Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
I had written about the ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban while covering the region for The New York Times. I knew Pakistan turned a blind eye to many of their activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity.
The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving.
All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints where young militants detained anyone lacking a Kalashnikov rifle and the right Taliban password. We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops.
And I found the tribal areas — widely perceived as impoverished and isolated — to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan. [continued…]