Talibanistan: The Talibs at Home

About a year ago, while sitting at my home in Washington, DC, I found myself with a sort of delayed-stress longing for the Taliban. The desire stemmed from an overseas dispute, a business deal gone bad. Back in January 2008, I’d been forced into a hasty transaction—shortly after five policemen knocked at my front door in Islamabad and announced their intent to kick me and my wife out of Pakistan. We had an hour to leave. Fortunately, through some well-connected friends, we managed to get 48 hours to pack our apartment into boxes, find a good home for our kitten, Cricket, and sell the four-cylinder Pajero Mini SUV that we had used to scoot around Islamabad for the past year.

That’s where the problem began; we didn’t actually sell the car. There was never an exchange of money. But we had reason to believe that the Pajero’s new owner, Bilal, would keep his word and pay for the vehicle. After all, Bilal’s father owned the house in which we had rented a three-room apartment for the previous two years. Moreover, Bilal worked for an international telecom company, so we knew he had a steady paycheck. And the deal cincher was that just a year earlier we had bought that very Pajero Mini from Bilal himself.

But collecting on an outstanding debt from halfway around the world isn’t easy. Phone calls went unanswered or ignored. Five months after being expelled from Pakistan, I asked a fellow journalist in Islamabad to intervene. He was the third or fourth person I’d enlisted for the job. Why didn’t we just call the police? The police are courageous and have suffered greatly in recent years from terrorist attacks, but when you see them thumbing for rides to work, you also get the impression that they lack the capacity to get certain things done. My friend, on the other hand, had moonlighted as a used car salesman and boasted of having repossessed a car or two. He seemed ideally suited to the task. But after weeks of chasing Bilal around town, he still hadn’t recovered the debt (or the car).

It was at this point that I pondered calling on some Talibs to get the job done. The Taliban had in fact built their reputation in the borderlands by doing just such things: settling land disputes, arresting supposed criminals, and meting out speedy justice. They filled a governance vacuum. When the Pakistani Taliban declared, on a widely distributed propaganda DVD in early 2006, the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan, the video featured a public hanging of five alleged bandits from North Waziristan. Months later, one resident of South Waziristan told me that the Taliban were now seen as modern-day Robin Hoods. When bandits stole his family’s car and kidnapped their driver, the family asked the authorities for help, only to have them reply that there wasn’t all that much they could do: “So then we called the local Talib commander. Within a few days, the Talibs raided a safe house, got the car, and freed the driver.”

Since late 2001, when top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders fled Afghanistan for sanctuary in the Tribal Areas, such tales created a fawning folklore. And so long as the Talibs stayed in the rugged hills of Waziristan or the pine forests of Swat, Pakistanis in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad were happy to cling to their fantasy of the Taliban as a loose-knit group of pious, well-meaning Muslims, rough-hewn, to be sure, but wanting nothing more than to live according to sharia law. With this rationale in place, the “Talibanization” of northwestern Pakistan continued apace.

During the two years I lived in Pakistan, on a writing fellowship, I watched this process unfold. In the spring of 2006, I browsed the hashish and gun markets in Dara Adam Khel, a frontier town in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which fell to the Taliban a short time later. When I visited the Swat Valley with my wife in June of 2007, the government was as in control as it ever was; when I returned alone four months later, the Taliban had established checkpoints throughout the valley and scared off the police through a campaign of ambushes and suicide attacks.

As the Talibs fought their way into bazaars up and down the border, I overheard the variety of justifications and methods they employed. They promised to cleanse society of vice—and then bombed DVD shops suspected of selling pornographic titles, and kidnapped (and sometimes killed) brothel owners and dancing girls. They sermonized about a redistribution of wealth—and then assassinated the tribal chiefs who, aside from owning land, also possessed political power, which was the Taliban’s ultimate prize.

Residents of northwestern Pakistan grew increasingly ambivalent, if not outright hostile, toward the Taliban, although the religious militants retained dignity in the eyes of many other Pakistanis who supported their bid to implement sharia in the Swat Valley. A poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow in early 2008 showed that more than 40 percent of Pakistanis wanted to see “strict sharia law” implemented throughout Pakistan. And another survey by the group, done six months later, showed that 58 percent of Pakistanis supported negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban, rather than fighting them.

The Swat Taliban were led by a short, squat man with dark tresses that fell past his shoulders and large spaces between his teeth, named Maulana Fazlullah. Fazlullah drummed up support for sharia and Taliban rule on a network of illegal FM stations. (These sermons earned Fazlullah the nickname “Maulana Radio.”) Weighing in on a broad range of topics, he lambasted a polio vaccination drive in Swat as a plot by the West to sterilize—and eventually eradicate—Muslims. In the summer of 2007, after his partner-in-arms Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed during the Red Mosque siege, he used the radio station to incite jihad against the government.

By late summer 2007, the Swat Valley had spiraled into violence as Fazlullah’s supporters launched frequent ambushes and suicide attacks on the police and paramilitary units in the area. Soon enough, outmanned and outgunned, the police retreated to their barracks, and government officials fled for the security of Islamabad. Chaos gave local criminals brief reign and carjackers and kidnappers flourished. Then, in signature fashion, the Talibs stepped in and proclaimed themselves the law. It was just about that time when I rode a bus into Mingora, the main city in Swat. Within an hour of being there, I passed through a checkpoint manned by a couple of hundred militants with long hair, floppy caps, and rocket launchers cradled on their shoulders. They were inspecting vehicles for uncovered women, CD players, and spies. (Our host, a top Talib in the area, called ahead and instructed the militants to let us through.) “Since we were getting blamed for all the violence,” one Talib told me later, “we decided to patrol the roads ourselves. Guess what? Since then the violence has gone down.”

But the violence didn’t go down for everyone. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers were killed. Sometimes their headless bodies were left in open view to remind locals who enjoyed the monopoly on violence. Later, truckloads of Talibs conquered the neighboring district of Shangla by swiftly overrunning a police station, and then lowering the green and white Pakistani flag and raising their own, a black flag with two crossed swords and the kalma, or profession of faith, written underneath.

Security forces weren’t the only ones targeted. Hundreds of “dancing girls” fled the valley for safety after the Taliban threatened them with death. One who didn’t leave, a woman named Shabana, was killed, her body left in the center of Mingora. As she was being dragged from her home, she reportedly begged to be shot, rather than have her throat slit. The Talibs complied.

Word of these cruelties spread slowly throughout the country, but many people still pledged fealty to the Taliban. If the Pakistani army would leave them alone, the argument went, the Taliban wouldn’t be killing soldiers or dancing girls. Eradicating vice had been a central pillar of the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in the 1990s, and now it served a similar function in the Pakistani Taliban’s ascent. In February 2009, the government acceded to the Taliban’s demands and announced that sharia would be implemented in the Swat Valley, so long as the Talibs went no further.

The deal drew international condemnation. “We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven,” a NATO spokesman said. A U.S. Defense Department official added, “It is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development.” But in fact the treaty was a strategic coup for President Asif Ali Zardari’s government, which banked on the Taliban being their own worst enemy and eventually defeating themselves without much help.

A sequence of events in the months after the peace deal showed how this happened. First, two soldiers were killed for allegedly entering Taliban territory without permission, a sign that the Taliban, not the government, was dictating the terms of the agreement. Later, Muslim Khan, one of Maulana Fazlullah’s henchmen, conceded on a popular television program that his men supported slitting the throats of captured soldiers. Next came the bombing of the shrine of a famous Sufi poet from Swat named Rahman Baba, an act that demonstrated how the Taliban planned to eliminate anyone, dead or alive, who challenged their interpretation of politics, Pashtun culture, or Islam. Then, an amateur photographer recorded, on a camera phone, the lashing of a young girl whose sin was apparently to have refused a Talib’s marriage proposal.The government threatened to scrap the treaty, but didn’t. Meanwhile, reports circulated of Talibs storming out of the newly established sharia courts, displeased with the verdicts being passed down by religious scholars. The Taliban were less interested in Islamic justice, it seemed, than in getting what they wanted.

And what was that, exactly? Despite the lofty rhetoric about implementing sharia, the Talibs were eyeing political power on a regional level. This became apparent in late April 2009, when they violated the terms of the peace treaty by advancing out of Swat and conquering the neighboring district of Buner. The move put the Talibs within 60 miles of Islamabad. Witnesses reported truckloads of militants speeding up and down the Grand Trunk Road, the storied highway that connects Peshawar and Islamabad. Suddenly, for the first time, people could imagine Talibs standing on their street corners. The long-held distinction between the idea of the Taliban and the reality of the Taliban suddenly collapsed. Riding an unexpected wave of public support, generated by fear, the Pakistani army moved into Swat with tanks, helicopters, and jets, pounding militant bases and pledging to reestablish the government’s writ.

The Taliban’s brief conquest of Buner was the turning point. Although some speculated that the Talibs’ momentum threatened the very existence of Pakistan, the advance was actually a strategic blunder. The government moved rapidly to seize the initiative. Using a combination of airpower and commandos, the Pakistani military destroyed militant training sites and Taliban safe houses.

The Pakistani Taliban have been on the run ever since. While Maulana Fazlullah and Muslim Khan, both of the Swat Taliban, remain alive and have escaped numerous air strikes, Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, wasn’t so lucky. Since forming Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (or the Pakistani Taliban Movement) in December 2007, Mehsud had led a campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations across the country. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence sources accused him of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The United States placed a $5 million bounty on his head and strenuously pursued him. From the time of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, missiles fired from CIA-flown drones rained down on Mehsud and his network in South Waziristan 15 times. Finally, on August 5, while Mehsud was receiving medical treatment for a failing kidney at his father-in-law’s home, yet another missile struck, killing Mehsud’s father-in-law, his wife, and, according to top Taliban deputies, Mehsud himself.

Mehsud’s death left the Pakistani Taliban in tatters. “Everyone is thrashing around,” said Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the Center for American Progress shortly after Mehsud’s death was announced. Rumors circulated of Mehsud’s deputies killing each other in succession disputes, and a top spokesman was arrested. The Talibs’ fortunes were slipping quickly. But Mehsud’s death hasn’t signaled the demise of the movement—and its like-minded allies—throughout the country. At least not yet.

In the spring of 2007, I spent a couple of weeks traveling throughout interior Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and economic breadbasket. At the time, Talibs were inching eastward, out of their strongholds in the Tribal Areas, into the so-called settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province. But while the Talibs primarily belonged to the Pashtun ethnic group, and were therefore naturally bounded in the west by the Indus River, concerns were growing that Pashtun militants would either themselves cross the Indus and set up franchises in Punjab, or connect with militant groups already existing in Punjab. These included sectarian outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Kashmiri groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

On a scalding April afternoon, I rode from the city of Multan to Sadiqabad, a town in the southernmost corner of Punjab where I planned to stay with a feudal lord for several days. The Taliban had made criticisms of the landowning feudal classes a focus of their rhetoric in Swat, and I wanted to see whether or not the social conditions seemed ripe for local militants to play to similar emotions in Punjab. During the 1980s, Sipah-e-Sahaba, or “Army for the Companions of the Prophet,” had risen to prominence in the city of Jhang, in central Punjab, by integrating class criticisms into their anti-Shia vitriol. Most of the landowners outside of Jhang were Shiites, while most of the urban residents subscribed to Sunni Islam.

In the 1980s, the Pakistani government, allied at the time with the United States in both the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and the anti-Iran and anti-Shia cold war begun after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, initially supported Sipah-e-Sahaba. In fact, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment spent most of the 1980s and 1990s propping up jihadi groups that pursued the agenda of Islamabad’s ruling elite, whether it be against Indians in Kashmir, against Shiites in Jhang, or backing the Taliban in Afghanistan. This policy ultimately began to undermine Pakistan’s national security when factions of these groups, such as the one headed by Baitullah Mehsud and his followers, turned against the state.

A billboard advertising fertilizer welcomed me to Sadiqabad. The region is one of Pakistan’s most fertile, an expanse of cotton and sugarcane fields; during cane harvests, motorists cede the roads to camels pulling carts loaded with freshly cut stalks. The five rivers that designate Punjab (in Persian, panj means five and ab means water) converge there. While the majority of people in the area follow the more freewheeling Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, jihadist organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba have also found willing recruits in southern Punjab. A June 2009 editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times was titled “Will South Punjab Be Another Swat?” and cautioned that militants fleeing Swat could fill a vacuum of power because “the writ of the state is weak there.”

I noticed the Sipah-e-Sahaba flag atop the fertilizer billboard, snapping in the breeze that gusts across the surrounding plains. Sipah-e-Sabaha, which is classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization, enjoyed longstanding ties with militants across Pakistan and Afghanistan, and represented just the sort of local collaboration that the Talibs based in Waziristan hoped to activate. During the Taliban era in Afghanistan, Sipah-e-Sahaba members frequently traveled to Kabul and Kandahar to consult with Mullah Omar and his cohorts. They participated in massacres of Afghanistan’s Hazaras, a Shia minority based around Bamiyan, the site of the Buddhist statues that the Taliban later demolished.

In January 2002, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. But after laying low for a few years, Sipah-e-Sahaba, along with other proscribed outfits, began to reemerge, just as the Taliban were gaining strength in the western borderlands.

In early 2006, Sipah-e-Sahaba held a rally in Islamabad with attendees chanting their signature refrain, “Kafir, Kafir, Shia, Kafir!”—“Infidel, Infidel, Shia, Infidel!”—and distributing DVDs showing Taliban and al-Qaeda attacks on American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007, Sipah-e-Sahaba was unofficially in charge of Jhang, their support base in central Punjab, controlling 11 out of Jhang’s 13 administrative divisions, the city mayor told me one afternoon. This summer, Sipah-e-Sahaba was accused of burning down a Christian village in the Punjabi town of Gojra, leaving at least seven Christians dead.

When I finally reached the village of Bangla Acha, outside of Sadiqabad, on the banks of the Indus River, my host Wali Khan Mazari, the tribal chief of the area, was standing in the driveway of his estate. Servants trimmed the front lawn by standing atop a rusty sled, with a blade affixed underneath, pulled by two white, speckled oxen. Mazari fidgeted with his cell phone, acknowledged that outdated horticultural methods were being employed, but added that “local people need the jobs.” Just one man could operate a tractor, he said, while the sled-and-ox method employed at least four.

I was there to find out how the age-old feudal tradition was surviving amidst rising fundamentalist sentiments around the country. Mazari, after all, played the role of king, banker, judge, and police chief to the 50,000 people living on his land. On the other side of the Indus River, in the North-West Frontier Province, the Taliban were angling to assume these roles. One morning, I watched Mazari conduct a faisla, or decision, in which three dozen tribesmen from two dueling sub-clans sat in a spacious room and presented their cases to Mazari, who reclined in a leather chair. The dispute was over the theft of an air-conditioning unit. After the unit was stolen, the victimized party reported the burglary to the police, and then drove to the village of the rival clan and fingered its chief as the culprit.

“The first problem,” Mazari said, “was going to the police. In the future, come to me.” The second problem involved the honor of the rival chief, who after being identified, was forced to spend an afternoon in jail awaiting bail. To right this wrong, Mazari ordered the one clan to return the AC unit, and the other one to pay 70,000 rupees (or about $1,100, at the time) to restore the chief’s honor. At the end, members of both parties signed their names on a yellow steno pad. Those who couldn’t write pressed their thumbs into an ink pad and left their prints. “You see, this is affordable justice,” Mazari said, leaning over to me.

The next Friday, Mazari stood in the dirt parking lot of an open-air mosque near the short strip of shops and markets in Bangla Acha. Worshippers milled about, waiting for the weekly sermon to begin. I asked Mazari where the mullah who led the prayers and delivered the sermons hailed from. He flashed a smug grin. “He is always just a local guy. I appoint him.” A couple of months earlier, Mazari recalled, a troupe of bearded fundamentalist missionaries affiliated with Tablighi Jamaat entered Mazari’s property and began preaching their interpretation of Islam, a far more strict and doctrinal version than that practiced locally. Mazari saw them as a threat to his own power. He ordered them to leave. “I don’t need someone to tell me what is and isn’t Islam,” he said. “I know how to pray.”

Pakistan is embroiled in at least two major battles. One features helicopters, unmanned drones, and artillery in the mountains of Swat and the Tribal Areas, while the other involves tens of millions of Pakistanis around the country, working within the context that has determined their lives for so long and trying to reconcile what are seen as the attractive ideas of the Taliban with the not-so-appealing realities of the actual men with the guns.

Pakistani and U.S. governments are central to both conflicts. Tactical and operational victories, such as the drone attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud or the operation to clear the Swat Valley of militants, can only be sustained if the appeal of the Taliban is diminished. The Obama administration can assist by channeling its aid away from purely military support and building the capacity of rural courts and police forces in villages like Bangla Acha. When the “rule of law” rests on the whim of one feudal lord, as in the case of someone like Mazari, extremists can more easily offer a simplified, uniform alternative—sharia law—and inject their demands into the public debate.

So long as local authorities seem incapable of settling financial disputes, people like me will continue to think of the Taliban as potential repo men. By the way, if you’re wondering how the Pajero Mini fiasco turned out, I recovered half the debt from Bilal during a short visit I made to Pakistan last summer. He promised to send the balance a few weeks later. I am still waiting for Western Union to call.

Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (Henry Holt, 2009).

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