May 30, 2006

Pakistani Taliban take control of wild Waziristan

By Zeeshan Haider

TANK, Pakistan (Reuters) - When the Pakistan army's front
line in its war on terrorism moved elsewhere, and the Taliban
took control of his hometown, Baidar decided it was time to

"The government is helpless. The Taliban is in full control
there, not religious students, but militant Taliban," said the
30-year-old Wazir tribesman.

Baidar shut his medical store in the bazaar at Wana, the
main town in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's seven
semi-autonomous tribal agencies, and moved to Tank, just across
the boundary in North West Frontier Province.

"The real worry is for businessmen and educated people
because they fear being targeted or killed by the Taliban on
suspicion of being informers for the government or America,"
said the shopkeeper, who, unlike many others, dared to give his

The Pakistan army, in the words of President Pervez
Musharraf, chased al Qaeda out of South Waziristan "valley by
valley" in an offensive that lasted from late 2003 to early

Thereafter the focus switched to North Waziristan, where
more than 300 militants have been killed since mid-2005.

A few of them were core al Qaeda members, such as an
Egyptian wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East
Africa, but most of the 75 or so foreigners killed were from
Chechnya or Islamist guerrillas from Central Asia.

In an interview with Avt Khyber TV, an independent
Pashto-language channel, aired on May 19, Musharraf said the
operations against al Qaeda had been very successful, but in
the next breath he said: "Extremism and Talibanization are
spreading ... now the focus has shifted from terrorism to

And while the fighting has intensified in North Waziristan,
its southern neighbor has become quiet -- too quiet.

"If you say there is peace, I would say yes there is no
trouble. But if you ask whether there is any government I would
say no," said a member of the Mehsuds, the other dominant tribe
in South Waziristan, who, like Baidar, has moved to North West
Frontier Province (NWFP) to escape the Taliban's power grab.

"They are basically strengthening their position. They are
virtually ruling the roost."

The old social order has broken down in the towns and
villages of Waziristan, a region populated by some of the most
recalcitrant tribes on Pakistan's side of the Pashtun belt that
straddles the border with Afghanistan.

As the military campaign moved north, political
assassinations became commonplace in the south.

Unknown gunmen ambushed administrators, pro-government
tribal elders and journalists, forcing many to flee with their
families to the settled areas of NWFP.

"Almost all malakan (pro-government tribal elders) have
left Waziristan," said Baidar.


A power vacuum opened the door for militant Muslim clerics,
dubbed Pakistani Taliban by the media.

Musharraf says they have no single leader, although they
may have ties with the Afghan Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad

But Haji Mohammad Omar, a burly, heavily bearded
45-year-old is one of the new forces in South Waziristan.

Residents say his men roam around Wana with rocket
launchers mounted on the back of their pick-up trucks.

"We have brought peace in Waziristan. We have eliminated
excesses, oppression, robberies and drugs from Waziristan," he
told Reuters by telephone from Wana.

The militants have opened offices and set up checkposts in
Wana's main market, collecting fees from vehicles entering.

They have even set up a court to conduct summary trials.

Most times the mullahs increase the fine for murders, and
executions are rare, although a man convicted of killing his
son was shot dead in front of a crowd of 150 tribesmen in late

A veteran of the mujahideen guerrilla war against the
Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Omar later
fought with the Taliban and met al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Now, after being granted an amnesty and being paid to stop
making trouble in 2004, Omar openly admits recruiting fighters
to send them across the border to fight U.S. and Afghan forces.

He accuses Musharraf of "allying with infidels."

Critics say the government erred by giving militant leaders
among the tribes too much respect, and by buying them off.

"These deals gave legitimacy to these people and that's why
they are now expanding their influence," said Rahimullah
Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal affairs.

"Much of the Talibanization was spread by the very
militants who were handed out massive bribes," a Daily Times
editorial in May said bluntly.

Worse still, the vast majority of the deeply conservative
and largely illiterate people support this self-styled Taliban
of Waziristan, according to intelligence and government

Waziristan's Taliban advise men to grow beards and veil
their women, cameras are banned, and the militant mullahs are
trying to stop people watching television or listening to

Musharraf cited a report he had received of televisions
being set ablaze in Malakand, another tribal region on the

"This is a Talibanized mindset. It has spread. It has to be
stopped. Now we are in a different ball game," Musharraf said.

The government is trying to set up councils of respected
tribal elders and administrators, but it will take time.

Meantime, Musharraf says military operations must go on,
although critics fear Pakistan will suffer from the backlash
for years to come.

He warned that the Taliban influence was spreading from
tribal areas to neighboring settled areas.

In Tank armed men roam the streets at night on motorcycles.
They're Taliban, townsfolk mutter in fear.

"It is just like cancer. It is bound to spread if not
properly treated," a senior security officer in Peshawar said.