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Tide of militancy grips tribal Pakistan

A tide of Islamic militancy is spreading across and beyond the semiautonomous tribal areas of northwest Pakistan that hug the Afghan border.
Religious students in Peshawar, Pakistan surround teacher Wahidullah, right, who once fought as part of the Taliban militia and now believes they should return to quash immorality and lawlessness.
Religious students in Peshawar, Pakistan surround teacher Wahidullah, right, who once fought as part of the Taliban militia and now believes they should return to quash immorality and lawlessness.Pamela Constable / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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.

‘Starting to spin out of control’
"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.

Many government critics here accuse the intelligence services of fomenting religious extremism in the tribal areas as a means of keeping Afghanistan unstable and vulnerable to Pakistani control. Senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have also made such claims, which Pakistani officials deny.

"In my view, stability for Afghanistan is the best thing for Pakistan," said Hamid Khan, the army corps commander. "All the turmoil there affects us; we get the refugees, the criminals, the drugs, the weapons. The miscreants have much safer sanctuaries on that side than on ours. If we want strategic depth, better we should have good relations than instability."

The Pakistani army has suffered numerous casualties since it entered the tribal areas two years ago under pressure from Washington to crack down on Islamic radicals. There have been repeated bloody clashes with tribal militiamen and, more recently, a spate of roadside bombings and one suicide bombing that targeted an army convoy. Visitors to the conflict zone describe soldiers as being largely confined to their outposts.

Until recently, most religious violence was limited to North and South Waziristan, the poorest and most isolated of the tribal areas, where Islamic fervor has always been strong. Although a recent truce has calmed South Waziristan, the fundamentalist fervor now seems to be erupting in other parts of the region.

In Swat, a peaceful agricultural valley, Islamic preachers persuaded people to hand over their television sets in May and burned stacks of them in public. In the Khyber Agency, a prosperous commercial area that straddles a major highway into Afghanistan, armed followers of an Islamic preacher burst into shops and lodging houses in early June, demanding at gunpoint that people pledge to follow Islamic law. In the ensuing clashes with another religious militia, several dozen people were killed.

Taliban enclaves
"There are elements that have decided to create Taliban enclaves and to 'Waziristanize' the other tribal agencies," said Khattak, the human rights activist. "The government says it is taking action, but it is not. The source of the problem is here, not in Afghanistan. If such a bloody drama can happen in Khyber, it can happen anywhere."

Even in Peshawar, a huge city with a landscaped military district and a modern university, support for the revived Taliban movement is evident among students and worshipers at numerous mosques. Secular politicians say the militant fervor is being encouraged by the Islamic political parties that dominate the provincial government.

On a recent Friday, men emerging from prayer services said they were upset about army attacks on civilians in tribal areas and worried that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would enter Pakistan as well. One man, an English teacher, said the U.S. forces were "savages and barbarians" while the Taliban were "religious scholars and sincere people."

Another man with a black turban and bushy beard proudly identified himself as a former Taliban member who had fought in the capture of Kabul in 1996. Today, he said, the same conditions of lawlessness and immorality have returned on both sides of the border, demanding new action.

"Under the Taliban there was peace, there was order, there was justice. Now our people are facing cruelty, injustice and crime. It has all come back, and it cannot be allowed to continue," said Wahidullah, 32, who runs a religious academy for boys. "If I didn't have other responsibilities now, I would love to join the fight again."