Like the Wild, Wild West. Plus Al-Qaeda.

By Nicholas Schmidle
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Darra Adam Khel, a small burg in Pakistan's tribal areas, is the quintessential frontier town. Picture Wyatt Earp sashaying down the streets of Tombstone in a turban, and you begin to get the idea. Because Pakistani laws don't apply here, smugglers, gunsmiths and, most recently, the Taliban find Darra, as it's locally known, an optimal place to do business.

Most stores along the main road sell firearms or drugs. In one, freshly pressed slabs of hashish are cured in goat skins, stacked up like a new line of sweaters at the Gap. Next door, customers can walk in, pull a Kalashnikov from the rack and step outside to test-fire it into the sky. On my first visit to Darra, I opened the car door just as a prospective AK-47 buyer rattled off a few rounds. Thinking that I'd stumbled into a duel, I dove into a ditch for cover.

It's hard to believe that the limits of American power -- and the future of how it's projected -- could reside in the streets of a Wild West-era holdover like this. But, handicapped by the lack of a good plan, reliable allies or decent intelligence, the United States has watched as this strip of mountainous territory wedged between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become the most ungoverned, combustible region in the world. The U.S. intelligence community has described it as a refuge for Osama bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda's reconstituted leadership. And recently, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that the next terrorist attack on the United States would originate from the tribal areas, probably from a town much like Darra.

Seven years after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ditched the Afghan Taliban to join the United States in the "war on terror," a new generation of Pakistani Taliban has brazenly turned the tribal areas into its bailiwick. In Darra, Taliban-inspired gangs have run out hash dealers, bombed DVD and CD shops, and closed girls' schools. In January, jihadists car-jacked five military supply trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition and kidnapped more than 50 Pakistani paramilitary troops on a stretch of highway near the town.

When the Pakistani army deployed to the region in 2003 for the first time since 1948, a cleric in Islamabad issued a fatwa proclaiming that any Pakistani soldier killed fighting the Taliban in South Waziristan should be denied a Muslim burial. Last August, militants under the command of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader accused of masterminding former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination, kidnapped more than 200 soldiers in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani Taliban hasn't toppled the political order and gained power, but it has overthrown centuries of traditional authority. With al-Qaeda, it has slaughtered hundreds of maliks, or tribal chiefs, branding them as traitors for dealing with Musharraf's government or as spies working for the Americans and NATO. Their corpses (often headless) are routinely dumped in town bazaars as a warning to any who might be plotting against the Taliban. Earlier this month, tribal elders gathered in Darra to draft a strategy for purging their area of militants. As the meeting ended, a suicide bomber ran into the crowd and blew himself up, killing more than 40 people, including many elders.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, are a conglomeration of seven "agencies" and six "frontier regions" comprising an area slightly smaller than Maryland. Elected representatives from the FATA sit in Pakistan's parliament, but the laws it drafts mostly don't apply in the tribal areas. The national government's degree of involvement in local affairs varies -- Darra, for instance, which belongs to Frontier Region Kohat, is slightly more integrated into Pakistan's legal, political and administrative framework than South Waziristan, the largest agency. But all the tribal areas are "governed" by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, which give the tribes autonomy as long as they take collective responsibility for the actions of individual tribesmen.

The tribal belt is dominated by Pashtuns, an ethnic group of about 20 million who live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Pashtuns are renowned for their hospitality and their martial ways, a people reputed to treat guests like kings but eye strangers with suspicion. U.S., Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies banked on this when they armed Pashtuns to drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, Pashtuns compare the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan to the Soviet one, and residents of North and South Waziristan regard the Pakistani troops there, most of them Punjabis, as foreign invaders.

Washington's response to the Talibanization of western Pakistan has been clumsy and shortsighted. The White House's unwavering support for Musharraf backfired long ago, and Pakistanis, as I learned while living in the country for two years, by and large sympathize with the embattled tribesmen more than with their president. Periodic missile strikes at suspected al-Qaeda safe houses in the tribal areas by U.S. Predator drones have killed many civilians, creating more enemies than they eliminated. In October 2006, dozens of madrassa students died when a missile targeting al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, landed in Bajaur, the northernmost agency, a few hours after Zawahiri apparently left. The attack handed al-Qaeda a symbolic victory; pictures of dead kids can fire up jihadists for generations to come.

The State Department, meanwhile, has earmarked $750 million for development in the tribal areas to win hearts and minds by paving roads and building schools and hospitals. But who will regulate and oversee this development when foreigners are officially prohibited from the tribal areas and the Taliban and its affiliates authorize dealings in most parts of the FATA? When the Pakistani government launched a polio vaccination drive there last year, Taliban leaders used pirated radio stations to convince locals that the vaccine was an impotency serum sent from the United States to eradicate Muslims. Few children got the shots.

Meanwhile, the U.S. presidential candidates have remained mostly mute. When Sen. Barack Obama once suggested that, if elected, he might authorize bombing the tribal areas if intelligence showed that al-Qaeda was planning attacks against U.S. interests and Pakistan refused to act, critics from all sides chastised him. Yet since Feb. 5, a barrage of Predator-fired missiles has rained down on North and South Waziristan, killing more than 50 people.

As if the challenges of devising a counterinsurgency strategy in the FATA weren't enough, political obstacles in Islamabad also abound. The winners of last month's parliamentary elections have pledged to withdraw the army from the tribal areas, negotiate with the militants and curb Predator flights over Pakistani airspace. Responding to this softened tone, the Taliban has reciprocated with goodwill gestures of its own, saying that Pakistan could save some of its defense budget by withdrawing troops from the tribal areas and allowing the militants to enforce border security.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company