A small victory for Pakistan in a war that is far from over
LETTER FROM BAJAUR:The region of Bajaur, formerly a no-go area, is being taken back and its cave refuges shut down, writes ROB CRILLY
THE SLIT in the rock wall is not much to look at: A two-foot wide gap that disappears into blackness. But passing through the nondescript entrance opens up a network of caves and a small insight into the world of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
This was once a subterranean hideout. The militants are gone now. Their bedding and a few clothes are all that is left, strewn on the rocky floor where they dropped it and ran – or were killed. One passageway extends from the back of the cave, rising up to a foxhole where fighters could rain bullets and mortars on the advancing Pakistani army.
It was here in December that their last stronghold in Bajaur – and reputedly the lair once of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy – was captured at the culmination of a two-year battle. It marks a small victory for the Pakistan army in a war that will continue for years.
The markets nearby are open again, but there are few shoppers among the rickety stalls selling Chinese radios, shoes and mangos.
Tribal elders say they desperately need schools to stop boys joining up with the Taliban. And, for now, the road through the provincial capital of Khar is under constant threat from suicide bombings.
As Pakistan comes under increasing pressure from the US to root out militants from their mountain lairs along the border with Afghanistan, the battle for Bajaur is the Islamabad government’s proof that it is serious about its role in the war on terror.
Dozens of caves have been found among the rocky crags. All but one are being filled in to prevent them falling back into enemy hands. The last is being kept as an alternative tourist attraction.
“It would have taken them years and years to build a cave like this,” said Lieut Col Asif Jamil, raising his hand above his head and running his fingers over the ridges in the rock ceiling, where handtools have left ridges and chip marks.
The floor drops a couple of feet from the entrance, plunging visitors into darkness. Thin Chinese-made mattresses, blankets and a pair of boots are piled somewhere underfoot. The floor slopes upwards towards the end of the 30ft main cavern, beneath an arched ceiling, which must be protected by tons of rock above.
“In this cave system 15 Taliban were killed,” said Lt Col Jamil as he turns tour guide with a hint of pride creeping into his voice. Among them, he added, were Afghans and Chechens.
The snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan are only a few miles distant and the region of Bajaur was no-go territory for troops from Islamabad.
Taliban footsoldiers could cross the border to engage Nato targets and return to Pakistan for tea.
That began to change two years ago. Operation Sherdil (Lionheart), led by the Bajaur Scouts, of which Lt Col Jamil is a senior commander, and joined by tribal militias or lashkars, began to eat into the Taliban territory.
Damadola – a deserted village about 10 miles from Khar – and its network of impenetrable caves was where the militants made their last stand.
The caverns offered protection when the US began its drone strikes. And the militants could retreat into their gloomy sanctuary when they heard Pakistani gunships approaching.
It took three days of heavy fighting before the caves fell at the end of last year. Now, the green and white Pakistani flag flies above them.
That tells only part of the story, however. The road from Khar to Damadola is a reminder of how tentative a hold the government has on the region. The journey twists through golden fields of wheat. Clouds of dust rise from brightly-painted threshing machines.
It could be an image of a rural idyll were it not for the soldiers of the Bajaur Scouts, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, posted every 50 yards on either side of the road.
Back in Khar, the threat was spelled out by the head of the scouts in a slick PowerPoint presentation. Col Nauman Saeed pointed to a smear of red on his map, labelled “miscreants” running along the border.
He had just returned from a battle that sent Taliban fighters scurrying into Afghanistan. And he was angry.
“When they crossed back they left their weapons here so Nato troops in Afghanistan could not fire on them. That’s my complaint,” he said. “They allowed them to escape scot free.”
The militants may have lost their caves but they have not quite gone away, is the message.
And Pakistan – often accused of turning a blind eye to the militants they once armed and used as a covert arm of foreign policy – is keen to deflect criticism and tell the world it is trying to do its bit.