A land of guns and whispers

Pakistan sweeps its tribal areas for criminals, riling its population and fueling rumors that Taliban fighters are nearby.

By Phillip Robertson
Published August 29, 2002 3:21PM (EDT)

For the past six days, Pakistani armed forces and police have been sweeping through the tribal areas north of Peshawar searching for arms, contraband and members of criminal gangs. In a bid to keep up with the U.S. habit of naming military operations, the Pakistanis have dubbed the latest action "Operation Clean Up."

On Tuesday, Frontier Corps soldiers were seen in Toyota pickups, driving at breakneck speed down Bara's main street searching for suspected criminals. Clusters of armed men guarded the entrances to small alleys separating the traditional Afghan mud-brick houses, while the locals did their best to go about their daily routine. Typically, when the soldiers find a suspect on their list, his family's house is destroyed as punishment for his misdeeds without the benefit of a trial or evidence. Near one man's house, an empty bulldozer waited for a driver, possibly parked there as a threat to the residents. The most visible result of the government's heavy-handed approach to the tribes is a volatile mixture of fear and seething anger.

With the United States voicing suspicions that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have been regrouping in the northern Pakistani provinces that border Afghanistan, the government here is under pressure to act against what it believes is a population sympathetic to the Taliban and hostile to Pakistan's powerful new friend. But the Pakistani government is playing a strange semantic game with Operation Clean Up, insisting it's actually a crackdown on criminals, not terrorists. It's true that criminal gangs involved in banditry, kidnapping and narcotics have taken refuge in the tribal areas where central government control is nonexistent. Although these large swaths of territory are nominally part of Pakistan, in practice, the largely ethnic Pashtun population is left to govern and police itself, without interference from national authorities. Despite a well-guarded checkpoint on the main road to Bara, an unauthorized visitor can follow the narrow back streets, which lead directly into the region of dilapidated markets and farms.

Some residents of Bara disputed the government's version of the reason for the raid. One man claimed that the Pakistani army actually was chasing Taliban suspects. "There are Taliban there," said Shafiq Wali. "The Pakistanis just don't want the Americans to think they are living here, so they call them common criminals." In Peshawar conspiracy theories abound. Many are fueled by the local press, which regularly prints headlines in Urdu that read "50 al-Qaida Captured." Although these accounts are fictitious, the tribal areas are perfect places to hide for people on the run from the law, whatever the reason.

On Wednesday afternoon, an armed group of tribal leaders at the Khyber Pass, also part of a Tribal Area, blocked traffic to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a dispute over electricity. It boiled over into a curious form of social protest. The government has been trying to install electric meters in Tribal Area houses so it can charge for power. The tribal elders asserted that they have a long-standing agreement with the government to provide free power. At midnight, the dispute was still unresolved, and Pakistani military had stopped cars at checkpoints near Landi Kotal before they could reach the spot where soldiers and tribal leaders had squared off. In the past few days, WAPDA, the electricity utility, has been shutting off the power, or dropping the voltage to useless levels as a means of pressuring the tribes to pay for what they say is stolen electricity.

It's clear that political autonomy comes hand in hand with isolation from basic services. Bara is desperately poor and undeveloped even by Pakistani standards, a town of open sewers, refugees and arms merchants. The difference between the tribal areas and what the inhabitants call the "Settled Areas" is stark. Once the border of the tribal area is crossed, paved roads give way to rutted tracks, and an urban scene abruptly changes into that of an Afghan garrison town.

Six days into Operation Clean Up, it was clear that some shady business was still conducted in the Tribal Areas near the Karhano market. On Wednesday, a small-time arms dealer, Abdul Khan, sat with his friends in his small storefront, smoking hashish and waiting for customers. On the shelves of his store hung a few old knives, put there to advertise his imaginary antiques business, while his friends chatted. The store was empty except for the guests. When asked how the agreement between Pakistan and the United States had affected his trade, he explained, "Before [at the end of the Taliban government], the Taliban were selling many weapons to us, but now the government told us to hide them." Abdul Khan had taken care to clear out all of the weapons from his shop, storing them elsewhere for safekeeping and leaving only bare shelves.

Now a buyer must leave an order, and pick up the merchandise 20 minutes later, after his 9-year-old son retrieves the goods from the family house. The dealer went on to say that he believed that the Taliban had close connections with a few of the weapons dealers in town, but these relationships were kept secret. Moments later, he changed his story, saying that the secret arms sales to the Taliban in the Tribal Areas only happened during the war, before the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan. Despite this contradictory account, it is likely that fleeing Taliban fighters would very likely have had to sell their weapons as they arrived in Peshawar, since the guns they carried were their only valuable possessions. A Kalashnikov automatic rifle sells for about 12,000 rupees or $200 on the open market, enough to live on for six months. Who is now buying these weapons remains unclear, though many believe the market to be regrouping al-Qaida and Taliban forces.

As visitors were leaving his store, a more relaxed Abdul Khan made an offer. "If you take my son to America to be educated, we will leave all our bad business behind."

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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