Shall we stand up to the Taleban?

Posted in Pakistan | 10-Jan-09 | Source: BBC

The Taleban in the north-west of Pakistan are seeking donations and new recruits. One way of doing this is by visiting mosques in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to persuade people to donate or to join their insurgency.

Here a journalist who was in his home village for the recent Eid festival describes the villagers' reaction to the Taleban's overtures. He wishes to remain anonymous.

The Taleban are involved in a struggle for influence
The Taleban are involved in a struggle for influence
With the sighting of the new moon, the Muslim holy month of fasting comes to an end and with it the customary night prayers that have kept the general mood solemn for a month.

To mark the occasion, the men in this village in the North West Frontier Province head for the hujra - a place for a Pashtun male only community gathering.

But there is more on their minds than the usual feasting frenzy of Eid - the Muslim festival which the moon has heralded.

Less than two weeks ago, a couple of pro-Taleban activists from a nearby village made an appearance at night prayers in one of the village mosques. They appealed for donations and manpower for what they described as the "holy war" in Afghanistan.

The people in the mosque contributed some coins towards their cause. But no one volunteered for the war.

Since then, there has been a general unrest among the villagers about the Taleban's intentions. They want government help if they decide to resist a possible Taleban takeover.

"We have to show our willingness to fight them and to raise our own force to patrol the village," says a village councillor, addressing the men at the hujra.

"I am sure the (provincial) home department will be able to send us some guns," adds a local lawyer.

Until last year, the people of this village were generally supportive of the Taleban's movement in the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) which border Afghanistan.

But that support has undergone a change since the Taleban's recent forays into Peshawar, the capital of NWFP where a number of educated young men of the village hold jobs.

What is more, the Taleban's campaign to destroy schools in the Fata and Swat regions has put them on the wrong side of a large number of boys and girls who attend a growing number of private institutions in the village as well as in a nearby town.

Reports of tribal militia fighting to evict the Taleban from some areas in the Bajaur and Kurram tribal regions - as well as in the Buner district of NWFP - have also affected their earlier view of the Taleban as a godly force.

Taleban foot soldiers

The NWFP, being the backyard of Afghanistan, has been affected by the Afghan war in more ways than one.

An anti-Taleban village militia in Bajaur - but will the idea catch on?
An anti-Taleban village militia in Bajaur - but will the idea catch on?
Nearly every village from one end of the province to the other has had someone working in Kabul - where wages have been several times higher than in Pakistan - for the past few years.

Some have been engaged in shipping supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan.

Likewise, before that, nearly every village had someone who worked for the Taleban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

There are a dozen trained and semi-trained former Taleban foot soldiers in this village alone.

From 1996 to 2001, nearly all of them spent time in training camps and did sentry duty on check-posts or even participated in active combat for the Taleban.

Going to Afghanistan for the Taleban was almost a rite of passage for young men here. Some were recruited through the Pakistani madrassa (religious school) system and have now come back to run their own madrassas.

Until 2004, this village had no madrassas. Now it has four.

Villagers fear these ex-Taleban members might become harbourers of a larger Taleban force of outsiders.

If the Taleban take hold of the village, people fear they will persecute those who work in Afghanistan, or transport material to Kabul for Western troops or work for the Pakistani army and the police.

Kalashnikov rifles

It appears the new NWFP government is encouraging local people to form their own self-defence militias and has even promised to issue them weapons, if available.

"But government weapons are in short supply, and we may get none, in which case we will have to use our own weapons," the lawyer tells the gathering of village men.

Almost every home in the village has a couple of Kalashnikov rifles kept for self-defence or because they are so fashionable. All are unlicensed as the weapon is prohibited.

Tribal elders put themselves at risk if they stand up to the Taleban
Tribal elders put themselves at risk if they stand up to the Taleban
This raises several questions in the minds of the villagers.

Will the police allow them to use these weapons? What if the wrong people get killed in the heat of the moment? Will villagers be put on trial and their weapons confiscated? What if people start settling personal scores under the guise of fighting the Taleban?

A major issue is the credibility of the government. What if someone high in the government orders the police to pull back and leave people at the mercy of the Taleban?

Everybody seems to be aware that in the Waziristan region in recent years the Taleban have systematically killed most of the tribal leaders who dared to publicly oppose them and side with the government.

The lawyer assures the villagers that this will not happen here. But he privately confesses to me that he is still not sure if the idea of a village defence force will take off at all.

The situation is complicated, but the drift is obvious. The Taleban are getting closer to the village, and people's knee-jerk reaction has been one of resistance.

"If the government provides leadership and support, the people can easily deny the Taleban a foothold in the village. But if the government fails to offer them support, those 10 or 12 Taleban out there have the organisation and the will to overrun the place," says the lawyer.

If that happens, trigger-happy young men of the village - who could have fought alongside the village force - will instead be manning the Taleban check-posts.

That has already happened in some places, such as the regions of Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu and Tank. People opposed the Taleban but they had no government support. The Taleban moved in and the young men joined them. Their families sanctioned the move as it meant that they got protection.