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Border Backlash

Musharraf's attempt to police the tribal areas with the Army has bred a new generation of extremists.

Danger: Not only are the Pakistani militants now stronger than ever, their links to the Afghan Taliban have been strengthened. Here, a Taliban commander speaks at a Pakistan-Afghan border city.
Danger: Not only are the Pakistani militants now stronger than ever, their links to the Afghan Taliban have been strengthened. Here, a Taliban commander speaks at a Pakistan-Afghan border city.

By Ron Moreau and Zahid Hussain
Newsweek International

July 31, 2006 issue - Just over three years ago, under pressure from Washington to stop Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from crossing the porous border into Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf began dispatching tens of thousands of Pakistani troops to the country's tribal regions. The goal: to beat back the Islamic radicals in and around the seven tribal agencies bordering on eastern and southern Afghanistan. Today some 80,000 Pakistani troops are stationed in outposts and garrisons along the rugged frontier.

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But, ironically, instead of quelling extremism, the military occupation has fueled it. Radical Islamic clerics throughout Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt now preach the hard-line gospel, day and night. Their fiery jihadist sermons exhort people to live by the harsh code of Islamic Sharia—or else. In Wana, the capital of the South Waziristan tribal agency, extremists recently used dynamite to blow up a radio station for playing music. If these radicals sound like Pakistan's equivalent of Mullah Mohammed Omar's ousted Taliban regime, they are. The tribal militants call themselves "Pakistani Taliban," or members of a newly coined and loosely knit entity, the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. They openly recruit young men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan and run their own Islamic kangaroo courts that, on occasion, stage public executions. The local police simply stay out of the way. "Fearing for their lives, no one dares to challenge them," says Afrasiab Khattak, former chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The Pakistani Army has had some success. It's killed 180 foreign fighters and captured some 300 foreign-born militants, including Qaeda operatives, in periodic fighting, according to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. He says some 370 local militants have also been killed. But the Pakistani Army has also paid a high price, losing 350 of its troops. And on balance, the Army has little to show for all the carnage. "There has been some success in hunting down Al Qaeda," says retired Pakistani Army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. "But there has only been failure in terms of controlling the local Taliban."

Not only are the Pakistani militants now stronger than ever, the links between the pro-Taliban, ethnic Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban across the border, who are also Pashtuns, have been strengthened. The resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, who last week briefly captured two district towns in southern Afghanistan, has only increased the morale and muscle of their Pakistani brethren. "What was a containable problem has spun out of control," says Ayaz Amir, a political columnist for the Dawn daily newspaper. The invigorated Pakistani militants have boosted their recruiting of Afghan and local youths studying in madrassas along the mountainous border, and are sending them into Afghanistan to fight. "There is now a greater cross-border traffic between Waziristan and Afghanistan than before the Army moved in," adds Amir. And both Waziristan and the border areas of neighboring Baluchistan have become even more hospitable rear bases and havens for Taliban commanders and fighters.

Before the military moved into the tribal areas, the militants had been sympathetic with, but not actively committed to, the Afghan Taliban's cause. Now that has changed. "The military's presence has brought no plus for the tribals," says General Masood. "It has made them more angry, dissatisfied, antigovernment and actively pro-Taliban." Perhaps more important, the Army's occupation upset the traditional governing balance in the tribal areas, which has changed little from the days of British colonial rule. The tribal agencies are not governed by Pakistan's Constitution or legal codes. Rather, government-appointed political agents hold sway by offering patronage (chiefly large amounts of money) to maliks, or tribal elders, who are charged with maintaining law and order according to custom. But as an occupying force, the Army took control over everything from security to development. "It marginalized the maliks and the entire administrative system, and didn't replace it with anything other than military rule," says General Masood. "That was a huge mistake. It created a vacuum that was quickly filled by the militants."

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