The Taliban at the Gates of Peshawar Pakistan's Deal with the Devil

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Part 2: 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 Sheikh 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 adviser 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."

US President George W. Bush has long supported Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) would like Musharraf to do more against the Taliban.
AFP

US President George W. Bush has long supported Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) would like Musharraf to do more against the Taliban.

Things haven't gotten 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 rumor mongers 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 strait jackets. 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 other-worldly 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 passers-by with a childlike mixture of pride and defiance: "We are Taliban! We are mujahedeen! "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: the fact that it borders on Afghanistan; because of the smoldering conflict with a nuclear-armed India over Kashmir; and because Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons of its own and was passing 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 absolutely 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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