The moment the bomb exploded, our Frontier Corps driver slammed on the brakes. I wished he hadn't. If ever there was a moment to floor the accelerator that was it. The October sun was dropping fast. Slopes and broken ground stretched above either side of the road. We were less than an hour's drive away from the battlefield in Bajaur and the loyalty of the surrounding tribes was far from assured.
Frontier Corps soldiers after the roadside bomb attack
Already, passing through the town of Mardan just a couple of hours earlier, we had skirted the immediate aftermath of a suicide attack that had killed seven people, most of them policemen. Our four-vehicle convoy was tiny. Most of the soldiers in it were returning from leave and appeared to be unarmed. Now, as this device detonated barely ten metres in front of us, immediately shrouding our escort vehicle in a wall of smoke and dust, halting in the middle of an ambush-ripe bend seemed insane, offering us as an easy target for follow-up fire.
"Go," we yelled at the man. So the soldier went - springing nimbly from his driver's door and running from sight. We gawped at each other for a while in the quietness that followed, as dumbfounded by our rude abandonment as we were by the bomb. But there was no follow-up fire. Through the smoke, one by one, bug-eyed with shock, the soldiers from the escort vehicle ran back past us. Perfectly sited, the roadside bomb had been miraculously badly angled, throwing most of its shrapnel payload skywards. A hapless civilian motorcyclist, passing in the other direction, was the only casualty. Eventually, as the smoke cleared and groups of silent, inscrutable villagers appeared from the fields to stare at us, our driver returned. He rolled a quick joint, murmured "Bismillah" rather sheepishly, then retook his seat and turned the ignition.
We proceeded towards Bajaur at speed in a cloud of hash. Daylight slipped to dusk. The track narrowed at every turn. Artillery rumbled ahead. The war already seemed way too schizoid. It seemed a spectacularly bad moment to get stoned.
There is a long queue of players jostling to criticise Pakistan, to chide and chastise its security forces over their failure to deal with the militant threat based on its soil. At best, its detractors accuse Pakistan of incompetence and denial. At worst, Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, stands blamed for direct collusion with militant groups.
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