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According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who chaired a review of US policy towards Pakistan for Barack Obama, "Every nightmare that worries Americans about the 21st century comes together in Pakistan in a unique and combustible way." Similar sentiments are echoed in the Foreign Office, where a counterterrorism official tells me: "If you ask me what my priorities are I would say: ‘Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan'." 

It is easy to see why the Taliban has flourished in Bajaur. Its elevated gulleys and sweeping ridges make it perfect guerrilla terrain. Beyond the obvious appeal of geography, there is genealogy too. Most of the Fata tribes, such as the Tarkanis in Bajaur, live on both sides of the Durand Line — the nominal border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Loyalties here are particularly fissiparous and transient, borne of the premium that villagers place on following the diktats of tribal elders and their jirga councils. When the jirgas back one party against another, everyone follows suit. When Tarkani tribesmen from Afghanistan's Kunar Province poured over the border in 2001, local jirgas welcomed them in and simply let them melt into the background.

The growing crisis in Bajaur only came to international attention years after 9/11 when a captured al-Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, revealed that key members of the movement were regrouping there. On January 13 2006, intelligence suggested that Ayman al-Zawahiri was meeting other senior militants in Damadola, a village just north of Khar, to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Predator drones operated by the CIA circled overhead monitoring the meeting. Beaming real-time images back to agency's headquarters in Langley Falls, Virginia, the Special Activities Division, which controls the drones, decided to fire four Hellfire missiles at the sites where al-Qaeda leaders were believed to be gathering. It was the first drone attack on Pakistani soil, a constant and controversial feature of US policy in the region ever since. In the event, no significant terrorist leaders were killed in the Damadola airstrike. 

Al-Zawahiri may not have been there but the area has been, until recently, home to one of TTP's most senior commanders, Maulvi Fakir Mohammed. Speaking to local journalists shortly after the drone attack, he said: "Ayman al-Zawahiri never came here but if he wanted to come, we will welcome him, and it will be a great pleasure for us to be his host." Maulvi Fakir and his followers quickly consolidated their position after the attack, setting up their own checkpoints and parallel court system based on Sharia. Later, they began collecting taxes too. With all the privations of rural life, the money and munitions poured into Bajaur by TTP commanders found a ready audience of recruits imbued with millennarian religious narratives. As their influence grew unchecked, the TTP soon spilled over into the neighbouring provinces of Dir, Malakand and Mohmand before Islamabad was finally stirred into action. 

Bajaur has attracted would-be conquerors for centuries. Its Nawa Pass predates the Khyber as the most favoured route from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. Both Alexander the Great and the Mughal Emperor Babar marched their armies through here. Indeed, local women proved so irresistible to Alexander that, according to folklore, he began an illicit affair with Queen Cleophis from the local Assaceni dynasty. It is impossible to comment on Alexander's tastes: I see no more than a handful of women on Bajaur's streets and none in its market. Those who do venture outside are veiled behind the flowing blue burqa that has become synonymous with Taliban rule, even though they are no longer in control.

It epitomises the sense of fear and danger that persists here. Although the army has officially declared victory, active combat operations remain ongoing in isolated areas. Even now, it is too dangerous to reach Bajaur by road. I hitch a lift on one of the army's Mi-17s, a Russian-made transport helicopter, to the forward operating base of the Bajaur Scouts, home to the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Then I join a convoy heading to Maulvi Fakir's now abandoned headquarters in Damadola. 

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August 15th, 2010
9:08 AM
An Excellent article. Very well narrated and thoroughly researched. I commend Shiraz Maher's bold effort to travel into the troubled region and get a true feeler to produce a valuable analysis.

June 20th, 2010
9:06 PM
Well no the problem of Palestine has been kept going because the birth rate has stayed so high. That 44% of the people there are under 18 is no one elses fault. It has meant that the billions and billions of aid poured in has never caught up with the birth rate. The life expectancy in Palestine is a decade or two better than parts of the UK.

Riaz Ahmad
May 31st, 2010
10:05 AM
Gordon Brown said 3/4 of the terrorist atacks originate from FATA in Pakistan. He is absolutely right, but he told just the convenient half of the story. The other half, or the crux of the matter is the profligate hypocricy and double standards of westren foriegn policy in service of hegemony and control. Terrorism is a curse that has to be defeated at all costs and by all means, it also includes state terrorsim such as that practiced by the Zionist against the poor, dispossed, stateless, imprisoned and enslaved people of Palistine. Is it not crystal clear that western values become valueless when it comes to Palistine?

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