The College of Art and Design in Lahore is one of the most cultured institutions in Pakistan’s most cultured city. When I visited a couple of months ago, it was surrounded by sandbags: a department for traditional music had been opened and al-Qaida, which considers music un-Islamic, had threatened to blow it up. Despite this, both teachers and students told me that the real problem they faced was America. ‘It’s true there are some misguided boys,’ the principal said, ‘and they may be the ones threatening us, but it is America that has bombed their homes.’

The list of grievances against America is long: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the civilian death toll in Iraq, Afghanistan and increasingly in Pakistan itself. I am writing this in Islamabad, where the papers this week have reported four US attacks on targets in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of 41 civilians. But ever larger numbers of Muslims nevertheless see al-Qaida as malign and barbaric. It is in a trap: to win followers it needs media coverage, but to secure headlines it has to mount ever more spectacular attacks which almost invariably involve civilian casualties and undermine its support, especially when the victims are Muslims. Al-Qaida’s popularity in Jordan, for example, plummeted after it blew up a wedding party in a big hotel in Amman late in 2005.

At the US military academy at West Point, researchers are studying thousands of captured al-Qaida documents, CDs and hard drives and putting them on a publicly available online database. One of their prized possessions is a letter written in 2005 by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the then leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. ‘Among the things which the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable,’ Zawahiri wrote, ‘are the scenes of hostages being slaughtered. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men who describe you as the sheikh of the slaughterers etc. They do not express the views of most people who admire and support the resistance in Iraq.’

Earlier this year al-Qaida supporters in Jordan told me that not only were they finding it more difficult to get recruits for Iraq but that some of the fighters already there were so sickened by the number of Muslims being killed that they were heading for home. Zawahiri tried to confront this problem in April when he participated in a webcast in which he took questions online. More than 2000 were submitted and many raised this issue. Zawahiri answered: ‘If any innocents were killed in the mujahedin’s operations then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity.’ It’s the same reply the Pentagon gives.

The most damaging attack on bin Laden to date has come from a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Salman ibn Fahad al-Oadah, who once supported al-Qaida. Oadah went on an Arabic TV station last year: ‘I say to my brother Osama,’ he began, ‘how much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women and old people have been killed, maimed and expelled from their homes in the name of al-Qaida? Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders?’

While al-Qaida and the US are both having problems with their propaganda campaigns, the Islamists seem to have the upper hand in one of the battlefields initially picked out by Bush: finance. A few days after 9/11, Bush boasted that with a stroke of a pen he had starved the terrorists of funding: freeze the money and al-Qaida would go under. There is no such thing as a free insurgency. The men who plant roadside bombs in Iraq charge al-Qaida $200 a go, and another $100 if they manage to film it going off. But US efforts to stop funds flowing have failed. When al-Qaida was at its strongest in Iraq a couple of years ago, foreign suicide bombers were encouraged to bring their life savings and any other donations they could raise. For a while al-Qaida ran its operations there at such a profit it could cross-subsidise the central leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 attacks on London cost remarkably little. The Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a think tank, estimates that, for every dollar spent on the London Underground attack, the British government has spent more than a million dollars. More recent plots have been financed through student loans. And despite all the huge databases and techniques for identifying suspicious accounts and transfers, officials such as Richard Barrett, who heads the UN’s Taliban and al-Qaida Monitoring Team, admit that if al-Qaida mounted another 9/11, the financing would probably not register on the watchdogs’ computer screens.

Despite this, in May, the CIA director, Michael Hayden, claimed that al-Qaida had suffered a ‘near-strategic defeat’. And the British government’s National Security Strategy, released in March, concluded that terrorism ‘does not at present amount to a strategic threat’. Those confident statements were based on the West’s progress in two key battlegrounds: Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida’s weakness in Saudi Arabia – it has not mounted a significant attack there for a couple of years now – must be a bitter disappointment for bin Laden. It was where his struggle began. In 1996 he issued his Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places; in 2003 America’s Saudi bases were closed down. This was a remarkable achievement and inspired the jihadis to fight even harder. Senior Saudi officials were assassinated, oil installations attacked and, when the royal family finally woke up and fought back, there were gun battles in Saudi cities. It was a fierce struggle and the state won it.

If Saudi Arabia was bin Laden’s first target, Iraq became his most desired. In December 2004 he described Baghdad as the capital of the caliphate, showing that both he and Bush saw Iraq as the central front. But in Iraq too, al-Qaida is now on the run. The techniques beloved of British imperialists have been relearned and reapplied by the US. Contacts have been made, talks held, alliances reached and tribal leaders paid off. As a result, according to an al-Qaida leader who set down his thoughts in another document held at West Point, the organisation in Iraq now faces an ‘extraordinary crisis’, with volunteers showing ‘panic, fear and the unwillingness to fight’. The terrorist group’s security structure, he concluded, has suffered ‘total collapse’.

And so the front line of this war has moved to Pakistan. Unlike the Saudi princes, Pakistani civil servants do not have the resources they need to impose the government’s writ. And while the US has learned to box clever in Iraq, its strategy in Pakistan’s tribal areas has not shown any sophistication. From al-Qaida’s point of view Pakistan is going very well. The turning point came in July 2007, with the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The mosque had always been radical: in the late 1990s its members beat up one of my predecessors as BBC correspondent and, when they objected to a programme broadcast when I was there, made death threats against me. By 2006 people associated with the mosque were roaming around the capital smashing up DVD shops and kidnapping prostitutes for re-education in the ways of modesty. In Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan, such activities would have barely raised an eyebrow, but this was happening in full view of the international media. Eventually, reluctantly, Musharraf sent in the troops.

The siege finally convinced the most conservative religious elements in Pakistan that the state was their enemy. Ever since 1947 Pakistani officials had been willing to cut deals with extremists in the interests of short-term stability. The assault on the Red Mosque was a major departure from that approach and the families of those killed vowed revenge. Every senior and mid-ranking politician, civil servant and military unit involved in the assault has subsequently been attacked by suicide bombers. Many have been killed; some, like Musharraf, have survived. The Pakistan army has had to deploy 120,000 troops in an attempt to contain the Islamist insurgency. This year there have been pitched battles and helicopter gunship assaults; pilotless drones have attacked alleged hideouts. But the insurgency has grown stronger month by month, and Pakistani officials are now beginning to wonder whether the jihadis might ally themselves with Pashtun nationalists. In 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The question today is whether the North-West Frontier Province will become an independent emirate.

Al-Qaida’s success in Pakistan is in part a result of its having inspired so many different affiliates nearby. In Afghanistan the Taliban regularly celebrates new advances. Across the border, much to the irritation of the Afghan Taliban, which wants a united effort to topple Karzai, the Pakistani Taliban is trying to destabilise the government in Islamabad by mounting suicide attacks in urban centres. Elsewhere in the North-West Frontier Province the Pakistani army is confronting sectarian groups, militants fighting for the imposition of sharia law and tribal fighters egged on by local mullahs. In the West the conflict is largely unreported, but in Pakistan the front pages each morning report the deaths of sixty or seventy people in suicide attacks, car bombs, military clashes and air strikes.

Westerners have long complained that Pakistan has helped the Taliban. It is not easy to establish the truth of that claim. But it is relevant that senior military figures in Pakistan take it as a given that the US-led forces in Afghanistan will eventually leave and the Taliban will prevail. Pakistan has to think about what will happen then. There are also short-term considerations: Musharraf hoped that if he let the Taliban concentrate on Afghanistan, they would leave Pakistan alone. In addition, his experience of sponsoring militants in Kashmir gave him a false view of how biddable the Taliban would be. He always believed that Western governments, ignorant of how moderate most Pakistanis are, exaggerated the threat. Should the Pakistani state ever need to control the militants, he thought, it would be able to do so. As he contemplates a retirement spent sipping Scotch on a verandah surrounded by razor wire, he will realise that he was wrong.

The valley of Swat was once Pakistan’s most attractive tourist area, where honeymoon couples would go trekking, trout fishing and even skiing on the country’s only piste; it is now a war zone. Swat’s story exemplifies many of Pakistan’s problems. When the British arrived, in 1863, it was a sparsely populated and remote valley living under a mix of tribal and sharia law. Once the British established rudimentary military control they set about undermining the authority of religious leaders by using land grants to empower a relatively educated, progressive and pliant family with which they could work. The leading member of that family enjoyed the title of the wali of Swat and was in effect the ruler of a mini-state. The arrangement continued until Pakistani independence in 1947, when the wali acceded to Pakistan while retaining considerable autonomy. But in 1969 he bowed to what seemed to be the inevitable and Swat became fully integrated into Pakistan.

The valley’s problems began in the 1980s with the rise of a radical local cleric, Sufi Mohammed, who founded a movement dedicated to the imposition of sharia law. At first he and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah restricted themselves to demanding that barber shops and girls’ schools be closed down. Fazlullah, using a small FM radio station, became a master propagandist, holding forth on the benefits of virtue, the excellence of the Taliban and the perfidy of the Americans. His distrust of modernity even extended to the World Health Organisation. He urged parents not to have their children vaccinated against polio on the grounds that the WHO was a conspiracy of Jews and Christians to stunt the Muslim population growth.

One official from the valley said that he realised Fazlullah was a problem when his wife put the TV on a bonfire. But the local administration was too weak to act without support from Islamabad. Musharraf decided the best policy was to hope for the best. But in July 2007 suicide bombers in Swat, seeking revenge for the Red Mosque siege, killed 16 Pakistani soldiers and three civilians. At last the army responded: 2000 Frontier Corps paramilitary troops were deployed to the valley in the apparent hope that such a show of force would be enough to scare Fazlullah.

In September Fazlullah made his move. He told his followers, who included Uzbeks, Tajiks and Chechens, to take over towns and villages in the valley. They encountered very little resistance: when they reached a town they would find that the police, fearing summary execution, had fled. Within days they had seized control of nearly sixty towns, declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate and the imposition of sharia law, and removed Pakistani flags from all government buildings. In one incident militants publicly beheaded six captured soldiers, a police officer and seven civilians and then paraded their heads. Music shops were torched, girls were barred from going to school, women were forced to wear burqas and men told to grow beards. In an attempt to emulate the Taliban, Fazlullah ordered his men to drill holes in the face of a massive 1300-year-old statue of Buddha.

Predictably, the ill-equipped Frontier Corps were routed. Many hadn’t wanted to fight in the first place and deserted on the grounds that their enemy seemed more devout than their officers. Even the most carefree of the generals in Rawalpindi could see that they had a problem: the Islamists were winning territory just five hours’ drive from the capital. At last the army got serious, deploying 20,000 troops. Equipped with artillery and helicopter gunships,they killed hundreds of militants, retook the towns and on 29 November captured Fazlullah’s headquarters – although the mullah himself slipped away.

February’s national elections revealed the true feelings of the people of Swat. By an overwhelming majority they rejected the Islamists and voted for the relatively moderate Pashtun nationalists of the ANP. But the new government, wanting to end the conflict, entered talks with the remnants of the militants. The negotiations were handled atrociously and the militants got everything they wanted, including official agreement to the imposition of sharia law in the valley, in return for a promise that there would be no more trouble. Needless to say, as soon as the militants had regrouped they started beheading people again. And so another full-blown conflict has begun, with the army trying to recapture the positions thrown away by the civilian government. I was hoping to visit Swat this week with the son of the last wali but he advised me not to go. There are helicopter gunship assaults every day now.

It is a similar story in the tribal area where al-Qaida is strongest, North Waziristan. The Pakistani army had agreed several months ago to take me to its main military base there, but a few days ago called the visit off. An American air strike on a nearby house had made the area too unstable. The best I could manage was to spend half an hour at the Khyber Tribal Agency, where Pakistan is trying to protect the main supply route for Nato forces in Afghanistan. Most of the supplies get through, but only because the traditional mix of bribes and threats have persuaded local tribes not to attack the road. The political agent in the Khyber Agency, a Pakistani official with dictatorial powers inherited from the British colonialists, told me that the Taliban’s intelligence was excellent. When vehicles on the road are destroyed by the Taliban they always turn out to have contained Nato supplies rather than fruit and vegetables being moved by local traders. If only the Americans were so precise in their targeting.

Just a year ago US officials thought they had come up with a dream team: the inspirational Bhutto and the enforcer Musharraf. But it was always going to end in disaster. There now seems little prospect of much change to US policy. A McCain victory would mean a continuation of the Bush approach, while Obama has said he might go even further: ‘We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.’

In Iraq, meanwhile, the US is trying out some very different methods in the hope of winning people over. In a US base on the outskirts of Baghdad, American taxpayers are funding art-therapy courses for captured jihadis. Apparently, dark colours and hard, scratchy lines suggest an unreformed mind. On the same base, some heavily vetted Iraqi clerics have been hired to preach moderation. One of them told me about a session he had with a group of 20 recently detained taqfiris. Taqfiris take the Bush dictum – if you are not with us you are against us – to deadly lengths. Anyone who doesn’t share their very rigid interpretation of Islam is an infidel and should be killed. As the cleric walked into the room he offered the traditional greeting: ‘Salaam alaikum.’ The leader of the group responded by hurling his slippers into the cleric’s face. ‘With these guys you cannot let something like that go,’ the cleric said, ‘or you lose all authority.’ The cleric looked the taqfiri leader in the eye and asked: ‘What did I just say to you?’ ‘You said: “Salaam alaikum,”’ the man replied. ‘And what does that signify?’ asked the cleric. The leader looked confused. ‘The word salaam is one of the 99 names of Allah,’ the cleric went on. ‘You have just thrown your slippers at Allah.’ He then turned to the other taqfiris. ‘This man is an infidel,’ he said. ‘Are you going to kill him?’ And he turned and left the room.

That night guards woke the cleric at three in the morning and rushed him to the detention centre. The taqfiri leader was huddled in the corner of a room shivering, his arms round his knees. ‘I did not mean to offend you. Please get me away from here. I think they’ll kill me.’

‘It’s a battle of wits,’ I said.

The cleric laughed. ‘Let’s see who wins.’

12 September

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