Pakistan’s already volatile frontier region is showing signs of succumbing to a new wave of suspicion, power struggles and inter-tribal violence

ADNAN R. KHAN February 25 2008


Pakistan’s already volatile frontier region is showing signs of succumbing to a new wave of suspicion, power struggles and inter-tribal violence

ADNAN R. KHAN February 25 2008



Pakistan’s already volatile frontier region is showing signs of succumbing to a new wave of suspicion, power struggles and inter-tribal violence


By the time the Taliban reached Riaz Ahmed’s mountainside home in Pakistan’s volatile Swat Valley, he’d already prepared himself for a fight. In the prelude to a confrontation he’d prayed would never come, as a group of up to 30 well-armed Taliban militants marched up the hill through a jumble of mud homes in his village of Madyan, Ahmed had gathered together as many of his male friends

and family members as he could, armed them, and ordered them to wait inside his house.

This was in November 2007After handily chasing government forces out of Madyan, the Taliban were extending their reach over the turbulent villages of Swat, in Pakistan’s mountainous and unstable North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), imposing their brand of Islamic sharia law with deadly precision. Ahmed had arrived back in his home village

four months earlier—on Canada Day 2007— along with his wife and six children, for a vacation. He’d only planned to stay for a few months; 4 ‘/2 years ago he renounced his privileged position as the eldest son of a powerful local tribal elder and moved with his family to Canada.

That was a difficult decision, he says. “My father tried to keep me here. He offered me a business. He said he’d do anything to make

me stay.” Opting instead for a better life for his children, Ahmed left, settling in the Jane Street and Steeles Avenue area of Toronto. An agricultural engineer by training, he worked at menial jobs as his children adjusted to life in a new country and the family earned their Canadian citizenship. But back home, Swat fell victim to the instability that for years had been wreaking havoc in the Tribal Areas neighbouring the NWFP, as a militant preacher, Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the radical Islamic group Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM)—part of the Pakistani Taliban—began preaching his doctrine of intolerance on an illicit FM radio station at his base further south in the Swat Valley. Violence surged.

Madyan was largely spared the turmoil over the summer months. So when Ahmed returned home in July, he was hoping—perhaps a little naively—for a relaxing summer vacation in what in more peaceful times was considered Pakistan’s alpine tourist mecca, visiting family and friends before returning to Canada. “I knew about the instability in other parts of the valley,” he says, “and I felt terrible for what my people were going through, but I really only thought about one thing—going back to Canada. I certainly didn’t expect to meet the Taliban.”

His entry into Pakistani politics changed his plans. Local members of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) asked his father, also a member of the PPP, to represent them in upcoming elections, at that time scheduled forjan. 8, and now to be held Feb. 18. After his father turned down the request because of his age, the responsibility fell on Ahmed, under tribal tradition. Ahmed agreed—and the Taliban soon came calling.

“I was very frightened,” Ahmed recalls. “One of my workers had complained to them about me. He said I was cruel and didn’t pay him. That was all untrue, of course. I am not a cruel person. What I am is part of a powerful local family, a PPP candidate, and a foreign nationality holder.” That’s a volatile mix if you happen to live in Taliban country. Ahmed hid his Canadian passport and credit cards—and armed his supporters.

In the end—luckily—nothing happened. The Taliban banged on his door, and after listening to his side of the story left him alone. Perhaps that was in part because of Ahmed’s armed contingent. Or, he says, “I guess they believed what I said. I don’t know what they said to my worker, but he showed up a couple of days later and apologized.” Still, the encounter could just as well have ended badly, in what Ahmed now describes as Pakistan’s “madness.” It is a madness that is particularly

acute in the NWFP and the neighbouring Tribal Areas—a region where both rivalries and affiliations can get you killed. For wouldbe politicians campaigning here, treading the narrow path between religion, tribal traditions and politics is a matter of life and death. It is a world where conflict exists on many different levels, where militants battle moderates, the government, and sometimes each other, and where the traditional tribal culture of the predominantly Pashtun population of both regions shows signs of disintegrating into a fractured world of suspicion, power struggles, even inter-tribal violence.

The unrest in Swat that led to the arrival of Taliban militants in Ahmed’s home village was only part of a larger cycle of instability that has gripped Pakistan’s wilder regions. After President Pervez Musharraf declared a monthlong state of emergency last November, other parts of the NWFP, which borders not only the Tribal Areas but also Afghanistan, have shuddered under artillery and gunship bombardment in a see-saw battle between militants and government forces. Extremists have taken over towns only to have them retaken by the army. The Tribal Areas, meanwhile, tumultuous even in their most docile moods, have bristled with violence.

All this in the midst of an election campaign. In what most outsiders would consider an impossible environment for holding a vote, Pakistan’s political hopefuls in the NWFP and Tribal Areas have been caught up in a tough fight. But it’s in these areas where Pakistan’s future may be decided: the ethnic Pashtun heartland, a place the Taliban—also Pashtuns—and al-Qaeda call home, and a region that is a breeding ground for suicide bombers.

Since the Pakistani army’s offensive in Swat began three months ago, life has regained some semblance of normalcy. The market in Madyan is bustling again, and if not for the army checkpoints, patrols roaming the streets by day, and the not-too-distant sounds of artillery fire at night, one would not realize this is a war zone. But it is. As recently as Feb. 10, militants were captured in Kabal, 75 km south of Madyan, along with large weapons caches. According to a report in the Pakistani daily Dawn, two of the militants were thought to be trained to be suicide bombers. For those contesting elections, the atmosphere is putting a damper on their campaigning activities. “At night there’s a curfew, and in the morning it’s too cold to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can really only work for three or four hours every day.” That precious time can be the most treacherous, more so if you represent a secular party like the PPP or its rival,

the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), which supports President Musharraf.

Secularism is still a bad word in ultra-conservative Swat. But according to one Taliban source from the TNSM, it’s not elections per se that they are against. “Islam has a history of elections,” he tells Maclean’s from an undisclosed location in the Swat Valley. What he wants, and what has shaped up to be one of the dominant election issues in this often lawless area of the country, is the imposition of sharia, or religious, law. “Any government of Pakistan must bring the correct sharia law, and ensure it is followed. If it does this, we will accept that government.”

But what is the “correct” sharia law? The Taliban themselves, it appears, can’t agree on an answer. At the height of their occupation in Madyan, when over 60 heavily armed men roamed the streets freely, forcing shops to close during prayer times and harassing clean-shaven men, one commander warned

locals that if any were caught without a beard or skullcap, they would have their heads cut off. A few days later, townspeople say, Maulana Fazlullah announced that this was incorrect, and reversed the edict.

The difference in opinion, according to some locals in Madyan, may have been regionally based. “Most of these Taliban were poor boys from mountain villages,” says a resident. “They were being paid to fight. But there was one senior commander who wasn’t from here. He had a Waziri accent, from Waziristan.” That part of the Tribal Areas, at least 250 km south of Swat, has been the epicentre of the hard-core radical Islamic movement in Pakistan, where militant leader Bait-

ullah Mehsud, one of the suspects in the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, is currently fighting not only the Pakistani military, but also local tribes.

Mehsud, known to have close links with Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan before the Western invasion of that country in the fall of2001, is widely considered to be the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a coalition of militant groups operating in Pakistan. His version of sharia and the one adopted by his followers, people in Madyan say, is not what they’re looking for. “We want sharia, but not that kind of sharia where they cut off people’s heads,” says Janbar, a 35-year-old produce seller in Madyan’s main market. “If the Taliban follow sharia properly, then we will follow the Taliban.”

The sentiment has its fair share of adherents throughout the NWFP and Tribal Areas. At a gas station on the outskirts of Bahrain,

15 km north of Madyan, supporters of Amir Mukam, a PML-Q candidate in the area, load pickup trucks with new posters for his campaign. Despite the PML-Q’s secular outlook, the posters promise sharia law for the Swat Valley. “We are all Muslims here,” says Haji Merajuddin, information secretary for Swat District in Bahrain and a lifelong PML-Q supporter. “We would be happy if the government brought in sharia.” Merajuddin insists this is completely in line with the party’s platform. This is not Talibanization, he says, but Islamicization.

An Islamist agenda framed in legitimate political discourse, while worrying to the outside world and also to people in many other

parts of Pakistan, is widely accepted as the only path to election victory in the NWFP. In fact, in a sign of a policy shift in the Pakistani establishment, authorities last month promised sharia courts for certain districts of the Swat Valley by the end of February.

But there are other issues simmering under the surface of this campaign: poverty, underdevelopment, shortages and crime. Along with widespread anger over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the military campaigns in the Tribal Areas against fellow Pashtuns, these matters are driving more people into the arms of the militants—and not necessarily radicals who are strictly aligned with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. There are also regional movements spearheaded by what might be more accurately called local Islamic revolutionaries, among whom hardened religious perspectives and rivalries have developed into internal conflicts that now threaten to tear apart communities.

One such conflict broke out two years ago between two opposing clerics in the Bara district of the Khyber Tribal Agency, just west of the NWFP capital of Peshawar and one of seven tribal agencies that make up the Tribal Areas. One was an orthodox Sunni, and the other also a Sunni but from the Sufi, or more mystical, tradition. The riff was over saints and the role they play in a Muslim’s life, a seemingly academic dispute that turned violent. Sources in Bara claim anywhere between 700 and 1,000 people have lost there lives so far, while the conflict has spawned its own militant groups: Ansar-ulIslam and Lashkar-e-Islami.

Lashkar, an offshoot of the orthodox fac-

tion, now exerts its influence over much of Bara. Its fighters roam the streets, yellow badges pinned below their adolescent beards that introduce them as “mujahedeen,” or “holy warriors.” Their job is to keep the peace and enforce the group’s religious codes. Beards are strongly recommended but not required. A skullcap or some sort of headwear is a must.

In one of his many compounds spread out over his territory, Lashkar leader Mangal Bagh, 40, tells Maclean’s about the revolution sharia, his sharia, has brought to Bara. “Prostitution, alcoholism, kidnapping—these are the things that prompted me to act,” he says, surrounded by his followers and guards, many of them still in their teens. “These things would happen and then the government would arrest innocent locals.” Heavy machine guns litter the floor—equipment for Bagh’s entourage as he travels around the area to meet with elders and mediate disputes.

A land issue is resolved after he wags a forefinger vigorously in the face of one of the men involved. More complex issues are discussed in whispers with his close advisers.

“People want sharia in this area,” Bagh says in the slow, pedantic tone of a preacher. “They are following the rules of their own free will.” In the trademark mantra of Pakistan, it’s the government that’s causing all the trouble, he adds. “When I stopped the drug dealers, the thieves and the kidnappers, when I brought peace to these areas, then the government attacked me,” he says. “That proves they are behind all of these things, that they are making money from it.” His assessment is not wholly off the mark. Khyber is by far the rich-

est of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, controlling the Khyber Pass, an ancient trading route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Affidi tribe, the dominant one in Khyber and with close links to the government, is not only famous for its colossal homes just outside of Peshawar, but also for its involvement in drug trafficking.

One prominent local businessman describes Bara’s economy as 70 per cent drugs. “The commodities trade is opium,” he says with a chuckle. Despite Bagh’s claims of stopping it, the drug industry is still flourishing, centred around the ruins of a market once owned by Bagh himself and destroyed by the government as punishment for his activities, locals say.

“You can’t stop the drug industry in Bara,” says Salman Afridi, an independent candidate running for one of the two national assembly seats up for grabs in Khyber. “Too many people depend on it for their liveli-

hoods. Poor people. You need industry and opportunity. Development has to come first.” Mangal Bagh, he adds, draws his strength from disenfranchised men, especially youth, who have nothing better to do than walk around with guns and who feel, rightly, that the system has let them down.

A law graduate from Cardiff University in § the U.K., and called to the bar at Lincolns m Inn, as were some of Pakistan’s most promm inent leaders, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s father, and Muhammad Ali to Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, Afridi is not | your typical tribal candidate. But unlike Riaz ¡*j Ahmed, his Canadian counterpart in Swat, ^ he is wholeheartedly entering the fray. “I felt Z

there was a lack of effective representation in parliament for the Tribal Areas,” Afridi says. “I felt it needed an educated person who could talk about the rights of the people and categorize the development needs.”

But while education may be an asset in parliament—Pakistani law requires all candidates for political office to hold a university degree—on-the-ground politicking in Khyber requires an entirely different skill set. In Jamrud, just west of Peshawar, Ibrahim Kokhikhel, 40, patriarch of the Kokhikhel clan, a subgroup of the Afridi tribe, gathers together his armed guards for another hectic day of campaigning. His convoy of SUVs and pickup trucks kicks up dust in the town’s hashish and gun market, just outside Kokhikhel’s campaign headquarters, as it heads off onto the dirt tracks leading into the interior of the district.

Kokhikhel, an independent candidate representing his clan, has four influential elders to meet today at their respective hujras—guest compounds designed specifically for encounters of this kind.

Elders tell their people where to cast their votes—

they are the key that Kokhikhel has been working on almost every day for the past two weeks.

It hasn’t been easy. And while Khyber has avoided much of the instability that has hit most of the other six

tribal agencies, encroaching violence has been a worry. In Dara Adam Khel, a semitribal town straddling the settled areas just south of Peshawar and known world-

wide as the gun manufacturing capital of Pakistan, militants took over the town, then ambushed a military convoy on Jan. 24. They made off with four trucks of supplies and ammunition destined for troops fighting extremists in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani military’s response was swift. For days, helicopters and artillery pummelled the area, driving both militants and locals out. “Everything was fine until the Taliban stole those trucks,” says one local, asking that his name not be published. “They did some good things. They stopped hashish selling, they stopped criminals, they closed DVD shops. These things we like, naturally—we are Muslims. But why did they steal the ammunition? That’s what’s brought this trouble on us.” Says another: “Most people don’t support them here anymore. They

brought sharia, and we were happy about that. But no one wants this trouble—this trouble that follows the Taliban.”

On the campaign trail, Ibrahim Kokhikhel fears the same could happen in his territory. “There is a concern that the instability will come here,” he says. “But we are keeping the peace using the jirga system”—a gathering of tribal elders used to resolve disputes. Today, he has so far had a successful visit with one local leader, who promises him 300 to 500 votes from his clan. The next two campaign stops are much the same as the first: speeches open with a prayer, the host then promises votes from his clan, tea and cookies are served, after which the campaigners leave, guards exiting the compound first to scout for danger.

The last hujra, the largest of the four and judging by

the long, flowery speeches, the most important, offers a significant insight into how democracy now works in the Tribal Areas. “Elections happen all the time,” says Ibrahim Kokhikhel’s spokesperson, “but this time, this election is about the pride of Kokhikhel.” Other leaders from the gathering rise and echo these words. “For the last 35 years, we’ve been giving our votes to others,” says one elder. “Not this time. We won’t give our votes to the Shinwaris or other tribes. This time, we will be united. We have blood relations, we have brotherhood and we request your votes not for Ibrahim, but for Kokhikhel.”

Clan first. In these times of instability, as Pashtuns feels besieged not only by the military but by the perception that their religion

is under attack, they will look to their own for refuge, as the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan have done for centuries. But as the speeches at Ibrahim Kokhikhel’s last hujra indicate, the tribes themselves are becoming fractured and increasingly mistrustful of each other.

Against that backdrop of violence and disunity, it may seem unusual to find a party that is fighting for the rights of Pashtuns and has a secessionist agenda. But that is the goal that the Awami National Party has set for itself in

the NWFP. “Every region in Pakistan is named after the ethnic group in that region,” says Irshad Tandar, an ANP candidate in Peshawar who notes that Pashtuns are united in Islam. “There is Punjab for the Punjabis, Sindh for the Sindhis, Baluchistan for the Baluch, Kashmir for the Kashmiris. Pashtuns have nothing. We deserve a Pakhtunkhwa.” Referring to the name the ANP would like to see replace the colonial-era NWFP, Tandar adds that the Pashtuns themselves are best placed to deal with the problems facing fellow Pashtuns.

Other ANP candidates concur. Wajid Ali Khan, running for a seat in the NWFP’s provincial assembly, says that the jirga system can bring together opposing factions: “We believe the jirga is the only solution to the violence

in the NWFP and the Tribal Areas.” And, adds Zira Khan (an assumed name), an ANP activist in Mardan, 50 km northeast of Peshawar, “The ANP is Pashtun. Fazlullah and Mehsud are both Pashtuns. We can deal with these people through our own jirga system.” Jirgas organized by the Pakistani government over the past few years, some of which resulted in peace accords with various militant outfits that ultimately failed, were not real jirgas, Khan claims, because government and military involvement undermined them. If local leaders conduct their own jirgas, without interference, they can succeed.

In the NWFP (political parties are not allowed in the Tribal Areas), the Jamiat Ulemae-Islam-F, a religious movement, was the dominant party coming into this election campaign, but its strength has dwindled. The current battle for provincial dominance is now between the PPP and the ANP— between

the nationalist ideology of the Bhuttos and the regionalism of the ANP’s founder, Bacha Khan. But is the ANP’s message—that Pashtuns can solve their own problems—realistic? If recent bloodshed inflicted on the party is any indication, the answer is a resounding no. Two suicide attacks at party rallies over the past two weeks that killed at least 35 supporters, and the assassination of a senior leader in Karachi, have shown that Pashtuns are not averse to killing fellow Pashtuns. ANP insiders say that militants unhappy with their nominally secular brand of politics, Pashtuncentred though it may be, are trying to destroy their party. But they defiantly insist they will not be bombed out of the election process, and remain confident that the vast majority

of Pashtuns support them.

The truth will come out at the polls. But at the moment, it’s difficult to say who Pashtuns are supporting. A recent poll carried out by Terror Free Tomorrow, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization providing analysis on terrorism-related subjects, says overall support for the Taliban in Pakistan has plummeted. The Taliban themselves appear to be disorganized, with confirmation now that another senior commander has been captured in Baluchistan while rumours are rife that Baitullah Mehsud may have been sacked by Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader.

But while there is evidence that some Pashtuns are rallying around ethnicity, the speeches of the elders in the Kokhikhel clan are indicative of growing doubt and mistrust. That situation, more than anything else, may be behind the apparent confusion within the Taliban ranks. What some observers in recent weeks are calling a weakening of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan may in part be a result of a breakdown in the tribal cohesion that at one time helped the extremists’ networks operate. Increasingly, the internal struggle for influence in the Tribal Areas and the NWFP is pitting clan against clan, sidelining outsiders, sometimes forcibly. Much of the strife now spreading through Pakistan could accurately be described as a civil war within that tribal context.

Bringing order to such a fundamentally disjointed reality will be a tall order. Successive Pakistani governments have failed, and today the politics of peace in Pakistan’s tribal regions remains the biggest challenge this country faces. What the NWFP and Tribal Areas seem to lack most is a new generation of leaders with a fresh approach to tribal politics—like Salman Afridi, who proposes giving the NWFP and Tribal Areas their own kind of legal system, a hybrid bringing together of tribal and British practices that the local people could accept and run themselves.

And like Riaz Ahmed in Swat. For the time being, he will not be getting rid of his weapons. He will, however, try to find other ways for his people to resolve their differences. “In Canada, people want good policies,” he says. “They may not even know who the prime minister is. They care more about what the party will do for them. But it’s different in Pakistan. People do what their leader tells them to do.” Changing that may be too much to ask of an unwilling participant in the country’s brutal politics. But he says he’s willing to give it a try.

“What I imagined heaven to be like, I found in Canada,” he adds with an embarrassed smile. Perhaps he can bring some of that heaven back to his own lost paradise in the Swat Valley. M