Posted on Newsweek, by Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, June 2, 2008.
Pakistan talks peace with tribal radicals but may just be pushing their fighters across the border into Afghanistan. – Mullah Jihad Yar didn’t want the Pakistani recruits when they were assigned to his Taliban unit a month ago. He still has reservations: the Afghan likes the Pakistanis’ fighting spirit, but sometimes they get on his nerves. Like now. Scanning the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway from a brush-covered knoll in Ghazni province, Yar calls spotters he has stationed miles to the north and south on the road. If they report Americans or Afghan police approaching, the Taliban officer and his men—three Afghans and two Pakistanis on this mission—will close in for an ambush.
One of the recruits, Abrar Ahmed, can hardly control his itch for combat. The 25-year-old Pakistani keeps interrupting—”Is it time to go?” With a hint of irritation, Yar tells a NEWSWEEK reporter: “These Pakistanis are too hot-blooded. They want to fight every day.” Taliban commanders say hundreds of impatient young militants like Ahmed have poured into Afghanistan from Pakistan this spring. It’s impossible to pin down the numbers precisely, but Western diplomats, NATO brass and U.S. military sources all say there’s been a “significant increase” in cross-border attacks and traffic since March, and it worries them. It’s not just the usual spring offensive, they say.
One detail is especially troublesome: the burst of insurgent activity has coincided with Pakistani government efforts to cut a peace deal with tribal militants who have tormented Pakistan with kidnappings and suicide bombings since last summer. In return for a halt to attacks within Pakistan itself, the Army has agreed to pull back from its forward positions within the tribal areas. The gates into Afghanistan have essentially been left wide open, and the Taliban’s friends are running wild. “We are extremely concerned,” says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, asking not to be named on such a delicate issue …
… Of course, most Pakistanis with the Taliban are grown men who have joined willingly. Many Pakistanis fought for the Taliban when they held sway in Afghanistan, but cross-border enlistments dropped to practically zero after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. This year the numbers have rebounded, and the pool has expanded beyond the mostly unlettered, Pashto-speaking mountaineers of the borderlands. Yar’s impatient recruit Ahmed is clearly motivated by something besides rockbound tribal loyalty; he grew up in Taxila, a historic town just west of Islamabad in Punjab province.
And the other Pakistani on the knoll, Sajad Shah, 25, comes from Haripur, an Urdu-speaking area in North-West Frontier province. Shah is in a talkative mood. The tall, well-built high-school graduate, son of a farmer and shopkeeper, says he was driven to join the Taliban by news coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially stories on the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prison scandals, and by Qaeda and Taliban propaganda DVDs that are widely available in Pakistan. Early this year he met a roving Taliban recruiter who told him how and where he could sign up, and in early March Shah made his decision. He told his family he was going to Karachi to look for work. Instead he wrote his will, entrusted it to a friend and climbed aboard a bus to Miram Shah. (full text).