In Tribal Pakistan, a Tide of Militancy

Religious academy students in Peshawar, Pakistan, with Wahidullah, right, a teacher and former Taliban fighter.
Religious academy students in Peshawar, Pakistan, with Wahidullah, right, a teacher and former Taliban fighter. "Under the Taliban there was peace," he said. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- In North Waziristan, barbers are ordered not to shave off beards, and thieves have been swiftly beheaded. In Swat, television sets and VCRs have been burned in public. In Dir, religious groups openly recruit teenagers to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In the Khyber area, armed squads have burst into rooming houses, forcing people to pledge to obey Islamic law.

A tide of Islamic militancy is spreading across and beyond the semiautonomous tribal areas of northwest Pakistan that hug the Afghan border, despite the deployment of some 70,000 Pakistani army troops there, according to a variety of people with close family, professional or political ties to the tribal regions.

Senior army officers in this provincial capital say they are making steady progress in pacifying the restive tribal belt and reining in religious extremists, who U.S. and Afghan authorities say have fomented much of the violence that has led to more than 500 deaths in Afghanistan in the past two months.

"We have them on the defensive now," Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamid Khan, commander of the 11th Army Corps, said in an interview. "The miscreants have gone into their shells, and things have cooled down tremendously." Khan said the army had shifted from mass raids to "snap operations" based on intelligence and now controls key towns once in the hands of militants.

But other observers say the army's aggressive efforts since 2004 have backfired, alienating the populace with heavy-handed tactics and undermining the traditional authority of tribal elders and officials. They say the local Taliban movement, which has close ethnic and theological links to the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan, has won new supporters and been able to carve out enclaves of alternative power.

"Things are starting to spin out of control," one Western diplomat in Islamabad said of the tribal areas, which have historically been deeply conservative. "In some areas, it's beginning to look like they are setting up a government within a government."

The tribal areas are off-limits to foreign visitors, including journalists, except for periodic, brief helicopter visits with military authorities. But in recent interviews here, tribal lawyers, educators and politicians with knowledge of events in the areas described growing fundamentalist influence and intimidation that is spilling beyond the sparsely inhabited tribal zones and edging closer to settled, government-run localities.

In the past six months, they said, dozens of tribal elders and officials have been killed, including an uncle of the current provincial chief minister. Fundamentalist clerics have freely used FM radio stations to preach holy war and set up public recruiting offices in towns such as Dir and Bannu just outside the tribal areas. Music stores have been shut down and thieves executed before crowds.

"North and South Waziristan are in the grip of Talibanization" and all of the seven federally administered tribal agencies "can come under its grip, too," said Afrasiab Khattak, a human rights activist and official of the secular Awami National Party. "The army has put up an honest fight, but it has failed, and the government has failed. The traditional system has been made ineffective, and the Taliban have moved into the vacuum."

One university instructor, who comes from South Waziristan, said that when he visited a year ago the area was blanketed with army troops, but that when he went back several months ago for a funeral, not a uniformed soldier was in sight while armed men in Taliban-style turbans patrolled in trucks. He asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"The situation is not what the government says," he said. "The Taliban are totally in control. The people welcome them and the youths idolize them. There is no government, only the security forces who kill people. The Taliban settle disputes and deliver justice on the spot. The tribal areas are becoming nurseries for the Taliban, and the army can't stop it."

Last week, the discovery that a journalist in North Waziristan had been assassinated generated expressions of alarm and protests in multiple cities. Hayatullah Khan, who had been missing since December after reporting that the United States appeared to have staged a missile attack on Pakistani soil, was found shot in the head and handcuffed. Officials blamed religious extremists, but Khan's relatives and others said they suspected Pakistani intelligence agencies were behind his killing.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company