By M Waqar Bhatti
July 21, 2008
PESHAWAR: When my host in Peshawar advised me to dress in a Shalwar Kameez instead of jeans and a T-shirt, wear a prayer cap and refrain from shaving, I ignored his advice. But in Bara, when I saw the Taliban and heard them shouting at me in Pashto, I really regretted not paying heed to my host’s sincere warnings.
My host, who is an influential person in Khyber Agency, arranged my trip to the Khyber Agency and insisted I visited all its three Tehsil — Bara, Jamrud and Landi Kotal — and also advised me to take a public bus to reach Bara. Once again, ignoring his advice, a local friend and I hired a rented car to reach Bara bazaar, the stronghold of the followers of Mangal Bagh of the Lashkar-e-Islam.
Lashkar-e-Islam is a militant organisation that is imposing its own brand of Islam on the residents of Khyber Agency and also fighting a local rival group, the Ansarul Islam, in the Tirah Valley, a far-flung area of the Khyber Agency. Their aim: to have full control of the most strategic point along the Afghanistan border.
Other militant organisations with a similar agenda are also active in the area, including the Amr Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Unnil Munkar who also use force to impose their own brand of Islam and the teachings of their Amir, Haji Namdar, on local people as well as visitors.
We entered the Bara bazaar of Khyber agency by travelling on the Bara road that leads to the tribal area. Heavy contingents of paramilitary troops and police were seen patrolling the road while several pickets were also established there. They were, however, not bothering people travelling to the tribal areas.
The shock of glimpsing the Taliban for the first time in the Bara bazaar was unexpected, given that the area is hardly a 45 minutes’ drive from Peshawar. There was not a single security personnel present in the bazaar although government officials make daily claims of re-establishing the writ of the government and clearing the area of militants. Instead, we saw three vehicles with black flags mounted on their front and my guide told me that they were either Mangal Bagh’s men or the Taliban.
As soon as we stepped out in the market, a vendor tried to sell us prayer caps for Rs10 each. When we refused to purchase the caps, he warned us in Pashto that without the caps, we could be in serious trouble. In the meantime, the Taliban or Mangal Bagh’s men noticed two persons without prayer caps on their heads and they shouted something in Pashto and drew the attention of their other colleagues to us. Their leader in a double-cabin vehicle turned his attention towards us and said something in Pashto to my friend.
“Where are your prayer caps? Why this one is without a beard? Bottoms of his Shalwar are also covering his sandals. Don’t you know where you are standing?” my companion translated the Taliban leader’s remarks to me.
Our host in Bara bazaar, Sultan Akbar, who owns a business in the area and is also an influential person, reached just in time to rescue us and negotiated with the Taliban for our protection. He later told us that he had apologised for our “sins” and told the Taliban that we were his guests and were unaware of local norms and directives. Although he received us warmly, he expressed alarm at seeing us without the obligatory prayer caps on our heads.
“They (the Taliban) have issued decrees that everybody must wear prayer caps or turbans in the areas controlled by them. Their Shalwar should also be above their ankles. At prayer time, nobody should be present at his workplace and should leave for a mosque to offer prayers,” he informed us.
We went to his office where his clients were waiting for him. After getting rid of them, he offered us lunch and briefed us about the situation in the areas controlled by Mangal Bagh.
“Doing business in Bara has become very difficult as these people are creating immense problems for local traders and customers. If somebody doesn’t wear a cap or turban, they shave off their heads as punishment, impose fines on them or send him to ‘jail’. It is, however, a ‘bailable offence’ so people give them some money and secure their release,” Sultan Akbar informed us.
Those who are seen in the Bazaar at the time of prayers are beaten with sticks and batons and forced to go to the mosque to offer prayers, he maintained. But the most disturbing activity of the Taliban is forcing at least one member of each family in the area to join their war with the Ansarul Islam in the distant Tirah Valley.
“Every person in the tribal areas owns a gun and has fighting abilities. The Taliban force each family to send one of their members to join their fight against their rival group. Those who refuse, risk having their homes demolished and a heavy fine is imposed on them,” he claimed. Sultan Akbar said that earlier people used to get spared from fighting by paying Mangal Bagh’s men money but now they don’t take money for this.
“They compel our youth to join their fight or face penalties that may vary from losing their home, a heavy fine or going into exile,” he told us.
He said these people do not extort money in the garb of any tax from traders but people may give them money according to their ability. “They don’t demand money as they claim they are doing this to reform society in their own style,” he explained.
Asked whether they were going Afghanistan or forcing people to join the fight against the US-led forces in that country, he said he was unaware of this but they (the Taliban) openly say that whenever they will get rid of their opponents, they will divert their attention to other parts of the agency which are currently out of their reach.
When asked what would be their reaction in case the US launches attacks on tribal areas, Sultan Akbar said in that case, every tribesman would set aside his differences with the Taliban and join the fight against the Americans and NATO to defend their motherland.
“People fear a US attack which we are reading about in newspapers. Everybody is preparing for the big war and if our territory is attacked, we will not spare the ‘whites’ and the Afghans,” he said.
Reacting to my astonishment at not seeing any security forces’ personnel in these troubled areas, he said the tribesmen had no trust in the security forces as they had left the people at the mercy of the Taliban. “When they can’t defeat the Taliban, how will they defend us against the heavily-equipped Americans and Nato forces,” he asked in an emotional tone.
He, however, remained ambivalent about his view of the Taliban. He praised them for some of their actions, including cleaning the area of criminals and putting a halt to “obscene activities” through the closure of music shops and CD centres and forcing people to follow Islamic injunctions.
“Actually, the Taliban are untrained and not very educated people. They are young and don’t have complete knowledge of Islam. So they make many mistakes and make enemies among the locals. But, he insisted, the Taliban are “sincere people”.
He said they had only the state-run TV channels in the area while cable networks and dish antennas were forbidden by the Taliban. “As far as radio is concerned, transmissions of only two FM radio channels are available for local people and they both are operated by the Taliban to disseminate their ideology,” he said.
He admitted that many people had migrated from the area but said those who left the area comprised less than five per cent of the total population. “People live in misery but how can they quit their ancestral homes?” he questioned.
To a query, he claimed that people had the liberty of shaving off their beards in Bara but in the areas in complete control of the Taliban, like parts of the Tirah valley, shaving off beards was strictly prohibited.
He claimed that girls’ schools and health facilities were operational in the area but their standard was very poor. “We have to send our children and patients to Peshawar for study and treatment,” he claimed.
Asked where the Army and paramilitary forces were given that the Taliban were freely patrolling the bazaar and the entire agency, he said they were confined to their bases, posts and forts and only come out when they have orders to launch a “fake operation”.
“Nothing happened to these people (the Lashkar-e-Islam and the Haji Namdar group) in the recent operation by the security forces. They had left the area prior to the operation and returned and resumed their activities as soon as the forces left the area,” he informed us.
Later, we travelled to Landi Kotal via Jamrud Link Road and back to Peshawar but did not notice even a single Taliban in the two Tehsil of the Khyber Agency. “The reason these two Tehsil being spared by the Taliban is that they are focusing more to conquer the Tirah Valley,” a local told us.
“They also used to patrol the area sometimes and would warn people to mend their ways but did not bother anybody more than that. Another reason is the strategic importance of the GT road for the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. It is their supply route and that’s why the Pakistani forces keep this route free from the Taliban’s influence,” he said.
The Jamrud Link Road from Bara market to the GT road, that leads to Landi Kotal and the Torkham border with Afghanistan, separates the Hayatabad area of Peshawar from the Khyber Agency and there is a fenced wall with watch towers at equal distance marking this boundary.
“Until some weeks back, the Taliban used to enter Peshawar through Hayatabad and tried to impose their ideology on the people of the city,” said the Landi Kotal local. Referring to the reports some weeks earlier about the growing threat to Peshawar, he added: “They abducted some people, blew up a few CD shops and also entered the homes of some locals and destroyed their TV sets. Since then, security on Peshawar’s border area has been beefed up and no more incidents of this nature have been reported in recent days,” he claimed.