From The Times
November 11, 2008
Captured battle plan shows strength and training of Taleban forces
Anthony Loyd in Tang Khata, Bajaur

The map tells a war story of its own. Sketched by a Taleban commander, it is of a stretch of territory fought over in Bajaur between the Pakistani Army and the insurgents. The ground has been neatly divided into specific areas of responsibility for different Taleban units.

Weapons caches, assembly areas and rendezvous points have been carefully marked and coded. This is not the work of a renegade gunman resistant to central authority; it is the assessment of a skilled and experienced fighter, and begins to explain how more than 400 Pakistani soldiers have been killed or wounded since August in Bajaur, the tribal district agency that is said to be the haunt of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Discovered along with the map in a series of recently captured tunnel complexes are other documents - radio frequency lists, guerrilla warfare manuals, students' notes, jihadist propaganda and bombmaking instructions - that provide further evidence of the Taleban's organisation and training. They prove that the Taleban in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), were planning not only to fight, but also to disseminate their fighting knowledge.

“They were training people here,” Colonel Javed Baluch, whose troops seized the village of Tang Khata in an early stage of the autumn fighting, said, as he thumbed through the captured literature. “This was one of their centres. There were students here taking notes on bombmaking and guerrilla warfare. They were well trained and well organised.”

But training whom and to do what? Despite the documentary evidence in Bajaur, the Taleban's ultimate aims - and the nature of their relationship with al-Qaeda - remain contentious issues.

America and Britain claim that the terrorist network and affiliated organisations are being hosted by the Taleban in the tribal areas, which they use as a base for training camps, refuge and recruitment. This, they say, extends the threat from the tribal agencies to the rest of the world.

“If I were going to pick the next attack to hit the United States, it would come out of Fata,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently. A Western diplomat in Islamabad claimed last month that among those killed by a Predator drone strike in the tribal area - there have been at least 18 drone attacks there in the past 12 weeks - were members of a terrorist cell planning an attack on Britain.

One eminent Pakistani political figure, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that al-Qaeda and the Taleban had set up a joint headquarters in 2004 as an “Islamic emirate” in North Waziristan, headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taleban commander. (His father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran of the fight against the Soviet Union, was funded by the CIA 30 years ago and was once fêted at the White House by Ronald Reagan.)

“Sirajuddin ... connects the Taleban with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taleban with the Afghan Taleban,” the source said. “It basically runs the war and has made Fata today the same as Afghanistan was before September 11 - controlled by foreign and local militants who fight a war on both sides of the border.”

Such claims, which have been circulated widely in Pakistan, are denied strongly by the military. Many officers describe the Taleban in Fata as a disparate group of home-grown militants with little vision beyond the affairs of their own district, and claim that al-Qaeda's involvement is negligible.

“There was an al-Qaeda presence here but it didn't include their training bases or headquarters,” Colonel Nauman Saeed, commander of the Frontier Corps garrison in Khar, Bajaur's capital, said. “They [al-Qaeda] were as a pinch of salt in the flour.”

General Tariq Khan, the officer commanding the Bajaur operation, said: “I do not see a coherent stategy in any of these militants. I don't see any Islamic movement of Waziristan or an Islamic emirate ... I think that everyone is in it for himself.”

The Pakistani military claims to have killed more than 1,500 insurgents in Bajaur, and General Khan admits that many foreign fighters - “Uzbeks, Chechens, Turkmen, some Afghans” - have been among them. Of al-Qaeda's top leadership, however, not a trace has been found. “We've hit some Arab leadership there but not of a very high level,” he said.

It could be that the leaders have withdrawn to the two valley strongholds still held by the Taleban in Bajaur, or that they have escaped to Afghanistan or to a neighbouring tribal area.

Or were they ever in Bajaur at all? Shafirullah Khan is the savvy political agent in the area, himself a Pashtun and a long-term veteran of tribal affairs. “At first I would never have believed that al-Zawahiri was here,” he said of the rumours that bin Laden's deputy had been a visitor.

“But now that I have seen those tunnels and hidden shelters, I am not so sure.”