In Tribal Pakistan, an Uneasy Quiet

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 28, 2006

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sept. 27 -- Three weeks after Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, announced a peace pact with Taliban radicals in a tribal area bordering Afghanistan, recent visitors say there is now pin-drop silence in a territory that once shook with artillery and bomb blasts. Religious patrols are enforcing law and order, they say, in place of Pakistan army troops who have withdrawn to their barracks.

But as the toll from violence rises across the border in Afghanistan, with suicide bombings killing 22 people in three cities this week, there are reports that militant Pakistani tribal leaders, while complying with their pledge to reduce the presence of foreign Islamic fighters, intend to defy the peace pact by sending local fighters and suicide bombers into Afghanistan.

Musharraf continues to deny Afghan charges that the Pakistani government is sheltering and encouraging the revived Taliban insurgency from the tribal zones. But people interviewed in northwest Pakistan said there is widespread support in the tribal region for the Taliban movement's harsh Islamic morality and its war against U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

The tribal zones are a cluster of seven remote and rugged border districts where Pakistan's central government has never exerted more than nominal control. AK-47 assault rifles are common household possessions. Most of the people are Pashtun, the same ethnic group that dominates neighboring southern Afghanistan and that gave rise to the Taliban movement in the 1990s. Many Pashtun don't recognize the Pakistan-Afghan border, crossing it at will in both directions.

Under terms of the Sept. 5 agreement, Musharraf pledged to withdraw troops who had been attacking armed Islamic groups in the tribal area. In return, the fighters agreed to stop attacks on both sides of the border and expel foreign fighters unless they take up a peaceful life.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has faulted the pact in the past as taking pressure off the Taliban. But in remarks to reporters Tuesday in Washington he toned down his remarks, saying he would take a "wait-and-see attitude." Karzai said he was encouraged to learn that the pact had been signed with tribal elders, not with Taliban commanders.

But the traditional system of tribal self-governance has been weakened during three years of conflict with Pakistan troops. More than 200 tribal chiefs have reportedly been killed. It is not clear whether the Taliban leadership feels bound to any agreement made by local elders.

In the past two weeks, an elderly Afghan man accused of spying was decapitated in North Waziristan, the tribal area where the pact was signed. The teenage brother of a Pakistani journalist slain there earlier this year was also found dead. One source said he had been told that a group of teenagers, fresh from religious and military training, had recently headed for the border to carry out suicide bombings in Afghanistan.

In a recent telephone interview with a Pakistani reporter, senior Taliban leader Dadullah Akhund said he had told local Taliban members to cease attacks in Pakistan but to continue their fight "abroad" against the U.S. military. He said that he had 500 suicide bombers and 12,000 fighters at his disposal and that by next spring the Taliban would have enough force to launch major attacks on Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The revived Taliban insurgency has already cut a swath of violence across Afghanistan. This year, more than 2,000 people have been reported killed in numerous provinces. NATO forces are struggling to secure southern provinces where the fighting is focused.

On both sides of the border, critics of the peace pact condemn it as a farce. They described it as a major concession to the Islamic radicals by Musharraf after he failed to quell them by force, and a ruse to persuade the United States and European powers that he is serious about stopping the Taliban.

"This deal has handed over North Waziristan to the Taliban," Afrasiab Khattak, a human rights activist and secular politician, said in an interview in Peshawar, located in the so-called settled areas outside the tribal region. He said a hierarchy of Taliban commanders had taken control of North Waziristan, collecting taxes and meting out rough justice.

"The war in Afghanistan is totally from this side," Khattak said. "It is a new round of jihad, and it is not going to remain inside the tribal enclaves."

U.S. officials have long believed that al-Qaeda members from various Muslim countries as well as renegade Taliban fighters had sought refuge in the tribal areas after the U.S.-led ouster of Taliban rule in Kabul in 2001. In recent months, fighters of an Uzbek Muslim militia, expert in explosives and sabotage, have reportedly been operating in the area. At U.S. urging, Pakistani troops in 2003 began staging repeated raids in the region but encountered tough resistance.

Several Pakistani journalists with contacts in North Waziristan have reported that since the peace pact was signed, local Islamic militants and clerics have abided by its term to ask foreigners to leave, making appeals from mosque loudspeakers. Groups of armed men affiliated with local religious parties are now enforcing order, the journalists said.

Officials of the major religious party that dominates the northwest tribal region -- though they were closely involved in negotiating the pact -- deny that there are any Taliban or foreign fighters in Waziristan at all. These leaders insisted the agreement was signed with local tribesmen who had nothing to do with attacks inside Afghanistan.

Qari Abdullah, a religious leader from the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami party in Bannu, a Pakistani city just outside North Waziristan, said Tuesday that his party was committed to bringing peace, democracy and development to the city's district.

"If the West calls us fundamentalists and terrorists, they are wrong," Abdullah said in an interview in his mosque. "If we had not helped make peace possible, North Waziristan would have turned into another Beirut." He asserted that the Taliban had been falsely blamed for attacks in Afghanistan: "The question is why there is an American army bombing innocent civilians, 15,000 kilometers from its own country."

Foreign journalists are not allowed to enter the tribal region, but some of its prevailing atmosphere and attitude spill into neighboring areas of Pakistan. During a visit this week to Bannu, the closest city to the zone, a reporter found a curious mixture of rapid modernization and strong support for the Taliban.

Many people interviewed said admiringly that the Taliban had brought Islamic justice and moral order to Afghanistan, which it ruled from 1996 to 2001. They expressed little fear of the reported presence of Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters in the neighboring tribal areas, and some condoned the recent late-night bombings of two CD shops in Bannu, presumed to be a Taliban warning against music.

Many people interviewed in Peshawar and Bannu tended to dismiss the troubles facing Afghanistan as the result of indigenous tribal enmities and historical conflicts. Few except a handful of secular activists gave any credence to the repeated claims by the Afghan government of Pakistani interference and sponsorship of Islamic insurgents.

"We like the Taliban because they are against drugs, television, CDs and other sinful things," said Aminullah, 35, who sells sacks of grain in a market. "Bush is the real warlord who is invading other countries and making Muslims hate America."

Once an isolated backwater of donkey carts and thorny fields, Bannu now teems with signs of construction and modernization, including a new hospital, new schools and cellphone shops. At the same time, residents said the area has become increasingly conservative in its religious views and that dozens of new Islamic academies, or madrassas, have opened. Some people embodied these contrasts as they spoke.

"The Taliban are quiet in the tribal area, but now they are starting to cause some problems here," said Amanullah, the owner of a busy cellphone shop adorned with verses from the Koran. "Their actions are bad but their ideas are right. If they became the government here, it would be good. We would have no cinemas, no vulgarity, nothing with a bad impact on our women and children."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company