A former British special forces officer ran a US-backed private army to hunt down the Taliban in Pakistan in a secret war in 2003, a new book has revealed.
THE militiamen holed up in the mudbrick compound deep in Pakistan’s tribal badlands had terrorised the region for years. This time they had hijacked a bus, executed two of the female passengers and kept the rest of the hostages in a constant state of terror.
The ultimatum came by loudhailer at first light: Give yourself up or face the guns of the Frontier Corps.
What Jalil Jaffer could not have known was that his terrorist gang was not surrounded by the lowly cannon fodder of an ill-equipped local force. In fact he was in a trap laid by Pakistan’s most capable commandos – part of America’s secret war to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, and led by a former British special forces officer.
The extraordinary story of how Lieutenant Commander Howard Leedham MBE turned a ragtag band of warriors into a feared fighting force has never been told before.
Such is Pakistani sensitivity to foreign boots on its soil that the operation was shrouded in secrecy and few at the American embassy in Islamabad knew what was happening in the south-western province of Baluchistan in 2003 and 2004.
Stealth was the only way to protect the programme from the country’s rabid clerics and terrorist groups, and insulate the government of Pervez Musharraf against accusations of bowing to the West. Even today the revelation that a Briton was running a Pakistani unit along the border will arouse a fresh wave of paranoia and conspiracy theories.
Yet the success of “the twenty-five”, as they became known, in sowing fear and confusion among the enemy led to the programme being scaled up into a multi-million dollar training regime for Pakistani forces.
And with international forces poised to leave Afghanistan in 2014, analysts are once again pondering the question of how to stabilise Pakistan’s troubled border regions.
Jaffer was about to learn all this the hard way. With one of his accomplices, he made a break from his hideout along a shallow gulley straight into the rifles of a concealed cut-off group.
Mr Leedham, who has documented his exploits in a new book Ask Forgiveness not Permission, said Jaffer was the first demonstration that his 25 men were battle ready.
“He thought it was just the regular Frontier Corps and it didn’t come off well at all for him. In fact he became a martyr,” he said.
“As soon as that happened everyone became aware of what we could do.”
Jaffer was shot dead along with one accomplice. Two more were arrested and more than a dozen hostages freed.
Details of the operation were relayed rapidly back to Washington but newspaper reports made no mention of the British officer involved in the operation.
It was an dazzling achievement for a man who left the British military in the 1990s after a career as diver, then commando pilot, earning his green beret and being selected for what he coyly describes as “special forces type operations”, and later flying Chinooks in Operation Desert Storm for the US Marines.
Mr Leedham was involved in a corporate jet service in the US when he was approached by an obscure branch of the US government, the State Department’s Air Wing, more normally engaged in hunting down drug lords.
Officials had realised Pakistan’s poorly protected border was a problem. Operations in Afghanistan were undermined by militants’ crossing back and forth at will.
Their solution was to provide helicopters and advisers to the Pakistan military to help them better secure the frontier and chase down the bad guys.
But with resources and expertise focused on the war in Iraq, Mr Leedham arrived in Pakistan to find a programme on the brink of closure. The seven helicopters and two fixed-wing planes had been impounded by local officials in the latest spat between the two countries.
Nevertheless, he soldiered on, retrieving the aircraft before finding a suitable platoon of Frontier Corps recruits in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.
Their commanding officer, General Sadaqat Ali Shah, had assembled a rapid reaction force and was soon won over by the persistent Brit who threatened to turn up at his lavatory door to secure a meeting.
The team were all Pathans, the tough mountain people of Pakistan’s north-west known as Pashtuns in Afghanistan. They had been brought far from home to protect their families from the threat of kidnap or intimidation.
They were the best the Frontier Corps could offer but they lacked basic commando training and, more importantly for an airborne force, only one had ever been in a helicopter.
“These guys really did perform,” said Mr Leedham. “They picked up things so quickly. They were impressive people.”
After weeks of training they could patrol silently at night and were adept at scrambling in and out of helicopters in less than five seconds – essential to avoid becoming a sitting target.
They were drilled in the tactics of Lawrence of Arabia, learning the importance of rapidly outmanoeuvring the enemy in order to keep them on their toes.
“I used a lot of Lawrence doctrine,” said Mr Leedham. “I know it sounds a bit hokey but I did.”
Equipping them was a matter of begging, stealing and borrowing whatever was needed. Ration packs were sourced from US troops in Kabul.Smoke grenades were bartered from a contact at the British High Commission in return for seats on flights to Quetta. And first aid kits came from the American Embassy nurse at the price of a bottle of Chateauneuf-de-Pape.
Dusty boxes of night vision goggles completed their kit, giving them a vital edge over the enemy.
A small team of mechanics from DynCorp, the US military contractor, kept the helicopters running.
By the end of an intense period of training the Helicopter Assault Force was born and a chapter worthy of Kipling’s North-West Frontier stories was being written.
Reports soon circulated about mysterious roadblocks set up on the main road from Pakistan to Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban. They would disappear as soon as word spread, only to reappear somewhere else.
Taliban gunmen were chased down with an efficiency not seen before and there were more operations to free hostages.
At one stage Mr Leedham was briefed on an operation to move on a compound frequented by a “high-profile” suspect. He was never told the target and the plan was apparently vetoed by the US on legal grounds, but the book hints that it was a senior al-Qaeda figure, possibly even Osama bin Laden himself.
None of the collaborations was publicised. Just as today Pakistan secretly approves the use of CIA drone strikes while condemning them in public, so too then collaborating with Western powers was an issue fraught with the risk of inviting terrorist blowback.
Mr Leedham returned to the US at the end of his one-year contract at the age of 46. Today he lives in London and works in the financial world.
But his success became a blueprint for a massive injection of American and British cash and expertise designed to help stabilise Pakistan’s troubled border regions as international forces depart from Afghanistan.
In 2009 The New York Times reported that more than 70 US advisers were secretly training Pakistan troops in the north-western city of Peshawar, helping them kill or capture some 60 militants in seven months.
And Britain has spent £15m building a training camp for Frontier Corps forces in Quetta.
However, relations between Pakistan and the US soured badly last year. The arrest of a CIA contractor in Lahore, Raymond Davis, after shooting dead two people was followed by the Navy Seals raid to kill bin Laden deep in Pakistani territory.
Both training programmes have been frozen ever since with dozens of American and British trainers sent home amid a wave of anti-Western hostility.
The new revelations that a former British commando set up an airborne assault team along the border will heighten suspicions of a secret war inside Pakistan run by foreign agents.
For his part, Mr Leedham said Pakistan and the US need to patch up their differences before his success could be repeated. But his self-sufficient programme – small enough to protect operational security and prevent tip-offs to militant leaders, long a problem with local forces – showed that a compact Pakistani unit could be turned into a crack team of terrorist hunters.
“For a moment in time there was a group of Pathans, there were some Pakistani military officers, there were American mechanics, there was me,” he said. “Did we break a few rules on the way? Yes. But if we didn’t, the people who would have got the advantage were the bad guys.”