Taliban Tightens Grip Near Northern Pakistan Border

Pakistan Map i i
Alice Kreit/NPR
Pakistan Map
Alice Kreit/NPR
Maulvi Khalid Omer i i

Maulvi Khalid Omer, a leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, addresses the media at a tribal district of Mohmand Agency on July 21. Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images
Maulvi Khalid Omer

Maulvi Khalid Omer, a leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, addresses the media at a tribal district of Mohmand Agency on July 21.

Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan i i

Armed militants of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan gather around graffiti that reads "Long Live Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan" at a camp in a Pakistani tribal district of Mohmand Agency on July 21. Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan

Armed militants of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan gather around graffiti that reads "Long Live Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan" at a camp in a Pakistani tribal district of Mohmand Agency on July 21.

Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images

In Pakistan, Taliban militants have tightened their grip on three sides of Peshawar, a strategic city of 3 million people near the frontier with Afghanistan.

The fourth and remaining side includes a major highway leading to Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad, just a 90 minute drive away.

Many people say the chaotic streets of Peshawar have become unsafe — there are regular reports of Taliban militants in pickup trucks roaming the streets at night and entering mosques and universities during the day.

Women are being told to cover up, and men are warned not to shave. Merchants selling movies and music CDs are also being threatened by Islamist militants.

"The whole city of Peshawar is aware there are Taliban," says Mohammed Ikram, a 27-year-old jeweler and native of Peshawar. "We have been hearing about it. The Pakistani government has been assuring us that everything will be OK, but we really feel threatened."

The increased presence of the Taliban in Peshawar was not unexpected. Over the past few months, Islamic militants have been steadily taking control of regions throughout Pakistan's lawless tribal belt and moving into towns and villages in the more settled regions.

"With the increase of the Taliban in the tribal areas, the threat to the settled areas has increased many times, and Peshawar is no exception," says retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar-based defense analyst who spent years working for military intelligence in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions that skirt the Afghanistan border.

The Islamic militants in Pakistan are a fractious and mixed group, but recently have tried to organize into a cohesive militant force called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, who is believed to be behind last year's assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Despite their differences, the Taliban groups in Pakistan have an allegiance to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"The Pakistan Taliban, people like Baitullah Mehsud, they actually emerged as sort of a reserve group for the Afghan Taliban," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a defense analyst and journalist for The News newspaper in Peshawar. "They organized themselves to protect the Afghan Taliban, to provide them fighters in case of need, and also to provide them sanctuaries in Pakistan.

As Pakistan's Taliban expands its control, it is having a direct effect on U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan.

One of the key weapons supply routes for NATO and American forces runs from the southern port city of Karachi to the outskirts of Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.

The Taliban and other Islamic militant groups have infiltrated many towns and villages along the route, and there are reports of attacks of supply trucks, where windows are smashed and the drivers intimidated.

Pakistan's security forces have fought back against the militants, but it has been a limited effort at best. The Pakistani authorities prefer negotiation with the Taliban over military action. But Pentagon officials say the number of Taliban crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan to attack U.S. and allied forces has multiplied, and that Pakistan needs to do more than just negotiate peace deals with the militants.

High-ranking American military and government officials have traveled to Islamabad recently to press Pakistan's government to take military action against Taliban sanctuaries.

Earlier this week, Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani traveled to Peshawar to discuss the issue with tribal chiefs. At the end of the trip, the consensus was that negotiations are the way to go.

"We believe in negotiations," says Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal chief from the Khyber Agency. "If there are any terror problems going on, the best way to solve it is through negotiations".

Still, there is growing recognition in many quarters of Pakistan that negotiations with the Taliban have done nothing to reduce the violence or the cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Several American reports say the peace deals have helped the Taliban grow in strength and in numbers.

Military and political analysts in Pakistan say the problem is a lack of political will. They say the new and fragile government will not take ownership of the problem, and that Pakistan's military won't take action against its own people until it has the full support of the government and the population.

"There is just lack of will and determination and commitment on the part of the federal government to work out a policy on this issue," says Gen. Shah. "I think once the federal government shows the determination and commitment, it has the resources to deal with this issue. But the basic thing is indecision at the top."

Many analysts believe no widespread aggressive action against the militants will get under way until Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, gives the green light.

The ISI has had ties with the Taliban for more than two decades, since the Soviets invaded neighboring Afghanistan. Some politicians are now speaking out, saying the Taliban problem in the tribal regions simply cannot be ignored any longer.

"This is something that has to be immediately addressed, it cannot go on," says Afrasiab Khattak, the president of the secular Awami National Party. "Since the denials are not any more plausible, I think we should recognize the problem and address it and take measures to solve it."

Khattak has helped negotiate two peace agreements with militants, including one in the tourist area of Swat. Khattak admits that deal is shaky.

For its part, Pakistan's military defends its efforts to take on the Islamist militants. Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, says Pakistan's military has offered to build fences along the border with Afghanistan, that it has amassed about 120,000 troops and paramilitary forces along the border, and has increased the number of checkpoints.

"We have about 1,000 posts," says Abbas, "but still one has to admit that individuals or small groups crossing ... if you want to block, it's not possible. Even if we double the size of the force."

Abbas says there is growing pressure from the Pentagon to have Pakistan's military go after the Taliban. As that pressure further intensifies, so too does the belief in Pakistan that the U.S. military will start taking unilateral action against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal regions.

Anti-American sentiment already is high in Pakistan and many believe that would be exacerbated if U.S. troops started incursions into the country.

"The difficulty of having Americans on the ground, visible to the people, then creates a lot of support for, actually, the Taliban and those who are criticizing the Pakistan government," says Khalid Aziz, the chairman of RIPORT, a research institute in Peshawar.

Aziz says that in the short term, Pakistan needs a counterinsurgency policy necessary to take on the Taliban. In the long term, the problem needs to be approached holistically because, he says, poverty and lack of education in the tribal areas feeds the militancy.

The number of Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan has gained speed over the past few months — and Pakistani analysts and politicians say they understand the U.S. is anxious to stop cross-border raids by the militants. But one government official said the U.S. should be careful about browbeating a nuclear power such as Pakistan — even if it is an ally.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.