Among people of S. Waziristan, doubts about offensive deepen

 A policeman beats a man for jumping a  line at a food-distribution point in Dera Ismail Khan for displaced South Waziristan residents.
A policeman beats a man for jumping a line at a food-distribution point in Dera Ismail Khan for displaced South Waziristan residents. (Photo by Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)
By Haq Nawaz Khan and Karin Brulliard
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, PAKISTAN -- As Pakistan's army battles with guns and jets to wrest control of the restive South Waziristan region from the Taliban, it remains unclear whether the military will have another kind of ammunition it desperately needs: the support of people who have lived in the militants' grip for years.

Among refugees who were jostling for donated blankets last week in this dusty town in North-West Frontier Province, few dared to discuss the Taliban fighters controlling their villages. Several whispered that there was no graver offense than speaking against the Taliban and seemed fearful that breaching that rule would cost them once the offensive -- which several referred to as an artificial "drama" cooked up to satisfy the United States -- was over.

"The operation is a joke just to please the foreign masters," said Saidalam Mehsud, 59, a burly driver. "Whenever the dollars are floating into Pakistan, such operations are carried out."

In the past week, refugees said, their doubts about the offensive have intensified because they have seen little evidence of the ground operation that Pakistan's military says has killed nearly 200 insurgents. Although many said shells and bombs had been raining on the hilly terrain all week, some hitting houses of civilians, none said they had seen government soldiers in the area.

Instead, masked and armed militants were roaming with ease and digging trenches, the refugees said. Security analysts say soldiers are moving cautiously, partly to avoid civilian casualties, and the military says it has captured key insurgent hideouts.

The offensive is a pivotal test for Pakistan. The United States is giving the nation unprecedented aid, but it is also pressuring the government here to clamp down on militant Islamist groups that attack targets within Pakistan as well as U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say South Waziristan is a refuge for the umbrella group Tehrik-e-Taliban, led by Hakimullah Mehsud, which has orchestrated a string of high-profile attacks across the country recently.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the nearly two-week-old ground offensive. Researchers and people familiar with the long-neglected, semiautonomous tribal area say many of South Waziristan's fiercely independent Pashtun residents desperately want the Taliban to go. But in the region, the Taliban is a deeply entrenched and organized group that has had years to force locals into submission.

"They will only rise against the Taliban when they are convinced the government means business," said Saifullah Mehsud, director of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad, which studies Pakistan's tribal areas. "But they have never been convinced."

Militancy's iron grip

For half a dozen years, a stew of Pakistani and foreign militants has exerted near-complete control in the region. Bearded fighters travel ridges in convoys, local commanders police villages, and the rank and file put up posters pronouncing the latest religious edicts.

The militancy has shattered the economy, and at least half of South Waziristan's 500,000 people had moved from the area by July, according to the International Crisis Group. Those who remain live in forced compliance, with many families offering at least one son to the Taliban to avoid drawing suspicion, researchers said. Other poor young men eagerly sign up, lured by the promise of guns, travel in SUVs and martyrdom. Amid the lines of refugees in Dera Ismail Khan, some delicately described Taliban rule merely as strict.

"The Taliban are bad for criminals and outlaws," farm worker Saidullah Khan, 37, said on a recent evening. "The Taliban cause no problems for me or other common people."

Others bold enough to speak out said the situation in South Waziristan was dire. Under the Taliban, roads have deteriorated and most schools have shut, residents said. Even worse, some said, the hard-line version of Islam favored by the Taliban has destroyed a rich Pashtun culture. Traditional drumming is banned, stifling the vibrant weddings and elaborate funerals that were once common.

But the most profound effect, they said, is the quiet, daily task of projecting loyalty to the Taliban.

"There is constant fear in our minds," said Ali Mohammed, a 35-year-old out-of-work teacher, adding that he had recently come across a corpse in a field near his militant-riddled town, Makeen, from which he drew a lesson: "If they take you as an opponent or a spy, then they will punish you -- very brutally."

Hidden dislike for Taliban

One businessman who fled last week to Peshawar, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his life, said he had carefully carved out a narrow space to avoid Taliban wrath. He dutifully attends the funerals of suicide bombers. And when he runs into fighters, he praises Baitullah Mehsud, the former Tehrik-e-Taliban chief who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August, as a martyr and the "only big tree under which we were sheltered."

Privately, though, the businessman said he had concluded that the insurgents were mostly thugs, not religious purists. Worried that his two adolescent sons might think otherwise, he said, he regularly exhorts them to reject the Taliban's allure.

"I am telling them, 'If you are in favor of jihad, okay, but think about it -- have these mullahs preaching to you also gone for jihad?' " he said. "This I cannot say publicly, or I would be killed."

Khadim Hussain, who researches Pakistan's tribal belt at an Islamabad-based think tank, said that a recent survey he directed in the region revealed widespread dislike for the Taliban's extremist ideology. About 550 informal interviews with residents showed that most favor targeted attacks on insurgents, he said.

"We are silent in this whole drama. But that does not mean we are Taliban," said Mohammed, the out-of-work teacher, who spoke openly only inside a car, away from a packed refugee registration point here.

If the military offensive flushed out the Taliban, some observers said, the people of South Waziristan would work to hold their ground. For now, they are crammed into rented homes outside the battle lines, waiting with hushed, almost muted hope.

"We are very weak," said Gulzada Khan, 68, a white-bearded elder in a soiled striped turban who fled to Dera Ismail Khan. "It is the worst time in my life. We were proud, respectful people. We never bowed down to anyone. Now I think we have lost that glory."

Brulliard reported from Peshawar and Islamabad. Khan is a special correspondent.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company