On the run with Pakistan's Taliban

Published: December 15, 2011
Reporter takes a tantalising glimpse of the day-to-day life of a group of Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

Reporter takes a tantalising glimpse of the day-to-day life of a group of Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

BANNU: Nothing terrifies Pakistani Taliban fighter Tariq Wazir more than US drones, a harbinger of instant death invisible to the naked eye and proof of America’s mastery of the skies.

Each time he hears the low hum reminiscent of a bumble bee, fear clutches his heart and he remembers how 20 of his comrades were pulverised by missiles they never saw coming in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Gone are the days of communicating by phone and travelling freely. Instead he spends his days praying or reading newspapers in safe houses, moving under the cover of darkness, trying to keep one step ahead and stay alive.

An AFP reporter was this week given a tantalising glimpse of the day-to-day life of a group of Pakistani Taliban, travelling with them for four days between safe houses in North Waziristan.

He and three other journalists were invited to interview the head of the faction, Hakimullah Mehsud, or “another top Taliban leader” but the interview never materialised, due to what the Taliban said were “security reasons”.

Instead, they spent each night on the move, resting by day in relatively comfortable mud-brick homes with kitchens, running water and toilets, offered freshly cooked meals and fizzy drinks.

It was a relatively sophisticated logistics operation that shows how embedded the Taliban are in North Waziristan, where the Pakistani military has resisted US pressure to launch a sweeping offensive.

Their fervour for fighting and hatred of the United States and the US-allied Pakistani government was plain to see.

But so too were lighter moments, like sunning themselves in the courtyard, reading the Urdu newspapers to keep abreast of events and listening to songs praising the glory of jihad blasted out of cassette players.

In the past three years, there have been 236 US drone strikes in Pakistan, killing at least 1,767 people. Taliban foot soldiers admit they have had a devastating impact on their lives.

“I lost 20 close friends in drone attacks. It’s the biggest danger for us,” said Wazir, a commander in North Waziristan who refuses to give his real name.

“It has restricted our movement. We take a lot of care before moving from one place to other, we avoid using the phone,” he said.

Precautions have not been relaxed despite a one-month reprieve in missile strikes since November 17.

The Long War Journal quoted US intelligence officials as saying the attacks are “on hold” so as not to further strain the alliance with Islamabad after a Nato air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 26.

In response, Pakistan shut its Afghan border to Nato supplies and evicted US personnel from the Shamsi air base, a reported hub for CIA drones, although most of the aircraft are thought to take off from US bases in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials concur there is a temporary moratorium on drone attacks, but witnesses say surveillance flights are incessant.

The Taliban fighters wear the uniform of any adult man in the tribal belt. They carry Kalashnikovs wherever they go, tuck pistols into their belts and sometimes sport hand grenades around their waists.

Dressed in traditional shirts that fall to the knees, caps rolled down over the ears, waistcoats and balloon-style trousers, they conceal their guns under the itchy folds of the blankets wrapped around the head and shoulders.

Aged mostly 22 to 42, all of them were bearded and Ameer Sahib – a mark of respect – was a common name for each other, at least in the presence of reporters.

At dusk, they were on the move, driving down lesser known tracks away from the prying eyes of informers. They picked their way gingerly, without lights. Hand torches can be used, but only in an emergency – and then only briefly.

They sought shelter in one-storey mud homes, where blankets and old Afghan carpets provide a modicum of warmth. Women and children were never seen.

The fighters prepared their own food, collecting firewood from the mountains and sipping on green tea, offering the Mountain Dew soft drink to guests.

Halwa, a local sweet, was served on arrival. Dinners were generous helpings of beef, mutton or chicken, served up with rice, potatoes and vegetables.

Dried fruits and nuts are a popular snack, peanuts and cashews a particular favourite.

Looking through the newspaper, the Taliban pounced with delight on Iran’s claim to have shot down the bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone.

“See how Iran forced it to land! Why can’t our government do this?” said one. “They are getting dollars, they have sold the whole of Pakistan to the Americans,” replied a second militant.

Their hatred of the government stems from Islamabad’s fractious alliance with Washington.

Pakistan has adopted a more aggressive tone towards Washington as relations have gone into free fall since a covert American raid in May killed Osama bin Laden, which some commentators have linked to a decline in militant attacks.

“Whenever Pakistan has tensions with America, we see calm here,” smiled Wazir, a nod also to the let-up in drone strikes.

Several of the fighters told AFP that militancy runs in the family.

Habibur Rehman Mehsud, who said he had survived two drone strikes, said his father and uncle died fighting the Soviets in the mid-1980s in Afghanistan.

His entire family fled a Pakistani military offensive in 2009.

“It’s a reality that drones are the major threat to us but it is also a reality that Pakistan provided all the information to the Americans,” he said.

Mujeebur Rehman, 25, another Taliban fighter, said he lost his elder brother in a drone strike in the Mir Ali area of Waziristan in 2010.

Abdul Salam, who comes from near Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, said his brother, younger sister and father were killed by a drone in 2009.

He said he wanted to go to Afghanistan and fight against the Americans who killed his family. “My basic duty is to fight jihad. Avenging my family comes second.”

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Dec 15, 2011 - 1:17PM

    Whoever was against drone attacks must read this article.


  • abbas
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:19PM

    Article dedicate to Imran Khan for arranging rallies against dornes.


  • khurram mansoor
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:25PM

    What a lame article.


  • waqar
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:52PM

    Somebody is paying to run the PR campaign for drones……. somebody has become so weak that they now need public support to re-start the dead drone campaign….. US and its drones are not welcome in Pakistan by anyone. There were no Pakistani Taliban before this fake 9/11 and the fake war on terror.


  • Khalid Afridi
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:56PM

    it’s a coordinated Propaganda assault by international Media today similar 3 stories are published just to show that Taliban are enjoying safe heaven in waziristan as a result of Pakistan Army stance to shot down any intruding drone/fighter jet.


  • ishtiaer hussain
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:05PM

    Thanks God, there is something in the skies that dispenses justice to the barbarians.


  • kamran waheed
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:22PM

    So as the drones have stopped for now, ET has taken the ultimate responsibility to tell the public how good these drones are? what about the fear under which local peaceful civilanslive when they hear the same ‘low hum reminiscent of a bumble bee’ sound?

    Please, also enlighten us how many civilans (read peaceful) have been pulverised by the same drones. Keep the balance and dont tell us just one side of the story, i.e. militants whilie discounting civilans completely. If you can’t then for now stop advocating drones ET!



  • Kafka
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:22PM

    Drone attacks have stopped, so have the suicide attacks in Pakistan……….. what is the nexus?


  • NA
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:43PM

    Just a cheap propaganda to support illegitimate drone attacks on civilians.


  • ansa44
    Dec 15, 2011 - 3:19PM

    WHENEVER THE GOVT IS HOSTILE 2 AMERICA , THERE IS PEACE HERE. that’s sums up the mantra of peace in pakistan. as america is ditching us again n again, we should get rid of UNCLE SAM n v peace in ou country


  • Tariq Shah
    Dec 15, 2011 - 3:28PM

    Dont be fooled, Pakistani Taliban are not the friends of Pakistan, they are also our enemies and they should not be forgiven for their crimes, they planted a lot of bombs in our cities and closing your eyes is not the way to treat Taliban, they should be killed as they killed a lot of our soldiers.


  • Ahmad
    Dec 15, 2011 - 3:42PM

    For every militant killed, there are 20 innocent people also killed. We want these militants dead but we don’t want our innocent tribal people dead. Simple!


  • Shah
    Dec 15, 2011 - 3:59PM

    read the article of Rahimulllah Yousafzai on how the militant view drone strikes. Recommend

  • SalSal
    Dec 15, 2011 - 4:17PM

    Well atleast it mentions about the loss of a mans innocent family members which are civilian casualties


  • Dec 15, 2011 - 9:46PM

    ET should clearly mention “PAID CONTENT” on Top of such Articles.
    Sitting in Islamabad / Washington / London, Nobody can imagine what it is like to live in FATA with these “Killer Birds
    “Collateral Damage” seems a convenient enough Explanation when the killed are not “White” (read Western Citizens)…


  • ansa44
    Dec 15, 2011 - 10:57PM

    YES talibns r our enemies but they don’t meddle with us untill we, under the pressure of uncle sam, starts operation against them. they can b handled if american r omitted out as most of their doings r an outcum of hatred of AMERICA. when it’ll b out than we can ask them now as america is out what is ur position either surrender or we can fight n defeat them


  • Hyper Ali
    Dec 15, 2011 - 11:50PM

    @Author : Really good article and eye opener. Sorry but the majority Pakistani military fan audience here is blind and deaf.


  • numbersnumbers
    Dec 16, 2011 - 3:03AM

    Drone attacks on ground targets are the result of “real time” ground level intelligence from ISI/Army agents in or near the target area, mostly from “tips” from locals who hate the Talibans style of harsh rule! Ever notice how, after a drone strike on a militant compound or vehicle, “anonymous” government officers give the names of militants killed!


  • Mehdi Hassan Zafari
    Dec 16, 2011 - 7:01AM

    Yeah bring the drones back, kill 20 Taliban and 80 innocent civilians in the process, its collateral damage after all.


  • Scr
    Dec 17, 2011 - 10:29PM

    If the govt. provides all the info and coordinates, then why cant we do it with our own drones? Agreed theyre not so advanced, but atleast civillian damage will be none


  • Dec 18, 2011 - 2:49AM

    I’m a bit ambiguous in feelings on the use of drone attacks.

    I was glad the criminal Baitullah Mehsud, Hakim Mehsud’s brother, was killed, after bombing our innocent people in markets, hotels and finally political rallies, it was unfortunate to hear his young second wife and their infant child were killed also, though some of Mehsud’s surviving victims may actually justify it as divine and just vengeance.

    However, while they lost ‘friends’ (militants) and family in drone attacks……are they willing to admit how many friends and families they’ve massacred in Quetta, Islamabad, Pindi, Karachi, Lahore, Swat, DGK, DIK, Kurram, and other parts of Pakistan, not to mention mindless murders in Afghanistan, like setting off a brainwashed 16 year old to shoot dead a woman and child along with everyone else in a bank, because he was told they were ‘Kafirs’ who needed to be murdered?

    I am not a fan of drone attacks, and would wish our army put some troops down there Recommend

  • numbersnumbers
    Dec 18, 2011 - 9:26PM

    So you say that ” If the govt. provides all the info and coordinates, then why cant we do it with our own drones? Agreed theyre not so advanced, but atleast civillian damage will be none”

    Please explain how “civilian damage will be none”!


  • Seth
    Dec 19, 2011 - 1:16PM

    Thanks for confirming that our tax dollars are being well spent. In previous wars we wasted alot of money bombing without precision. Now we can pick off militants individually. No more wasted munitions.


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