Pakistan: Pakistani Taliban take control of unruly tribal belt

The Guardian
A powerful new militia dubbed "the Pakistani Taliban" has effectively seized control of swaths of the country's northern tribal areas in recent months, triggering alarm in Islamabad and marking a big setback in America's "war on terror".
The militants are strongest in North and South Waziristan, two of seven tribal agencies on the border with Afghanistan.
Strict social edicts have been handed down: shopkeepers may not sell music or films; barbers are instructed not to shave beards. Yesterday a bomb blew up a radio transmitter in Wana, taking the state radio off the air.

Militants collect taxes from passing vehicles at new checkpoints, and last week an Islamic court was established in Wana to replace the traditional jirga, or council of elders. Rough justice has already been dispensed elsewhere. A gang of seven alleged bandits were executed in Miran Shah in December and their bodies were hung from a post in the town centre.

The violent puritanism is spreading. On Sunday a remote-controlled bomb ripped through a police vehicle in Dera Ismail Khan, near South Waziristan, killing seven people. More than 100 pro-government elders and politicians have been killed in the past nine months, said a diplomat.

The Pakistani military deployed 70,000 troops to Waziristan two years ago to rein in the militants. But the campaign is faltering. An army assault against an alleged al-Qaida training camp outside Miran Shah on March 1 left more than 100 dead.

Fareed Ullah Khan, a resident, said he cowered inside his home for three days as shells whistled overhead and the air rattled with gunfire. As the fighting intensified, his family scurried from room to room in search of safety.

"We were afraid the bullets might land where we were hiding," said Mr Khan, who has since fled to Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier province. President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to quell the revolt. Since declaring a curfew in Miran Shah, government troops have regained control. But some people are worried. "The so-called war on terror is going badly," said one diplomat.

Comparisons to the emergence of the Afghan Taliban in the early 1990s are increasing. Although they have distinct identities, the groups are strongly linked - both are ethnic Pashtun - and Afghans use Waziristan as a rear base.

Analysts say the Pakistani Taliban is a loose alliance of tribal militia operating under radical clerics such as Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq. Many are angered by heavy-handed Pakistani military attacks against suspected al-Qaida hideouts, which are thought to have killed hundreds of civilians over the last two years.

The tribesmen are allied with al-Qaida fugitives, mostly from Uzbekistan and Chechnya. The foreigners have blended into the tribal structures, buying loyalties and marrying local women.

Foreign reporters are banned from the area and most local journalists have fled. One, Hayatullah Khan, 32, was abducted in December and is still missing.

The US is impatient to catch more senior al-Qaida figures. Unmanned Predator drones, now armed with Hellfire missiles, sweep over the tribal areas on surveillance missions so often that villagers now recognise their engine noise.

In January American forces destroyed a house in Bajaur tribal agency where it thought al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was hiding. Thirteen villagers were killed. The US has carried out several strikes, said a well-placed diplomat, but it has let Pakistan claim responsibility.

Such attacks have won the militants much support. "These are not the proper Taliban," said the refugee Mr Khan. "They are the common people who have revolted against the [Pakistani] government and targeted killings by Americans."

The Taliban presence in northern Pakistan also concerns Britain, which is deploying more than 3,300 troops in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

British intelligence contributed "heavily" to a list of about some 150 Pakistan-based Taliban suspects that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, brought to Islamabad last month, the diplomat said.

Declan Walsh in Peshawar
Tuesday March 21, 2006