Taliban Imperil Pakistani City, a Major Hub
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In the last two months, Taliban militants have suddenly tightened the noose on this city of three million people, one of Pakistan’s biggest, establishing bases in surrounding towns and, in daylight, abducting residents for high ransoms.
The militants move unchallenged out of the lawless tribal region, just 10 miles away, in convoys of heavily armed, long haired and bearded men. They have turned up at courthouses in nearby towns, ordering judges to stay away. On Thursday they stormed a women’s voting station on the city outskirts, and they are now regularly kidnapping people from the city’s bazaars and homes. There is a feeling that the city gates could crumble at any moment.
The threat to Peshawar is a sign of the Taliban’s deepening penetration of Pakistan and of the expanding danger that the militants present to the entire region, including nearby supply lines for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan.
For the United States, the major supply route for weapons for NATO troops runs from the port of Karachi to the outskirts of Peshawar and through the Khyber Pass to the battlefields of Afghanistan. Maintaining that route would be extremely difficult if the city were significantly infiltrated by the very militants who want to defeat the NATO war effort across the border.
NATO and American commanders have complained for months that the government’s policy of negotiating with the militants has led to more cross-border attacks in Afghanistan by Taliban fighters based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But the brazen campaign of intimidation in Peshawar, just 90 minutes by highway from Islamabad, the capital, shows that the Taliban threat now cuts deeply on both sides of the border, not just with suicide bombings but also with the persistent presence of militants among the population.
In this hard-boiled provincial capital, the linchpin of the North-West Frontier Province, the fear is palpable. Many of the rich have fled their mansions and left for Dubai. Middle-class families are packing for other places in Pakistan, and the poor are vulnerable to the militants’ entreaties.
“If this trend continues, there will be complete peace because the city is under the Taliban, or civil war because of the fighting,” said Samullah Shinwari, 31, the father of four children, who is selling his lucrative shopping mall and two ancestral family homes and moving to Islamabad.
With the militants crowding in, the national government called a special meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday to address the rapidly deteriorating security situation.
The day before, a sympathizer of the Taliban, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, shocked the National Assembly when he said that the entire North-West Frontier Province, including Peshawar, was on the brink of being engulfed by extremism.
The government’s control, he warned, was “almost nonexistent” in the province, an integral part of Pakistan and one of just four in the country. The specter of the fall of Peshawar threatens the fabric of the country.
The government issued a statement after its meeting announcing that it was turning over security of the province directly to the army. In the tribal areas, the police and the paramilitary Frontier Corps would remain the first line of defense, and the policy of peace deals with the militants would continue, the statement said. The military would be a force of last resort.
On Friday extra police officers were patrolling the main roads of Peshawar and its entry points from the tribal region.
There were reports that the Frontier Corps planned an operation in the coming days in the Khyber agency, adjacent to the city, to clean out Islamic militants under the sway of Mangal Bagh, a former bus driver who has grown into one of the most feared extremist leaders, commanding thousands of men.
But whether there was sufficient resolve to push back the startling gains by the militants was a point of debate.
“The government is helpless,” said Arbab Hidayat Ullah, a former senior police officer here. “It has lost its wits. The police have lost so many men at the hands of the Taliban they are scared.” Mr. Ullah said that the police of Peshawar had a considerable budget, but that the money had little impact and that the void allowed the brute force of the Taliban to flourish.
Despite its proximity to the capital, Peshawar has always been a world unto itself, and the province and the tribal areas have been largely forgotten by successive Pakistani governments. They have reaped slim allocations from the federal budget and received minimal governance.
Until now, the people of Peshawar have pretty much liked it that way, providing for themselves or growing rich on the smuggling routes that come with its position as the entrance to the semiautonomous tribal lands. The city has also long been a staging area for intrigue.
In the 1980s, the Americans used the city as rear base for the mujahedeen, the Islamic fighters supplied by Washington to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden came here in 1985 to help in that effort, and almost exactly 20 years ago, in August 1988, Mr. bin Laden held meetings at a house here that gave birth to Al Qaeda, according to a new history, “The bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century” by Steve Coll.
Today the Taliban, sometimes working with Al Qaeda, have almost total control over the tribal agencies, and their influence has steadily bled into Pakistan proper, as they “Talibanize” and challenge nearby areas.
The Taliban militants are a fractious mélange of various groups, law enforcement and local officials say. A survey of the towns close to Peshawar reveals the mixture.
To the south in Darra Adam Khel, forces of the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan, an umbrella group of Taliban, took virtual control of the city some time ago. The group is led by Baitullah Mehsud, who is accused by the Pakistani government of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December and running scores of suicide bombers on both sides of the border.
To the east, a militant named Mangal Bagh leads a group called Lashkar-i-Islam. He holds sway in the Khyber agency and is so flush with men and money that he is fighting another Islamic group in the Tirah valley, law enforcement officials said.
To the north, the forces of Tehrik-e-Taliban established a prison in the town of Michini several months ago. And in the town of Warsak, the Taliban have constructed a training camp, the officials said.
In Shabqadar, a few miles away, the Taliban turned up in the central square and posted a notice urging people to contact them rather than the courts to settle their disputes, said Ahsanuddin Khan, the deputy superintendent of police.
On Thursday, in Tangi, near Charsadda, four pickup trucks of armed men with beards, long hair and scarves wrapped around their faces pulled into a school where polling places for women were set up for a special election for the provincial assembly. The militants ordered men present in the grounds of the school to leave.
“There were too many Taliban,” said Laila Gul, a worker for the Pakistan Peoples Party. “They fired into the air. One of them said he would explode the grenade on his belt.” In response, two battered trucks of the North-West Frontier police turned up, with a few elderly officers, but the intruders were allowed to get away.
In Charsadda, just 20 minutes from Peshawar, menacing convoys of Taliban men have showed up in recent weeks, their presence unchallenged, and almost accepted, said Munir Orekzei, a tribal leader and a member of the National Assembly.
On Friday, Waliur Rehman, a local Taliban commander, oversaw the execution of two men before thousands of people in Bajur, accusing them of helping the United States carry out a missile strike in Damadola that killed 14 people last month.
Gunmen with daggers pounced on one of the men, decapitating him and waving his severed head at the cheering crowd, according to The Associated Press.
In all of these places, the militants use a mixture of fear and social co-option, techniques similar to those used by their kin in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Taliban emerged after the retreat of the Soviets and the end of the American financing for their mujahedeen proxies.
One of the first targets of the Taliban are usually criminals with whom they often fashion a symbiotic relationship, officials here said. Often the Taliban attack criminals and in that way increase their social standing with local people.
And then to win favor with the Taliban, the criminals grow their hair and their beards, and join forces with the militants, they said. In this way, the criminals get protection from the militants for the money they give to the Taliban from their extortion rackets.
Last weekend 16 Christians were abducted from a house in an upscale section of Peshawar. They were released after negotiations with the police, but the landlord, a Muslim, was held longer and released only on the stipulation that he attend Islamic revival meetings for the next three months.
Unnerving for reasonably tolerant Peshawar was the recent kidnapping of four prostitutes from a house in Hayatabad, the most expensive area of the city, adjacent to the Khyber agency.
Abduction of young boys has also become common in Hayatabad: in the last few weeks a dozen boys have been snatched by militants demanding that they become jihadists rather than sit idly at home, said Masood Afridi, a doctor who lives there.
Nobody knows exactly when the Taliban will actually try to take on Peshawar.
Few people expect a direct assault but rather a mounting campaign of intimidation and fear, and the posting of heavily armed men at carefully chosen strategic points. Some people believe that once the summer fighting in Afghanistan is over and more Pakistani Taliban return home, they will turn their sights on Peshawar.
Not knowing the militants strategy was one thing, but the government’s strategy was nonexistent, complained Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal leader from the Khyber agency and a former member of the National Assembly.
“There is no strategy to counter them,” he said. “Very soon, the Taliban will go to Peshawar and say: ‘Hands up.’ ”