Pakistan City Highlights Border's Lawlessness

Young Taliban militants in the district of Tank i i

The district of Tank in Pakistan's northwest is the gateway to South Waziristan, home of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and an al-Qaida associate. Young Taliban militants of a rival faction (shown here) are challenging Mehsud. Junaid Khan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan for NPR
Young Taliban militants in the district of Tank

The district of Tank in Pakistan's northwest is the gateway to South Waziristan, home of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and an al-Qaida associate. Young Taliban militants of a rival faction (shown here) are challenging Mehsud.

Junaid Khan for NPR
Police stand guard in one of the busiest squares in the city of Dera Ismail Khan i i

Police stand guard in one of the busiest squares in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The city has experienced a surge in violence as the bloodshed from the lawless neighboring tribal territory of South Waziristan spills over. Junaid Khan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan for NPR
Police stand guard in one of the busiest squares in the city of Dera Ismail Khan

Police stand guard in one of the busiest squares in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The city has experienced a surge in violence as the bloodshed from the lawless neighboring tribal territory of South Waziristan spills over.

Junaid Khan for NPR
A vendor displays vegetables and fruit in Dera Ismail Khan City. i i

A vendor displays vegetables and fruit in Dera Ismail Khan City. The district adjacent to mountainous Waziristan is more desertlike, and the city endures some of the most intense heat in Pakistan during the summer months. Junaid Khan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan for NPR
A vendor displays vegetables and fruit in Dera Ismail Khan City.

A vendor displays vegetables and fruit in Dera Ismail Khan City. The district adjacent to mountainous Waziristan is more desertlike, and the city endures some of the most intense heat in Pakistan during the summer months.

Junaid Khan for NPR

After claiming success against Taliban guerrillas in the northwestern Swat Valley, Pakistan's military now is targeting Taliban strongholds to the south.

In the territory of South Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan, the rugged mountainous area is being peppered by bombing runs against suspected militant hideouts, displacing a new wave of civilians.

The exodus comes as an estimated 300,000 people have begun returning to their homes in Swat Valley and surrounding areas after the military operation there.

The Taliban's reign of terror in South Waziristan has transformed the area and sown fear among tribal leaders and ordinary citizens, witnesses say.

But the government's counteroffensive is not calming concerns in an area where governance and stability have traditionally been provided by a tribal system and outsiders have long been unwelcome.

Epicenter Of Terrorism

South Waziristan is home of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and an al-Qaida associate. The army considers South Waziristan to be the epicenter of terrorism, and Mehsud is considered to be Pakistan's greatest domestic threat.

Terrorist attacks attributed to Mehsud's network have killed more than 100 people since May 27.

As security forces squeeze Mehsud's strongholds and U.S. drones target hideouts, displaced civilians have sought safety to the east, in the neighboring district of Dera Ismail Khan, a desertlike land of date farms.

Rival Taliban groups who have rebelled against Mehsud are also encamped in Dera Ismail Khan. Their signature black turbans and long beards can be spotted at the best restaurants in the provincial capital, Dera Ismail Khan City. Mehsud stunned residents last month by murdering a young challenger who had backing from the government.

Fears of Taliban reprisals have deepened the usual suspicion toward outsiders.

A Region Transformed

On the veranda of a community center, a 30-year-old MBA student from South Waziristan agreed to speak only on condition that he was identified with a pseudonym, Usman Khan.

He said the conflict has transformed the region.

"Those people who hated the Taliban have moved out into Dera Ismail Khan if they could afford it," he said. "Those who are poor are staying back and are compelled to support the militants. In every house, either an elder or a son has had to join the Taliban. The militants have threatened them to give up a family member, finance the Taliban or face death. Ninety percent of the people are disgusted with the Taliban."

Once a peaceful place, people now fear leaving their homes. Usman Khan said the precarious security that is fraying the social fabric of Dera Ismail Khan has all but destroyed Waziristan's.

"The elders were eliminated, music is missing, and education is zero. Everything is gone, especially freedom of expression. I cannot even talk against the Taliban to my own family because I don't trust that they won't inform on me and tomorrow I will lose my head. As for the rivals, we want none of them," he said. "We want the old system when there was peace."

Traditional System Under Siege

Under the traditional tribal system, disputes are resolved in meetings known as jirgas organized by tribal elders known as maleks. But Usman Khan and others say the Taliban has wiped out hundreds of maleks in South Waziristan. The government would like to make allies out of those who have survived.

Many of the surviving maleks have gathered in the district of Tank, the gateway to Waziristan. On this recent day, they are settling a dispute involving the killing of a local elder. Tank is the closest you can get to the no-go tribal zone of Waziristan, and fear is palpable: A burqa-clad figure is the only woman in sight. An elderly man pointed to a small door at the rear of his shop, saying: "It's the escape route if anything happens."

The crackle of gunfire from a passing a military convoy briefly panicked jirga members, but leader Maulana Assam Uddin assured the group that the military was "just clearing the way."

The Pakistan army's vehicles may be emblazoned with Quranic verses, but the army appears to be winning more ire than hearts and minds.

Uddin insists the solution lies not with the military, but with the revival of the tribal structure that governed the area before the Taliban turned its guns on the state of Pakistan.

"Before the current situation, we the elders would hold negotiations and meet with the governors, the corps commander, the generals and the Taliban," Uddin said. "That way we solved the problems."

Government Allies With A Militant Faction

An amalgam of militant groups and criminal elements operate inside South Waziristan. Turkistan Bhittani, who once fought alongside Mehsud, said the Pakistani Taliban leader is not running a jihad but a criminal enterprise.

"Vehicles loaded with dollars would come to him, and he established a rate for killing," Turkistan Bhittani said. "If a cleric was killed, he'd pay one rate; an ordinary man was another. Murdering a military man earned 700,000 rupees."

"Baitullah Mehsud," he said, "kills when he's afraid."

In the murky alliances of the tribal belt, the government has thrown its support behind Turkistan Bhittani, who says his own militant faction rejects suicide bombings or any assault on Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues. And it is the ordinary citizens who are paying the price.

Junaid Khan contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan and Tank.

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