Faceless Taliban rule
- Faceless Taliban rule
PART 1: A battle before a battle
In the second report in a series of articles exploring Pakistan's tribal
areas, Syed Saleem Shahzad visits Malakand Agency to examine the
differing natures and strategies of various Taliban groups. Malakand
Agency is a region in North-West Frontier Province and covers one third
of the total area of the province. The region is further divided into
several districts - Chitral, Dir, Swat, Buner, Shangla and agencies like
Malakand and Mohmand.
Malakand Agency: Dear Mr Doctor ... ENT specialist
May Allah bless you. The mercy on the people, created by God, rains
blessings by the creator. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is the name of an
organization which aims to establish a welfare
society based on justice and confront all evil forces which try to
obstruct in this great objective. May Allah heal you from all physical
and spiritual ailments.
We don't have any personal grudge with anybody. If we stop anybody from
wrongdoings or motivate for righteous things, our purpose is simply to
attain God's blessings and to express affection from its creation - the
You are our brother. If you are hurt from our behavior, we apologize. We
only did that for the reform of your behavior. Prophet Mohammad - Peace
Be Upon Him - said a sweet and good talking to somebody is charity.
Therefore, we advise you to take care of your patients. Don't charge too
much because several people cannot afford that. May Allah reward you the
best and may He guide us all for good deeds. Blessings ...
Ameer-i-Taliban Pakistan (Malakand) Qari Jabbar.
This is a translation (at right) of a letter written on the Taliban's
letterhead and delivered through the post on January 22, 2009, to an
ear, nose and throat specialist at a hospital in Batkaila in Malakand
Earlier, the names of five doctors were broadcast on the Taliban's local
FM radio station, saying that based on public complaints, the Taliban
had made some investigations and found that the five doctors had behaved
arrogantly towards their patients.
The Taliban said that the doctors did not have any sympathy for their
patients and that they just tried to make as much money as they could.
Further, they were hand-in-glove with the pharmaceutical companies and
prescribed very costly medicine.
The Taliban warned the doctors that they must "reform" their behavior,
otherwise stringent actions would be taken against them. The doctors did
change their behavior, and then each of them received a letter of
"clearance", as above.
Welcome to Malakand Agency, where one can freely roam around and yet not
see a single Taliban vigilante, even though they rule the roost.
In Pakistan, "Taliban" is the generic name for those groups that pledge
their allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin
Laden, but in different areas they have different manifestations.
In some places they aim to enforce strict sharia law. In others, the
Taliban want to establish bases from which to work in support of the
resistance against foreign forces in Afghanistan.
In yet other areas, the purpose is simply to create chaos and anarchy so
that militants can engage the Pakistani armed forces and deter them from
supporting the global "war on terror".
However, the ultimate mission of the groups is steadily harmonizing,
that is, to support the regional war and then the global war against
Western hegemony; this is the concept driving the neo-Taliban.
In Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and
surrounding areas such as Muttani, Shabkadar, Darra Adam Khail and
Khyber Agency, the Taliban have never tried to implement sharia. Their
presence is more strategic and several groups operate independently
under various commanders.
Their purpose is to sever North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
supply lines that pass through Pakistan and to eliminate the writ of the
central government so that it will not be able to provide protection to
the supply convoys.
In the South Waziristan, North Waziristan and Bajaur tribal agencies,
the Taliban aim to establish strategic bases with al-Qaeda to provide
support to the Afghan resistance. In Malakand Agency and the Swat
Valley, the struggle is focussed on enforcing sharia and in cleansing
society of unscrupulous elements.
Increasingly, though, as mentioned, these differing goals, as a result
of Pakistan's military operations, are coming together as a broad
struggle to defeat the Western powers in the region and their ally -
In much of the tribal areas and the Swat Valley, the state of Pakistan
has lost its control, but the situation in Malakand Agency is somewhat
In early 2008, the Taliban flexed their muscles all around NWFP,
especially in the the area between the Swat Valley and Peshawar, and
Mardan became a hotbed of militancy.
However, the Taliban realized that without local support and only with
fighters from different regions of the province, they would never be
able to defeat the state forces. Therefore, they resolved to establish
their influence over the urban centers in this area, hoping eventually
to wrest NWFP completely from Islamabad's control. Similarly,
Balochistan province, which also borders Afghanistan, is destined to
become "Taliban territory".
The remaining two provinces of Pakistan, Punjab and Sindh, do not figure
in this plan. Any attacks here would add additional pressure, but there
is no urge for the Talibanization of these areas.
At present, in areas such as Malakand, the Taliban use radio to expose
government incompetence and corruption and then ask the people to submit
their complaints to the Taliban. Only then do they act.
Recently, after having received complaints in the form of dozens of
letters, the Taliban announced on radio that they would investigate the
matter of brothels in the Malakand region. The result: several brothels
were blown up.
As seen with the medical community, a similar approach was adopted. In
the same vein, a local gangster, Shoaib Khan, who was said to have
received backing from politicians and the police, was forced to flee.
People in the area call this "creeping Talibanization" and say it is
taking root because of corrupt and bad governance. It's not only guns
that win over hearts and minds.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@...
ON THE MILITANT TRAIL
A battle before a battle
Peshawar - the High Fort - is the capital of North-West Frontier
Province (NWFP) and the administrative center for the Federally
Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. It was one of the main trading
centers on the ancient Silk Road and was a major crossroads for various
cultures between South and Central Asia and the Middle East.
Located on the edge of the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border, Peshawar,
with a population of several million, is the commercial, economic,
political and cultural capital of the Pashtuns in Pakistan.
Peshawar and its surrounds are also now the epicenter for the Taliban
and other militants in their struggle not only in Afghanistan and
Pakistan but also in their bid to establish a base from which to wage an
"end-of-time battle" that would stretch all the way to the Arab
heartlands of Damascus and Palestine.
In a series of articles exploring the region that will examine the
differing natures and strategies of various Taliban groups, Syed Saleem
Shahzad begins his journey in Peshawar.
Restive North-West Frontier Province is not the destination of choice
these days. Those who travel there go for business or family reasons,
and the flight I took from the southern port city of Karachi to Peshawar
was half empty; clearly, the region is no longer on the tourist map.
After touring the city for an afternoon and speaking to a variety of
people, I was struck by its eerie similarity to Baghdad when I visited
that capital soon after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 -
it has the distinct atmosphere of impending chaos.
That evening I chatted with a senior al-Qaeda member who told me that
the group considered NWFP and southwestern Balochistan province as
already wiped off the map of Pakistani as they were now militant
country. Although not entirely accurate, it portends a chilling turn in
the "war on terror" in which Washington will be more concerned over the
stability and security of Pakistan rather than that of Afghanistan.
The indications are that a major battle will be fought in Pakistan
before the annual spring offensive even begins in Afghanistan this year.
Last December, the US Defense Department pushed for Pakistan to be given
US$2.64 billion to buy better weapons and to provide more training for
its police and Frontier Corps, which are at the vanguard of the battle
against militants in the tribal regions.
The new administration of US President Barack Obama has appointed
veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy for Pakistan and
Afghanistan, a newly created position, so that he and Hillary Clinton -
in her role as secretary of state - can work closely to try to get Kabul
and Islamabad to join forces in the fight against the resurgent Taliban
and al-Qaeda militant groups, especially those located in Pakistan.
A deceptive calm
On the surface, life appears normal in Peshawar. Shops, public offices,
banks and schools are all open, but they disguise disturbing events that
are happening with increased regularity.
Heavily armed militants have begun attacking container terminals for
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply trucks on their way to
Afghanistan, destroying dozens of them, and there have been a series of
high-profile abductions, including those of Afghan and Iranian
Pushto stage and drama artist Alamzeb Mujahid was seized from Peshawar's
Hayatabad area this month, while the beheaded body of a faith healer was
found last week with a warning note attached saying that those involved
in the business of faith-healing would meet the same fate.
According to militant sources, five dozen people have been abducted in
the past 30 days, including Shi'ites and ex-army men and their
relatives. Some were released after a ransom was paid, a few were killed
and the remainder are still being held hostage by the militants.
Most of these incidents have involved militants claiming to be Taliban.
However, criminal gangs have also jumped onto the bandwagon to abduct
traders for ransom. Different traders' organizations have grouped
together to display black banners in the city urging the government to
stem the abduction of traders.
In the face of this, security arrangements in Peshawar are
extraordinarily tight. In the upscale neighborhood of University Road,
which houses several international non-government organizations, United
Nations offices, residences and the American Club, every nook and cranny
is manned by either the police or by intelligence sleuths in civilian
This has created an atmosphere of fear among people, who believe that a
major showdown between militants and the security forces is imminent.
The situation was a blessing in disguise for me as I easily found a very
comfortable, well-equipped room at a 20-room guest house with high-speed
wireless Internet at a much cheaper price than I paid on my previous
visit last year. When I checked in, I was the only guest.
Later, I spoke to Mehmood Afridi, the editor and owner of the English
daily the Frontier Post. "I chose to set up my office in a bungalow
because at least I can watch over the threat compared to any office in a
building downtown, but still I have to spend a huge amount on armed
It took almost one-and-a-half years for the US and NATO to realize the
real dangers of the lawlessness in Pakistan. In 2007, Western
decision-makers watched the instability in Pakistan with a smile.
Militant ideologues based in the tribal areas, such as Tahir Yuldashev,
chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Shiekh Essa, were
emphasizing their aim to topple the then-government of president General
Pervez Musharraf before taking on NATO in Afghanistan.
A tide of insurgency swept from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but Western
leaders were not too concerned as they thought this would make it easier
for them in Afghanistan and that the militants would be defeated in
This did not prove to be the case in regard to both countries. The
insurgency in Afghanistan had its most successful year in 2008, and
militants have grown in strength in Pakistan. In February 2008, suicide
attacks in Pakistan outnumbered Iraqi suicide attacks and strong
enclaves of militants have been established in Pakistan where they never
For instance, in the strategic Khyber Agency, through which 80% of
NATO's supplies pass on the way to landlocked Afghanistan, militants
have gained a foothold. In Mohmand and in Bajaur tribal agencies, which
cover the whole of a strategic corridor into Afghanistan which goes all
the way to the capital Kabul through Kunar, Nooristan and Kapisa
provinces, militants have established a presence.
An insurgency in the hitherto peaceful Swat Valley prompted Pakistan to
carry out military operations, but this only turned the whole valley
into hostile territory for the Pakistan army and a new nursery for the
Never before had so many well-trained and battle-hardened militants
swarmed from the Swat Valley, Bajaur and Mohmand into Afghanistan, and
they are preparing to do so again this year. NATO has had to seek an
alternative and much more expensive supply routes through Central Asia.
As a result, the US, where strategic journals and think-thanks had been
selling the idea of Pakistan's disintegration up to 2007, and promoted
the concept of a united Pashtun land, is now completely geared to take
all measures to protect the unity of Pakistan.
It is now believed that if Pakistan goes down, it will take its
neighbors with it, with ramifications all the way to Europe and America.
Apart from a few divisive incidents, such as the Pakistan-linked terror
attack on Mumbai in India last November, this realization is keeping all
players, including Pakistan, the US, Britain and even India at closer
levels of coordination. However, this has happened late in the game,
perhaps too late.
The rise and rise of militancy
Following the ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan by US-led forces
in late 2001, militancy in the region only began to grow at a phenomenal
pace over the past few years.
In 2005, a major regrouping of the Taliban began, leading the next year
to meetings in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and an agreement
to fight against NATO under the command of Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani.
In April 2006, the militants verbally agreed on a ceasefire with
Pakistan and then signed a formal document in September the same year.
In early 2007, they broke the ceasefire, but at the same time faced a
serious leadership crisis.
However, the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in July 2007 in which the
radical mosque in Islamabad was stormed by security forces helped the
Pakistani Taliban to regroup under the umbrella of the Pakistan
Tehrik-i-Taliban. The organization initially went through many
difficulties due to differences over leadership, but ultimately they
agreed on Baitullah Mehsud as head.
In December 2007, former premier Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by
al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden installed an amir-e-khuruj (leader for
revolt) in Pakistan, and since then the militancy has gone from strength
Against this backdrop, three significant and interlinked developments
Pakistan lost a significant amount of territory in NWFP to militants.
Al-Qaeda and Pakistani militants devised a scheme in late 2008 to cut
off NATO's supply lines passing through Pakistan. The move has been
The Taliban are gaining ground in Afghanistan. According to an
influential British think-tank, the Senlis Council - now renamed the
International Council on Security and Development - in 2007, 54% of
Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban. In 2008, the same
think-tank said that 72% was controlled by the Taliban.
In the past few months, the US has stepped up Predator drone attacks on
specific targets inside Pakistan. While these have aided the militant
cause in that at times civilians have been killed, several key militant
leaders have also died.
A meeting with al-Qaeda
I received a call on my cell phone from a number I did not recognize,
but the voice was familiar.
"It is not possible to visit you at your guest house. You have to move
away from the area," the man said, and then mentioned a famous landmark
in the city where I had met the same person last year. I will call him
I was delayed leaving the guest house and had to walk about 20 minutes
to the meeting place. As I approached, Mohammad crossed the road and
joined me. I followed him until we reached a waiting motorbike and rider
at a crowded bus stop.
Mohammad sat behind the driver and I squeezed on behind him. We must
have been a sight. The front two had very long beards and robes, looking
like prayer leaders, while I was wearing modern trousers and a coat. We
drove for 10 minutes before reaching a big park.
"You almost put us in serious difficulties," Mohammad chided me as soon
as we got off the motorbike.
"How?" I asked, surprised.
"There is an extraordinary high alert in and around the University Road
area. In the past month, dozens of our fellows have been arrested in the
area. Of course, we keep an eye on our targets, which are in abundance
in this part of Peshawar, and intelligence and police keep an eye on us.
I was waiting for you for about 40 minutes, it is just not advisable for
us to stay around for so long," Mohammad explained.
"After losing ground all over, the security forces are preparing for
decisive action against us. Everybody is at risk, we, our families ... I
change my cell numbers on an almost daily basis, so next time you will
not be able to trace me. I have changed my residence twice in the past
two months and my residence is not known to anybody. At this moment, the
security forces are calling the shots [in the city], but soon we will
I questioned Mohammad on a reported split among militants which has
caused Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah to remain quiet. Abdul Wali,
alias Omar Khalid, Moulvi Faqir and others who were previously with
Baitullah, who is ill, have now parted with him. The drone attacks have
wiped out sizeable numbers of al-Qaeda members, although the word is the
Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are alive.
"The news of a split is true, but it will never benefit the government,"
said Mohammad. "All it has done is weaken Baitullah's command. Believe
you me, it will further sharpen the armed opposition against the
government. The militant groups will carry out attacks with multiple
strategies. Abdul Wali is still fighting against the government." (Abdul
Wali had earlier been reported killed in Mohmand Agency in a military
"Al-Qaeda members have melted into various like-minded groups. Recently,
Qari Ziaur Rahman led a group comprising 600, mostly Afghans and
al-Qaeda members, to ransack a Pakistani security post in Mohmand
Agency," Mohammad said.
"Tomorrow, when you travel to the Swat Valley, you will find that except
for a few towns like Mardan, Sawabi and Charsada, all the towns are now
under the Taliban. In places like Mengora and Swat, the security forces
are not the ones who enforce the curfew, but the Taliban. The Taliban
move freely on the streets and the security forces hide inside their
sanctuaries," Mohammad said.
The Taliban's and al-Qaeda's influence is indeed multi-faceted, like
their groupings. There are places like Swat and the tribal areas where
the Taliban's control is a fact of life and they operate in broad
daylight. In other places like Peshawar they are present, but this can
only be felt, not seen.
Malakand Agency was on my itinerary, and I had been told that here there
is not a single Taliban on the ground, but through fear they impose
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@...
(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.
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