YOU COULD HEAR the tension over the radios.
As the Afghan border guards helplessly listened to the crackle of gunfire and the sharp, frantic voices of there brethren under attack at another distant post, American troops made a call to their base for air support.
After four bloody hours of fighting, the rebels loaded onto a truck and drove a few hundred yards over the unmarked border into the safety and sanctuary of Pakistan. In the end, two Afghan allies lay dead with two more badly wounded and an assault force of up to 100 Taliban-affiliated fighters slipped away to refit, rearm, and plan for more attacks unmolested in the lawless western border region of Pakistan.
That was back in April of 2004, near a remote border checkpoint east of the Afghan city of Khost. This volatile area--which was a primary transit point for anti-Soviet mujihadeen fighters in the mid-1980s--flanks one of the most contentious enclaves in the region. The so-called tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, just over the mountainous border with Pakistan, have been the launching points for violent attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces for years, but have remained largely "no-go" zones for American--and Pakistani--forces.
In that eastern frontier of Afghanistan, the bad guys come over the border, past seemingly oblivious Pakistani guards, ambush American forces and other Afghan or coalition troops, then run back over the border into the sanctuary of the tribal areas. Rumors of bin Laden and his chiefs' taking shelter there are commonplace, but few details have emerged from this Pashtun enclave closed to outsiders--until now.
In the Frontline season premier airing this evening on PBS, award-winning documentary producer and journalist Martin Smith delivers an unprecedented view of a terrorist breeding ground that has apparently replaced Taliban-run Afghanistan. "Return of the Taliban" is a frightening look into the medieval madness and violence of the tribal areas--where disloyal elders are beheaded in the public square and thieves are hanged in the streets with money stuffed in their gaping mouths for all to see--should serve as a wakeup call to anyone who thinks America's enemies are in retreat.
Ask any military commander in Afghanistan where he thinks the threats are coming from and he'll tell you they're from the tribal areas of Pakistan. Though the Pakistani government issues vociferous denials that it harbors al Qaeda on its soil--with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf recently declaring that al Qaeda's leadership is hiding in Afghanistan (which has more than 20,000 U.S. troops) not in Pakistan's tribal areas (which now has zero Pakistani troops on patrol)--the Frontline documentary provides strong evidence that powerful terrorist leaders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Nek Mohammed have been allowed to thrive in the tribal areas.
Incorporating vividly unsettling video footage and in-depth interviews with key players in the region, Smith paints a grim picture of a situation that seems to be slipping further from America's grasp.
"Arresting him might be something we will have to do," says one Pakistani official interviewed in the Frontline documentary of Haqqani. "But I'm not sure whether we know where he is, or whether we are capable at this time."
On at least one occasion in 2004, however, an American surveillance drone observed Haqqani enter a mosque in the tribal area, deliver a sermon, walk out with his entourage, and load into vehicles for the trip back to his compound. Despite the intelligence, U.S. forces were unable to secure permission to fire a precision missile or enter Pakistan to pursue the insurgent commander.
The combination of strong ties with Pakistan's intelligence service, the political risk of an aggressive counter-terror campaign, and a sympathetic population help the growing Taliban and al Qaeda movement to thrive in the tribal areas, the Frontline program shows.
Though it is a remarkably balanced portrayal of the situation over the Pakistan border, "Return of the Taliban" does lob a few cheap political shots.
"But, by now the administration was preoccupied with Iraq. The hunt for al Qaeda was left to Pakistan," the Frontline narrator says. Never mind that Pakistan has forbidden U.S. troops from entering its territory and protested loudly when a missile strike from an unmanned drone killed more than a dozen civilians along with four al Qaeda operatives in early 2006.
"We have a clear agreement that whatever happens on our side of the border, it is Pakistan's responsibility and our forces' responsibility," Musharraf tells Smith. "Nobody comes across the border. . . . Any action without our knowledge and without our clearance and approval and without our dictation is not acceptable to Pakistan."
The hunt for al Qaeda was left to Pakistan because Pakistan wanted it that way.
The question the Frontline episode leaves unanswered, however, is what America can or should do about a situation that seems to grow more dangerous by the day. If al Qaeda and the Taliban are safely regrouping in the border regions of Pakistan, doesn't this pose a threat to the United States? Musharraf recently concluded an agreement with elders in Waziristan who promised they would not harbor terrorists and would curtail cross-border incursions in exchange for a total exodus of Pakistani troops. America's top general in the region, Gen. John Abiziad has said he's skeptical such an agreement is realistic. But as the Frontline documentary shows, it may be all America can hope for in the near term.
"He's the only ally you have in the region who is capable of delivering on his promises. You have no other ally," Pakistan's ambassador to the U.N., Munir Akram, tells Smith of Musharraf.
"You pressurize Pakistan, you destabilize Pakistan, the most counterproductive thing you do is to press Pakistan more."
As frustrating as it may be for Americans to watch a terrorist sanctuary take root just a few miles from U.S. and Afghan forces, "Return of the Taliban" shows Akram may well be right.
Christian Lowe is a senior writer with Army Times Publishing Co. and has covered U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.