspiration to the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Faqir's group sent over 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. His two sons and two cousins were arrested by Pakistani authorities after returning from Afghanistan.

The Jamestown Foundation refers to Faqir Muhammad as "al-Zawahiri's Pakistani ally." His home in the village of Damadola was targeted by a joint U.S.-Pakistani airstrike in January 2006 after al Qaeda senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was believed to have been there. Zawahiri and Faqir escaped death, but Abu Khabab al-Masri, the chief of al Qaeda's WMD program, and several other senior al Qaeda leaders were killed in the attack.

In October 2006, Faqir called Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar "heroes of the Muslim world" and vowed joint efforts to fight the "enemies of peace" in Bajaur. Days later, the Chingai madrassa, which doubled as an al Qaeda and Taliban training camp, was hit by a U.S. airstrike, killing 84 Taliban, including Faqir's deputy, Liaquat Hussain. Faqir responded by attacking the Dargai military base with a suicide bomber.

Under the leadership of Faqir Muhammad, whom the Pakistani government refuses to arrest, Bajaur has become an al Qaeda command and control center for launching operations into eastern Afghanistan. Kunar, the adjacent Afghan province, is one of the most violent in the country.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone tracking the situation in northwestern Pakistan. Since the signing of the Waziristan Accord on September 5, 2006, essentially ceding North Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda, attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have skyrocketed. Afghanistan has seen an increase in attacks of more than 300 percent, and battalion-sized groups of Taliban fighters have been hit while crossing the border from Pakistan. Cross-border raids are up more than 200 percent, and NATO forces have repeatedly engaged in hot pursuit across the Pakistani frontier. U.S. artillery has begun to strike at large Taliban formations in Pakistani territory. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan increased fivefold from 2005 to 2006. This year, there have already been more suicide attacks in Afghanistan than in all of 2006.

The situation has gotten so bad that in February, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called "a steady, direct attack against the command and control in sanctuary areas in Pakistan" essential to preempt the expected Taliban spring offensive. Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced similar concerns last month, saying, "Long-term prospects for eliminating the Taliban threat appear dim so long as the sanctuary remains in Pakistan, and there are no encouraging signs that Pakistan is eliminating it."

The rise of North and South Waziristan as hubs for Taliban and al Qaeda activity has not only damaged Afghan security and reconstruction. Unwilling to confine its activities to the border areas, the Pakistani Taliban also has designs on the settled regions of the North-West Frontier Province, an area the size of Florida. This was clear as long ago as March 2006, when Aftab Khan Sherpao, the Pakistani interior minister, sounded the alarm. "The Taliban's sphere of influence has expanded to Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, and the Khyber Agency, where clerics of the area have started to join them," Sherpao said. "There has been a sharp increase in attacks on heavily defended military targets in these areas as well."

Asfandyar Wali, leader of the secular, democratic Awami National party, has also been trying to arouse concern about the Taliban's growing power in the North-West Frontier Province. Wali recently went on Pakistani television and reported that the district of Kohat is now under Taliban control.