Pakistan's deal with the devil

Beheadings, martial law, kidnappings: The Taliban is making its presence felt at the gates of one of Pakistan's biggest cities.

Published July 8, 2008 10:40AM (EDT)

The situation changed overnight in Peshawar. The villas in the posh suburb of Hayatabad, hidden behind acacias, palms and oleander bushes, are now directly on the front line. The Pakistani security forces have declared war on the Muslim fundamentalists who are said to have taken up positions in the immediate vicinity.

Eight armored vehicles belonging to the Pakistani Frontier Corps stand ready to move out in the courtyard of Peshawar's Beaconhouse School. Riflemen are positioned behind sandbagged emplacements at strategically important intersections. Pakistani anti-terror units and paramilitary forces in black uniforms are on patrol in the area, their submachine guns at the ready.

But where is the enemy? Outside the city, in the direction of the Khyber Pass, the sound of exploding heavy artillery rounds can be heard every few seconds.

Roger Sarfaraz listens as the monotonous recurrence of muffled detonations keeps breaking the silence of an oppressively hot summer day. He is standing on the edge of Hayatabad and looks like someone who could tell you right down to the last decimal point what this war is costing him. This smart-looking, athletically built man wearing a Playboy T-shirt is a real estate agent.

With property prices currently at around $315 per square meter in the suddenly embattled development, a secure environment has to be part of the deal. Several years ago, a security wall was built around the settlement -- a three-meter-high concrete wall capped off with barbed wire. It was originally intended to protect the Hayatabad's well-off inhabitants from undesired contact with their neighbors -- people from the tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier Province whose mud houses can be seen from here.

The Empire of the Taliban

Now, in addition to the wall, three Pashtuns from the paramilitary Frontier Corps stand guard on the demarcation line with Chinese-made grenade launchers shouldered and ready to fire. But like the concrete wall and the barbed wire, they won't be able to do much to stem the tide of onrushing Taliban forces. The fighters from the tribal areas have no need to climb over the wall. They simply drive their SUVs and pickups in on the main road -- direct from the empire of the Taliban.

What the inhabitants of Hayatabad know about the world that exists just a stone's throw away from them is what they read in the newspapers or are told on television: that black-bearded, kaftaned mullahs preach to their disciples the need to wage war to defend the strict moral code of Islamic fundamentalism or that "spies" are beheaded with butcher knives, tribal elders shot, and infidels persecuted barbarically.

Still, the Pakistani government didn't get around to ordering troops into Peshawar to counteract the threat until the very end of June. By then, the rich suburb of Hayatabad had long since become a testing ground for the Islamists' advance. Last November a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the home of former Political Affairs Minister Amir Muqam after being stopped at the gate by security personnel. Four people were killed in the attack -- and since then the settlement has been on the alert.

Now, though, the bearded Taliban come into town in broad daylight, crowded together in the beds of their pickup trucks. After repeated hit-and-run raids, including the abduction of half a dozen prostitutes, this rich section of town has grabbed headlines in the press as a "kidnappers' paradise."

Massive Pressure

Real estate agent Roger Sarafaz's brother was abducted by the Taliban just a few days ago. Together with 16 other hostages, all of them members of Pakistan's Christian minority, he was dragged off to the tribal areas, where he was beaten with rifle butts until he was unconscious. He was released only after massive pressure was brought to bear on the Taliban, not least of all by Western players. Since then the Pakistani government has been carrying out a military operation aimed at putting a stop to brazen attacks of this kind by the ethnic Pashtun fundamentalists who are at home in the regions along the border close to the Khyber Pass.

Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province has a population of 21 million. It's the country's Achilles' heel and one of the burdens left behind by British colonial rule. In 1893 the British drew the Durand Line dividing what was then British India from Afghanistan. Since 1947, the line has been the internationally recognized border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- but it also goes right through the middle of the Pashtun tribal areas. East of the Khyber Pass up to the outskirts of the city of Peshawar the effects of the British Raj live on -- Pakistani law is not recognized in the "ilaka ghair," or the "land of the lawless," as the tribal areas are known.

For centuries decisions on right and wrong have been made here by a "jirga," a council of tribal elders -- an institution that is today monitored by a "political agent" appointed by the Pakistani government. At least that was the case until the Taliban began seeking refuge in Pakistan in 2001. Mehmood Shah, Pakistan's former security chief in the tribal areas, refers to this as the "human fallout" of the war against Afghanistan.

The radical Islamic militants who fled across the border found everything they needed for a new beginning -- brothers in arms from the time when they were allied against the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, a large supply of madrasa students who were now without jobs and a small group of "Maliks," tribal elders who were paid for their loyalty to the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf. The Taliban cut into the traditional structures of Pashtun society like a sharp ax into soft wood.

The fact that the backward region between the Khyber Pass and the banks of the Indus has become a focus of worldwide attention has to do with the fact that the Pakistani government has finally started its military operations there. And with the growing impatience of the U.S. administration, given its conviction that the al-Qaida leadership is holed up somewhere in the tribal areas. The trail Osama bin Laden and his accomplices have left behind in the service of jihad reaches all the way to Hayatabad.

The One-Armed Sheik

Take the case of Algerian-born Sheik Abu Suleiman al-Jaziri, for instance. The May 14 death of this key strategist for al-Qaida missions around the world went largely unnoticed. He died on Pakistani soil along with 13 others in the rubble of a house that belonged to a former Taliban minister. A U.S. drone fired the missiles that took them out.

The one-armed sheik had been known to the authorities in Peshawar for a long time. According to the Pakistani secret service Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a house registered in his name in Hayatabad was occupied in 1986 by an inconspicuous but very wealthy guest from Saudi Arabia -- Osama bin Laden. It was during a time when an international Islamic resistance force was gathering to fight the godless Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan.

It was also in Peshawar, on August 11, 1988, that al-Qaida was established.

An Incubator of Radical Islamists

It's not difficult to follow the threads spun by al-Qaida since then to the spider web of terror we have today. At the end of June video footage went around the world showing two Afghans who had been sentenced to death as "American spies." One of them was forced to kneel and then was beheaded while surrounded by a crowd of cheering Taliban. What was not mentioned was who the alleged spies were said to have betrayed -- al-Qaida's Sheik Abu Suleiman.

It seems to be only gradually dawning on the Pakistanis just what the full meaning is of their "pact with the devil," as some observers have called it -- one entered into with the full support of the secret service, the army and the government. More than a thousand members of the Pakistani armed forces have been killed in the tribal areas since 2001. Eighteen police officers have recently lost their lives in clashes on the outskirts of Peshawar. Suicide attacks and summary executions have become common occurrences. And jihadists have been blowing up schools at the rate of two a day.

As usual, Pakistan's political leaders are standing next to this powder keg with a fuse in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other. There is currently talk of negotiating with the Taliban and of using force only as a last resort. Media-friendly mullahs are allowed to give television interviews before they -- having been given plenty of warning of a pending military raid -- flee into the mountains.

According to retired general Talal Masood, who served as a field officer during the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq and later as an advisor to Benazir Bhutto, the army -- despite the iron grip it has often had on the country since independence -- has suffered considerable damage to its reputation as a result of its constant interference in government affairs. He says the armed forces are holding back now and that the new government is too preoccupied with itself, leaving the Taliban to do pretty much as it pleases: "A small group of extremists is holding an entire country hostage," he says.

A Dangerous Lack of Focus

Indeed, political Islamabad does not give the impression that Pakistan is currently facing one of the deepest crises in its history. Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party and widower of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, the political head of the Pakistan Muslim League, and President Pervez Musharraf seem more interested in settling old scores.

For a country under attack from the Taliban, it seems a dangerous lack of focus.

The power vacuum has been an invitation to the fundamentalists, and they are responding by advancing ever further into the border regions. They have moved down from the mountains and toward Peshawar, bringing pious messages and undisguised threats.

The Taliban already come and go with perfect ease in Peshawar. They rely on their pin-prick tactics: here a threatening letter to a CD dealer; there a brief visit to a Sufi shrine where Allah is worshipped with undue pomp; now and then a black veil painted over a woman's face on advertising posters -- all of which generates a tangible fear that the Taliban may soon arrive in force.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Islam is being reinvented in Peshawar, of all places. Two thousand years ago, the city was the center of the Buddhist empire known as Gandhara. Alexander the Great also swept through the region. But in addition to the irony is the danger. A tendency in the city toward submissiveness could win out in the end. As one politician from the Pakistan People's Party put it: "I'm afraid that when the time comes, the inhabitants will simply go out and welcome the Taliban."

Things haven't gone that far yet, though. Daily life continues as though nothing has happened -- including on narrow streets deep inside the bazaar where traders, black marketeers, and rumormongers are on their home ground, where spices and trinkets, gold and silk are bought and sold in the daily hustle and bustle. Nisar Ahmad, the spokesman for the business owners in the Saddar Bazaar, who himself sells lipstick and women's apparel, promises on his honor that he hasn't yet received any threats from the Taliban.

But why has he recently started pulling the shoulder sash, veil-like, across the entire face of his store window dummies? "Just a precaution," Ahmad says.

At the Afghan market closer to the tribal areas, things have evolved a bit further. In addition to those clandestinely selling weapons, drugs and whiskey, a number of merchants made their living with the open sale of pornography. Sex films copied onto Chinese CDs were sold for 15 rupees apiece, the equivalent of 15 cents. The price for these films has since doubled and now they are kept hidden under the counter. The films that are officially for sale are of the kind used to prepare volunteers for jihad. They show, for instance, the Taliban beheading "traitors" who are restrained in straitjackets. Or a teenage boy being prepared over a period of weeks for his big day -- his being sworn in by experienced fighters wearing black hoods reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan; an otherworldly smile when he sees explosive charges that have been wired together; and finally the ball of fire that consumes an American Humvee in Afghanistan when the boy detonates the bomb that was mounted in his Toyota pickup.

Paradise Is Near

The final scene of the film shows the face of the young martyr suspended together with clouds in the sky. A white dove takes to the wing. Paradise is near. A message shown in the final sequence says: "This is an example for you to follow."

According to sources in Pakistan's academic circles, the worse prospects become for the future of young people and the more illiteracy there is, the more young men will be willing to volunteer to become jihadists. Indeed, on a recent morning in Akora Khattak, a dusty little town 29 miles to the southeast of Peshawar, a group of nine-year-olds from the Waziristan tribal area were standing outside in the summer heat at the infamous Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa, which in Pakistan is also known as the "University of Jihad." They call out to passersby with a childlike mixture of pride and defiance: "We are Taliban! We are mujahedin! "We are al-Qaida!"

Some 4,000 students are instructed here free of charge and, on graduation, are awarded government-recognized qualifications. It's not clear where the money comes from to support the school. The training its students receive is, on the other hand, very clear. The madrasa, run by Sami ul-Haq -- often referred to as the "Father of the Taliban" -- is seen as an incubator of radical Islamists.

Earlier this decade, the school even granted an honorary degree to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. It is the only honorary degree ever bestowed by Darul Uloom Haqqania, but Sami ul-Haq says it was nothing more than the recognition of a person with special qualities -- exactly as is done in all cultures. "We honored Mullah Omar for his contribution to peace, just like your universities did with Mother Teresa," he says.

"Fight Against the American Occupiers"

Is the call for jihad against America and its allies justified? "As justified as the one against the Russians," Sami ul-Haq growls. Do prospective suicide bombers ask him if the Koran provides a basis for their actions? "Am I a mufti that I have to give them advice?" the Islamic scholar bellows. "They make their own choice to fight against the American occupiers."

In the seventh year of the war in Afghanistan anti-Americanism is stronger than ever. Hamid Mir, the country's most popular journalist and the only person in the world to have interviewed Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, says: "We didn't have any suicide bombers before 2001. We were doing fairly well economically. But then General Musharraf gave in to the Americans -- who have always supported dictators in Pakistan."

From an American perspective Pakistan was little more than a set of map coordinates that deserved attention for three reasons: It borders on Afghanistan; it's engaged in a smoldering conflict with a nuclear-armed India over Kashmir; and it possesses nuclear weapons of its own and has passed its technology on to "rogue states." Washington's announcement that it intends to triple its financial assistance for civilian projects would seem to be a signal that for the first time a proud Pakistan is going to be taken seriously on its own merits.

But this turnaround could be coming too late for many people. For instance, for those hundreds of thousands of people in the tribal areas who may be followers or potential followers of bearded mullahs -- such as former fitness trainer Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan, former bus driver Mangal Bagh from the Khyber Pass area, and ski lift assistant Mullah Fazlullah in the Swat Valley.

Most of the children who live in the tribal areas have no conception of the world that exists beyond the concrete wall in Hayatabad. All they know are their own rules and their own convictions, and now they want to take these with them into the cities.

The roads leading from the tribal areas into Peshawar are still blocked. Word is that the military operation is to be continued for the time being. The death toll among the Taliban is reported to be high. But clashes with Pakistani troops aren't the reason. Since taking refuge in the valleys and mountains of the tribal areas, the Taliban have been fighting among themselves.

They have decided to wait a while before they return to the city.

Translated from the German by Larry Fischer

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

By Walter Mayr

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Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden Pakistan Taliban Terrorism