The dirtiest war

The Pakistani Taliban is broken. But a deadly new menace is rising.
Adnan R. Khan

The dirtiest warIt was a cold, wet February morning when Zaidi Bibi received the headless body of her husband. The details are seared into her brain—how could she forget? “His hands were tied behind his back,” she recalls, telling her story from behind a thick curtain in compliance with her culture’s strict code of separation between men and women. “His head was also tied back there, like he was holding it in his own hands.” Bibi pauses in her narrative; her laboured breath sounds through the dense fibres of the curtain. She’s never had to recount this story before—no one has ever asked her about it. Recollecting her composure, she continues. “There used to be so much happiness in this house,” she says. “Now there is only hatred. To me, it only feels like my husband died yesterday. I still think about him constantly. I still have nightmares about his headless body. There is no happiness left here anymore.”

Hers is a familiar story in Swat, repeated hundreds of times over by widows throughout the lush valley just over 100 km northwest of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Ahmed Khan, her husband, didn’t arrive home from his nightly rounds as a rickshaw driver one morning, and remained missing for six days. On the seventh, his brother received a call from the Taliban telling him to come and pick up the “spy’s” body, along with Ahmed’s rickshaw. “My husband was no spy,” Bibi says. “He was a hard-working man who loved his children. And they killed him. They murdered him.”

Aziz Urrahman, Bibi’s brother-in-law, and now also the family breadwinner and protector, listens to her story with an ever-darkening look of malice. For the 23-year-old Pashtun, his code of honour demands revenge for his brother’s death. From the courtyard of his dead brother’s home, on the eastern outskirts of Mingora, Swat’s main city, he looks over at the verdant mountains of the Swat valley. Somewhere in their valleys, he says, are the men who killed his brother. But it’s been eight months since the Taliban returned the body, and he feels impotent.

Urrahman’s unrequited vengeance falls into a rapidly diminishing category. In the two years since Swat fell under the influence of Taliban militants, thousands of civilians have been killed, many in the same gruesome way as his brother. But now that the Pakistani military’s four-month offensive has succeeded in splintering the organization that once terrorized the area, it is payback time. Revenge is a word you’ll hear often these days in Swat, from the ravaged streets of Mingora through the fruit orchards of outlying villages. Once peaceful citizens like Urrahman have turned vigilante, hunting down and killing suspected Taliban militants in a frenzy of brutal murders that has shocked Pakistani human rights groups. Rumours that the military is also involved have been swept aside by authorities desperate to portray the Swat victory as a turning point in Pakistan’s battle against Islamic militancy.

Indeed, the Pakistani Taliban is broken, possibly for good. But a new menace is rising, largely hidden from the eyes of the outside world. To see it, you have to venture into what many consider the world’s most dangerous place, a cauldron of tribal vendettas and clan rivalries in the heart of Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. Here the culture of vengeance is stronger than any concept of justice. Revenge, for the Pashtuns, is justice, and in the aftermath of the crimes committed against them, often by their own people, it is that justice they are seeking. Communities have been divided by the fighting; armed tribal militias have formed to counter the remaining Taliban threat, led by locally powerful men who have the potential to become warlords. The Pashtuns are turning their guns against one another, in what could quickly spiral into an era of tribal conflict that would make the war against the Taliban feel like a minor skirmish.

This is now Pakistan’s dirty war. The bloodlust has already left a trail of corpses in its wake, threatening to turn an ugly conflict even uglier, and further destabilize this nuclear-armed country that is already teetering on the brink. Everyone is involved, everyone a perpetrator and victim, and everyone wants blood. According to local officials, 250 bodies have been found scattered around Swat since July, most of them militants murdered by locals seeking revenge. But locals say the actual number is significantly higher, as bodies are often buried as quickly as possible, according to local custom.

Sometimes it is the military exacting revenge. “I’ve seen four Taliban commanders’ bodies strung up in trees by the military,” says Urrahman. “When I see that, I feel good. It makes me happy.” Reports that Pakistan’s armed forces are complicit in some of the killings have surfaced repeatedly, though Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, denies the allegations. “We have nothing to hide,” he says. “If someone comes to us with credible information, with names and specifics, then of course we will investigate. But we have only received generalized reports. We cannot respond to those.”

On the ground, however, the sheer number of eyewitness accounts points, if not to an organized program of military-sponsored revenge killings, then at least to rogue elements within the military taking the law into their own hands. One such incident in Shamozai village in Swat, 20 km southeast of Mingora, is especially telling. During the height of the Swat operation, locals say, the village, a Taliban stronghold, was raided by army helicopters. “Three of them circled the village,” says Haji Younis, a 45-year-old electrician who witnessed the incident. “Two of them were flying low and they were the ones that started firing. The third was flying much higher up but didn’t get involved in the assault. I saw four objects falling out of this third helicopter but I couldn’t tell what they were.”

When the attack ended, he and other villagers say the Taliban went and picked up whatever was dropped by the helicopter. “They then came to the village bazaar,” Younis continues, “and we saw at that point that the objects were men. But they were not from this area. The Taliban displayed the bodies to the crowd that was gathered there, telling us that this is what the Pakistani army does to its own people. They then took the bodies away for burial.” Younis believes the dead men were the victims of revenge: a few days earlier, he says, the Taliban had executed four soldiers they had captured. This was the army’s response.

Local authorities are reluctant to investigate such incidents; it is a military issue. According to Younis, however, it is not only the military that is involved. “Sure the people are doing it too,” he says, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one else is listening. “People are angry with the Taliban, and frightened that if they are not destroyed they will come back.” Ultimately, the general feeling is that the Taliban are getting what they deserve. But in a society in which the culture of revenge is so deeply ingrained, there is the very real danger of reciprocal killings getting out of control. “I have a feeling that it could start soon,” says Qazi Ghulam Farooq, Swat’s chief of police. “And that is not good.” At the heavily guarded Mingora central police station, seated in front of a plaque listing his predecessors—three quit in the last year alone because of the danger—Farooq is unmoved by the accounts of murdered militants. “These people suffered a lot because of the Taliban,” he adds. “It’s natural for them to seek revenge. If they find a Talib, he will not receive any forgiveness from the people.”

The Swat police force is now the best-paid cadre of officers in Pakistan. It was a necessary step, Farooq says, to entice men to join the ranks despite the threat to their lives. But best paid does not mean best trained or equipped. Farooq admits his force is not doing much to end the revenge killings, though he stops short of admitting that any of his officers might be involved.

Instead, he emphasizes how important it is for the people to rise up against the Taliban. Village militias, he says, are the key. In Swat, the militias are a new phenomenon. Despite the Pakistan army’s desire to see more of them, one of the first was formed only recently in Galoch village, 15 km west of Mingora. That group was challenged by the Taliban on Sept. 2, three days after it came together. But in other parts of Pakistan, primarily further south along the border of the Tribal Areas, groups have been forming for the past year, encouraged, and in some cases armed, by the Pakistani military. Their purpose, according to military sources, is to be the eyes and ears on the ground, as well as to provide a sense of security for local inhabitants. But some of them, sensing the Taliban are weak, have gone beyond that limited purpose, hunting down and killing Taliban sympathizers in their territory.

Since the Pakistani army operation in Swat began in May, the Taliban have been broken. They are no longer the unified force that managed to wrest control of this region away from Pakistani authorities for a while. But it is exactly that fragmentation that makes the militias so crucial, proponents like Farooq argue. Not only in Swat but throughout Pakistan’s Pashtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province and Tribal Areas, the Taliban are now a menagerie of localized insurgent groups. The killing of Baitullah Mehsud , the overarching leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in early August by a U.S. drone attack, highlighted just how divided the Taliban have become. A leadership struggle ensued, at the end of which Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the Taliban’s most brutal commanders, was installed as the new leader. But there is a sense among Pakistan’s tribal communities that not everyone in the Taliban considers Hakimullah the rightful heir. As a result, extremist groups have started acting on their own in their home areas, and that has thrust local militias to the front line of the war.

Army officials admit this is part of their strategy, to divide the Taliban and then eliminate groups one by one with the help of the militias. But there is an underlying flaw in this approach: much of the Taliban ranks are drawn from local communities. Kill a Taliban and you are also killing a member of a clan. In that sense, the desire for revenge against the Taliban, and support for the militias who confront them, are contributing to the further destabilization of the delicate tribal balances that have been so necessary for peace in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt—and raising the potential for the type of internecine violence that history shows is difficult to stop.

The first signs of this kind of conflict have already been cropping up. In Galoch, an area still prickling with Taliban militants, locals—only recently returned from refugee camps further south—have taken up arms. “The men who joined the Taliban were our brothers,” says Muhammad Ali Shah, one of the militiamen. “We know their mothers. Their mothers know us. But now we are at war with ourselves. Brothers are fighting brothers. We used to be the most peaceful people. Everyone walked around with pens and books. Now they carry guns.”

Shah, as well as other men in his militia, fears for the future of his community. Violent tribal conflicts are not new to Pashtun societies. In Afghanistan, the civil war, which dwarfed the anti-Soviet jihad that preceded it in terms of its violence and bloodshed, was at its roots a war between tribes. Smaller battles have been playing out for decades, sometimes centuries, between rival clans; an escalation now appears all but assured. “If I kill someone with this gun,” says Abdul Qadeer Khan, a 47-year-old militiaman and father of two young boys, “then his family will seek revenge against my family. Then my family will have to seek revenge against his, and so on. I don’t want this. I want my children to grow up and become engineers or doctors.”

The reality is that Pakistan has already begun to slip down this slippery slope. While the militia in Galoch is still new, and its fighters hopeful that they will not be needed for long, further south along the borders of the Tribal Areas militias that have existed for months have dug in for the long haul. They are a case study in the dangers of using grassroots militias to fight a proxy war, hardened by the dangers they face daily from Taliban-affiliated militants and increasingly enamoured with the roles they’ve adopted as the overseers of the areas under their control.

Haji Abdul Malik, the commander of a militia in Adezai village, near Darra Adam Khel, a Taliban stronghold in the Khyber tribal agency, is a poster boy for this new brand of militiaman, someone who could accurately be described as a budding warlord. His compound, on a hilltop overlooking Khyber, is regularly shelled by the Taliban, a fact in which he takes pride. He takes this reporter to the anti-aircraft gun he has set up on the roof of the compound, and the mortar he has perpetually pointed in the direction from which Taliban attacks usually come. “If the army gave us more weapons, there would be no need for them here,” he says. “But I have good weapons also. I am a Pashtun!”

Indeed, Pashtuns have no shortage of arms. The problem is when they turn them on each other. And what happens when the militias, who so far have a common enemy, have defeated that foe? Malik’s militia is currently working closely with another militia a few kilometres north, led by Faheem Urrahman. Together, they are the power brokers in this area, having divided their region into areas of operation that, for now, they stick to. But they are also armed and arrogant—Urrahman admits openly that his men have captured, then executed, three Taliban fighters—and locals worry about what the future might bring. “Before there were bombings and kidnappings that hurt the people here,” says one man in Bazid Khel, requesting anonymity. “But now there is some peace. So yes, you can say that the militias have done good. But we don’t know what they will do here in the future. We do worry about that. Maybe they’re after money. Maybe they want power.”

Abbas, the army spokesman, defends the Pakistani military’s support for these groups, though he admits that the potential for them to overstep their limits does exist. “This is a common phenomenon in the tribal belt,” he says. “Pashtuns are known to form these militias when they face an enemy. But they will disband when they lose the support of the civil administration. They only exist because we support them. When we choke that support, they will end.”

His optimism may be premature. Men like Malik and Urrahman are not about to give up their new-found influence easily, even though political developments in Pakistan are already challenging their power. A 2001 decree by then-military dictator Pervez Musharraf, which gave local leaders more sway over the affairs of their districts, is now being challenged by Pakistani politicians who argue that leaving so much power in the hands of tribals is a recipe for corruption. They would like to see a return to the old system of government-backed administrators. But the men who have benefited from Musharraf’s decree, like Malik and Urrahman, don’t have much respect for the traditional leadership. For them, the old system is dead, and they are the future.

The Pakistani army does have reason to respect the militias. In recent months they have been at the forefront of some of the most important successes against the Taliban, including the capture of Maulvi Omar, the former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban. If Pakistan is going to continue to make the kind of progress it’s been making over the past few months, it will need these militias—bcause the total defeat of the Taliban is far from guaranteed. “You can’t just round all these guys up and throw them in jail,” says an agent with the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency and one-time supporter of the Taliban, agreeing to speak to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity. “If you do that, they will simply be released after a few months and they will then be worse than they were before. They will no longer fear being captured. The Western concept of due process simply will not work with the Taliban. If you want to get rid of them for good, you have to kill them.”

Which brings Pakistan to a fundamental quandary: how dirty will this war have to get before it’s over? And if the dirtier it gets, the worse it gets, will it ever be over? Back in Mingora, Zaidi Bibi’s eight-year-old son climbs into his father’s rickshaw. The small, three-wheel motorized taxi hasn’t moved in eight months, sitting idle outside Bibi’s home like a monument to the dead. Inside the house, Bibi continues to tell her story. “The Taliban have killed so many innocent men and women,” she says, her voice trailing off to a whisper. “I don’t want my children to grow up with revenge in their hearts. I want this killing to end.” Hidden behind her curtain, that voice will likely never be heard.