Nicholas Schmidle / The New York Times Magazine – 2008-01-18 23:02:00
NEW YORK (January 6, 2008) — One day last month, I climbed onto a crowded rooftop in Quetta, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and wedged myself among men wearing thick turbans and rangy beards until I could find a seat.
We converged on the rooftop that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s campaign office in this dusty city in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, better known by its abbreviation, J.U.I., is a hard-line Islamist party, widely considered a political front for numerous jihadi organizations, including the Taliban.
In the last parliamentary elections here, in 2002, the J.U.I. formed a national coalition with five other Islamist parties and led a campaign that was pro-Taliban, anti-American and spiked with promises to implement Shariah, or Islamic law. The alliance, known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or M.M.A., won more than 10 percent of the popular vote nationwide – the highest share ever for an Islamist bloc in Pakistan. The alliance formed governments in two of the country’s four provinces, including Baluchistan.
A cool breeze blew across the rooftop, and a green kite flew above in the crisp, periwinkle sky. The J.U.I. was gearing up again for national elections, then scheduled for the second week of January, but the message this time was remarkably different from what it was five years ago. One by one, hopefuls for the national and provincial assembly constituencies gave short speeches.
Most of them spoke in Pashto, but, knowing Urdu, I could understand enough to realize that they weren’t rehashing the typical J.U.I. rhetoric. No one praised the Taliban. Shariah was mentioned only in passing. Just one person, a first-time candidate in a suede jacket who probably felt obliged to prove his credentials in a party of fundamentalist mullahs, attacked the United States. Afterward, party workers handed out free plates of cookies and cups of tea.
This seemed altogether too gentle. Had the J.U.I. gone soft? Among several firebrands conspicuous by their absence was Maulvi Noor Muhammad, Quetta’s former representative in the National Assembly and an outspoken supporter of the Taliban, so I went to see him at his madrassa. Adolescent students, many wearing the black turbans favored by the Taliban, mingled by the metal entrance gate.
Muhammad had told me in the fall of 2006 that the sole reason that the Taliban hadn’t defeated NATO forces in Afghanistan yet was because NATO had B-52’s, and when I reminded him of this, he smiled through a mouthful of missing teeth. “The Taliban have more than made up for that disadvantage now with suicide bombers,” he said.
If the government’s version is correct, radical Islamists pressed their advantage to terrible effect in assassinating Benazir Bhutto during a rally on Dec. 27. Bhutto’s family and her party clearly have no faith in the probity of President Pervez Musharraf’s government, and many – including Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s nearest rival in the Pakistani opposition – have accused the government of creating the security situation that led to her murder.
Musharraf responded in a nationally televised speech on the evening of Jan. 2 by doubling his insistence that terrorists were responsible: “We need to fight terrorism with full force, and I think that if we don’t succeed in the fight against terrorism, the future of Pakistan will be dark.”
Efforts at democratic integration by parties like the J.U.I. have now been overshadowed by the violence of their antidemocratic Islamist colleagues — a network of younger Taliban fighting on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, jihadis pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda and any number of freelancing militants. Disrupting and discrediting democracy may, of course, be the point.
The Bhutto assassination could well make moderation impossible, as Islamist radicals savor their disruptive power – and enraged mainstream parties threaten the stability of the government itself. For now, the Bhutto killing has given the opposition a rare unity, and the elections, although delayed to Feb. 18, may well go ahead.
The J.U.I. remains determined to continue campaigning. Six weeks, however, could prove to be a very long time in Pakistan’s embattled politics.
In Quetta, Maulvi Noor Muhammad, who is 62, sat on the madrassa’s cold concrete floor wrapped in a wool blanket as he leafed through a newspaper. Speaking in Pashto through an interpreter, he said that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the J.U.I. chief, had visited three times in the previous few weeks to persuade him to enter the election.
Muhammad claimed to have refused each time because he believed the J.U.I. had drifted from its core mission: to lead an aggressive Islamization campaign and provide political support to what he referred to as the mujahedeen, a term for Muslim fighters that can shift in meaning depending on who is speaking. “Participating in this election would amount to treason against the mujahedeen,” he said.
I asked about the others in the party who had decided to run for office. Muhammad shook his head in disappointment and explained how, following the government operation against the Red Mosque rebels in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, in July, President Musharraf put religious leaders under tremendous pressure. “Musharraf threatened to raid several madrassas,” Muhammad said. “The political mullahs got scared.”
Maulana Fazlur Rehman is exactly the sort of “political mullah” whom Muhammad portrayed as running scared. In the past year, the J.U.I. chief has tried to disassociate himself from the new generation of Taliban wreaking havoc not only across the border in Afghanistan, as they have for years, but also increasingly in Pakistan.
At the same time, Rehman has been trying to persuade foreign ambassadors and establishment politicians here that he is the only one capable of dealing with those same Taliban. (Rehman told me that he never offered Muhammad a chance to enter the election; he even added that the J.U.I. had already expelled the Taliban guru “on disciplinary grounds.” )
In the process, some Islamists maintain that Rehman has sold them out. Last April, a rocket whistled over the sugarcane fields that separate Rehman’s house from the main road before crashing into the veranda of his brother’s home next door. A few months later, Pakistani intelligence agencies discovered a hit list, drafted by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with Rehman’s name on it.
“The religious forces are very divided right now,” I was told by Abdul Hakim Akbari, a childhood friend of Rehman’s and lifelong member of the J.U.I. I met Akbari in Dera Ismail Khan, Rehman’s hometown, which is situated in the North-West Frontier Province. According to this past summer’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, approved by all 16 official intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has regrouped in the Tribal Areas adjoining the province and may be planning an attack on the American homeland.
“Everyone is afraid,” Akbari told me. “These mujahedeen don’t respect anyone anymore. They don’t even listen to each other. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a moderate. He wants dialogue. But the Taliban see him as a hurdle to their ambitions. ”
Rehman doesn’t pretend to be a liberal; he wants to see Pakistan become a truly Islamic state. But the moral vigilantism and the proliferation of Taliban-inspired militias along the border with Afghanistan is not how he saw it happening.
The emergence of Taliban-inspired groups in Pakistan has placed immense strain on the country’s Islamist community, a strain that may only increase with the assassination of Bhutto. As the rocket attack on Rehman’s house illustrates, the militant jihadis have even lashed out against the same Islamist parties who have coddled them in the past.
Western audiences might find news about Islamists fighting among themselves rather appealing. But jihadi wars, at least since the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan, have tended to spill over borders, all the more so since Sept. 11, 2001. And within Pakistan, the struggle for supremacy between those Pakistani Islamists who want to gain power democratically and those who want to abolish democracy altogether could well tear the country apart.
The election season got off to a late start, postponed by President Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution and declaration of a state of emergency. In November, when politicians should have been out stumping and rallying support, many were dodging the police.
Besides sacking dozens of judges and pulling private television channels off the air, Musharraf arrested thousands of lawyers, students, social activists and political leaders during the 42-day emergency regime, which ended on Dec. 15.
The most damaging result of the emergency, however, may have been the doubt it sowed within the opposition, splitting those advocating participation from others calling for a boycott. The split hit the six-party Islamist M.M.A. alliance hardest of all.
While Rehman repeated the J.U.I.’s intention to field candidates, his main partner in the alliance, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, argued that the polls would be rigged and participation would legitimize Musharraf’s regime. Both parties stuck to their positions, and in mid-December, the Islamist alliance fell apart.
Rehman maintained that he could persuade Jamaat-e-Islami supporters to vote for the J.U.I. this time around, but even some of his fellow party members doubted that would work. “In the last election, everything was related to Afghanistan and how innocent Afghans were being killed,” Chaudhry Sharif, a longtime J.U.I. member from Rehman’s district, told me last month.
Now Rehman “has to answer his people when they ask him, ‘What happened in our own country?’ ” Despite the M.M.A.’s taking power in the North-West Frontier Province, hundreds of civilians have died in Islamist terrorist attacks. The public’s previous image of mullahs as incorruptible politicians has also been tarnished. Rehman’s chance of attracting swing voters appeared dim.
For now, it is Islamist violence that seems to have the political upper hand rather than the accommodation of Islamist currents within a democratic society. The mainstream parties have addressed Islamic militancy strictly as a security issue. Benazir Bhutto used particularly aggressive rhetoric against militants – her main rival, Nawaz Sharif, has a more religiously conservative base – but all of the main political figures outside the M.M.A. treated jihadi violence within a pro- or anti-Musharraf context, and as an effect of U.S. relations rather than as a problem integral to Pakistan’s political culture.
“This election comes down to whether you are pro-Musharraf or anti-Musharraf,” a lawyer at a Pakistan Peoples Party rally told me a few weeks ago. In the North-West Frontier Province, the Awami National Party, a secular, nationalist Pashtun outfit, also stands to gain from the M.M.A.’s decline and will dilute the Islamists’ influence in the provincial assembly.
Jihadis have, of course, increasingly opted to intervene in Pakistan by attacking mainstream politicians and their supporters. Only a week before Bhutto’s assassination, a suicide bomber targeted the former interior minister, leaving more than 50 people dead.
It was the second attempt on the minister’s life; the first, in April, killed nearly 30 people. And of course Bhutto’s arrival home in October, after years abroad, was greeted by two suicide bombers who detonated themselves beside her float, killing about 140 people. In the aftermath of her killing, more violence seems inevitable.
But the politics of terror and assassination are probably secondary, among jihadis, to the gradual extension of their control over rural and semiurban stretches of western Pakistan — a power base that, at least in the short term, can be disrupted only by the Pakistani military.
Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban commander from South Waziristan who captured about 250 soldiers in August, recently warned a J.U.I. candidate there not to run unless several of his arrested Taliban fighters were released.
More ominously, in mid-December, 40 representatives from different Taliban gangs from across the North-West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas banded together into a single group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban Movement). The movement named Mehsud their leader. He has also been named by Pakistani authorities as a suspect in Bhutto’s murder.
The sound of an explosion punctured an otherwise pleasant evening. I had been sitting under a giant mango tree, drinking Southern Comfort with a group of friends, including a midlevel intelligence officer in the army. It was my first night in Dera Ismail Khan, Rehman’s hometown in the North-West Frontier Province, about 100 miles from the Afghan border.
While the blast jerked me upright, no one else seemed too bothered. Locals had grown used to the bangs and booms. The previous night, Pakistani Taliban bombed a music store in the town bazaar. The sound I heard was the explosion from a small grenade targeting the owner of a cable-TV service.
Musharraf’s government says the increasingly frequent bombings are evidence of Talibanization creeping east from the Afghanistan border. The local Taliban militants blast shops selling un-Islamic CDs, cable-TV operators, massage parlors and other sites they consider havens of vice. A newspaper editor in Dera Ismail Khan showed me a letter he received, signed by the Taliban, warning him not to print anything that defamed the mujahedeen. They threatened to blow up his office if he didn’t comply.
Rehman’s critics blame him and his party for facilitating the local Taliban, an allegation he resents. “We are politicians, and we will have to go to our constituencies to get votes in an election,” he told me, as we sat together in the drawing room of his home in Dera Ismail Khan. “If there is a war going on, no one can vote.”
Halogen spotlights dotted the ceiling, and soft leather couches lined the walls. Rehman wore a pinstripe waistcoat over a shalwar kameez. The room smelled of strong cologne. He added, in a rare moment of candor, “But even we are now afraid of the young men fighting.”
For many years, few people questioned Rehman’s command over the mujahedeen along the border separating Pakistan from Afghanistan. His father, Maulana Mufti Mahmood, ran the J.U.I. for 20 years. Mahmood helped kick-start the Afghanistan jihad by issuing a fatwa against the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul.
A year later, when Mahmood died from a heart attack, Rehman, a 27-year-old madrassa student with scant political experience, inherited the J.U.I. and his father’s jihadi enterprise. Thousands of Islamic seminaries profess political allegiance to the J.U.I., and thousands of Taliban warriors first imbibed radical theology in Rehman’s madrassas.
Over time, Rehman cultivated his pragmatic side and played power politics in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. He eased his way into the establishment just as the Taliban were taking over Afghanistan.
In 1993, Benazir Bhutto, then the prime minister, named him chairman of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, a post that “enabled him to have influence on foreign policy for the first time,” writes Ahmed Rashid in his book “Taliban.” Rehman still argues that, particularly in the Taliban’s later period of running Afghanistan, he was having a moderating influence on Mullah Omar. “They should,” he told me, “have been given more time.”
During Pakistan’s 2002 election campaign, Rehman played up his links with the Taliban, and the Islamist coalition did well. In retrospect, that may have been his high point. The divide between the pro-Taliban leaders of yesterday and those of today was fully exposed by the insurrection at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which began last January under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his brother.
As the weeks and months passed, the rebels kidnapped a brothel madam, some police officers and, finally, six Chinese masseuses. They made a bonfire of CDs and DVDs and demanded that Musharraf implement Shariah. Defenders paced the outer walls of the mosque holding guns and sharpened garden tools.
Rehman tried to talk the Ghazi brothers out of their reckless adventure, but his influence inside the mosque was limited. “They are simply beyond me,” he said at one point.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his entourage of Islamic militants finally clashed with state security forces in early July, but the real rebellion actually occurred in the preceding months, when Ghazi and his brother flouted efforts by Rehman and other religious elders to talk them down. Back in April, when I had asked Ghazi how he felt with the entire old guard turning against him, he looked more amused than worried.
“Everywhere you look, you can see youngsters rejecting the old ones because old people do not like change,” he said. “They are rigid.” Before army commandos killed him in July, Ghazi promised that a government assault on the Red Mosque would be a blessing for the mujahedeen. His “martyrdom,” he used to say, would further invigorate the jihadis and expedite an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
Since Ghazi’s death, hundreds of soldiers and policemen have died in suicide blasts or in gunfights against the Taliban. The capture of the soldiers in South Waziristan has perhaps been the worst of it. (In a Taliban-produced DVD circulating around Dera Ismail Khan, a teenager saws the head off a soldier while, in the background, three of his adolescent peers chant “Allahu akbar.”)
But the militants have not spared Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.), which orchestrated the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s. In September, twin suicide blasts went off, and one ripped through a bus carrying I.S.I. employees to work in Rawalpindi, the military’s garrison city near Islamabad, killing at least 25 people.
The intelligence officer I met in Dera Ismail Khan, whose area of operations included the Taliban-ruled enclave of South Waziristan, maintains that his contacts with the militants were severed long ago. “We can hardly work there anymore,” he told me. “The Taliban suspect everyone of spying. All of our sources have been slaughtered.”
I asked Rehman, who used to refer to the Taliban as “our boys,” if he still considered the Taliban, even those who might be firing rockets at his house, his boys. “Definitely,” he replied. “But because of America’s policies, they have gone to the extreme. I am trying to bring them back into the mainstream. We don’t disagree with the mujahedeen’s cause, but we differ over priorities. They prefer to fight, but I believe in politics.”
Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of the pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, told me that no one can negotiate the politics of the North-West Frontier Province better than Rehman. “We know that we need a bearded, turbaned guy out there,” Hussain told me. It is perhaps a measure of how inextricable Islamism and politics have become in Pakistan that even the United States would deal with an anti-American like Rehman. In September, he had the first meeting of his 30-year political career with an American ambassador.
What did Rehman and Anne Patterson, the American envoy, discuss?
“She urged me to form an electoral alliance with Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf,” he told me a few days after the meeting. “I am not against it. But politically, because of the American presence in Afghanistan and rising extremism, it is a bit hard for us to afford.” Plus, the fact that the Americans thought Bhutto could tackle the Taliban had simply baffled him. “She has no strategy in those areas, and nothing to do with those people,” he said.
When asked if Patterson’s meeting signaled a change in American attitudes, an embassy spokeswoman said it “reflects our approach to democratic politics in Pakistan” and was “part of a process of talking to all those who represent political movements in Pakistan, across the spectrum.”
The U.S. has given more than $5 billion to Pakistan in the past few years to fight Islamist militants, but recent reports suggest that the aid has not been effective. Late last month, Congress put restrictions on some military aid and called for the restoration of democratic rights.
Even after the Bhutto assassination, Rehman told me he would stay in the election – although, as he put it, “the reality is that this is complete anarchy, and no one can run a campaign.”
Before his death at the end of the Red Mosque standoff in July, Abdul Rashid Ghazi was allies with a young cleric in the Swat Valley, in the North-West Frontier Province. The cleric’s name is Maulana Fazlullah. For a year, Fazlullah trained his militia and amassed a following.
Twice a day, he delivered a radio address, broadcast to tens of thousands of people in Swat, over his illegal station. He preached about the virtues of Shariah, the ills of female education and the honor of jihad and the Taliban. In retaliation for the assault on the Red Mosque, Fazlullah’s militiamen and suicide bombers launched attacks on convoys and police stations throughout the Swat Valley.
When, in October, I asked Rehman if he had any control over Fazlullah, he said the negotiating efforts of the J.U.I. leader there, Qari Abdul Bais, were saving Fazlullah and the Pakistani Army from going to war. But when I met Bais, a septuagenarian with a cane, he offered this estimation of Fazlullah: “He is totally out of control.”
Fazlullah created a more difficult situation for Musharraf and the generals – and, in a different way, for local religious leaders – because his ambitions exceeded the mere creation of an Islamic emirate in Swat. In November, his men began conquering territory and taking over police stations in neighboring districts, pulling down Pakistani flags and raising their own.
By late November, the Pakistani Army had had enough and mounted an immense offensive against Fazlullah and his men, a bloody battle that continued into late December. I was able to visit Fazlullah’s compound (since destroyed) just before the military attacks began and get a sense of what a Taliban-controlled area in Pakistan would be like.
Fazlullah’s base was a sprawling mosque and madrassa compound in the village of Imam Dehri, located across the Swat River from the city of Mingora. The entire Swat Valley is surrounded by mountains blanketed with pine forests. The river pours from the Hindu Kush Mountains and meanders through the valley, nourishing apple and persimmon orchards. During the summer, thousands of Pakistanis flock here for a break from the heat and humidity choking the lowlands.
When I visited Swat in June, for example, still weeks before the Red Mosque assault began in Islamabad, I had trouble getting a room at the exclusive Serena Hotel. By the time I returned in October, I was the only guest.
Almost immediately after arriving the second time around, I saw why: at the edge of town, Taliban rode around in flatbed trucks, pointing weapons in the air and ordering motorists to remove the tape decks from their cars. Fazlullah, like his Taliban predecessors in Afghanistan, deemed music – and anything that plays music – un-Islamic.
The following Friday, I went to Imam Dehri, where I met the commander of Fazlullah’s militia, a man with glacier-blue eyes named Sirajuddin. (Fazlullah appeared briefly, but didn’t stay long; he was observing aitekaaf, a meditation period that lasts 10 days at the end of Ramadan.)
To get from Mingora to Imam Dehri, my Pashto interpreter and I boarded a small metal tram attached to a zip-line. Six other people piled in. We got a light push to get moving, and then soared over the river. Sirajuddin waited on the other side, and he led us through a crowd of Fazlullah’s supporters.
The P.A. system blasted prerecorded jihadi poems while Taliban walked about with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
“We are struggling for the enforcement of Shariah,” Sirajuddin told me inside a brick shed that was his office. “Twice, in 1994 and 1999, the government said it was committed to enforcing Shariah in this area, but it never did. The people here want Islam to be a way of life.” He added: “We are Muslims, but our legal system is based on English laws. Our movement wants to replace the English system with an Islamic one.”
Four Taliban sat in the room with us, watching me with dark, intent eyes. I asked one of them, a 32-year-old named Abdul Ghafoor, what he was fighting for. Islam? Revenge? “This is not personal revenge; this is our religious obligation,” he told me, speaking Pashto through an interpreter. Ghafoor crouched on a low stool, a Kalashnikov resting on his lap. He said he was a recent graduate from the University of Peshawar with a master’s degree in Islamic theology, and that he earned his living as a schoolteacher.
Every day after school, and on holidays, he grabbed his gun and joined Fazlullah. He wore a long beard, a black turban, an ammunition vest stuffed with extra banana clips and pistols and Reebok high-tops with a Velcro strap. Messages crackled over the walkie-talkie attached to the collar of his vest. The Taliban were coordinating their movements.
Later, Ghafoor took me from Sirajuddin’s office to a platform where some supposed criminals were scheduled to be lashed. About 15,000 men and boys, some sitting on picnic blankets, encircled the wooden platform, which was supported on drum barrels and had been erected by Fazlullah’s group as a place for public punishments.
The Taliban paraded three men, accused of aiding kidnappers, before the crowd. Fazlullah’s mujahedeen had caught the kidnappers as they were shuttling two women out of Swat. The Taliban sent the women back home and arrested everyone involved with the crime.
Now the youngest of the criminals, who appeared to be still in his teens, scaled the steps to the platform. He looked as if he might collapse, legs wobbling with fear, as hundreds of heavily armed Taliban spread out around him. I stood among them, waiting to see the boy receive 15 lashings – the appropriate Islamic punishment, according to Fazlullah.
The boy lay face-down on the platform. Taliban held his arms and legs so he wouldn’t flop around. Another jihadi, clutching a thick, leather whip, roughly two feet long, wore a camouflage shalwar kameez and a ski mask over his face. Every time the whip crashed on the boy’s back, the crowd called out the corresponding number of lashes, as if counting the final seconds of a basketball game. The teenager’s body convulsed under the crack and thud of each lash; when he finally stood up, he was shaking and drenched in tears.
“This punishment is permitted in Islam,” announced one of Fazlullah’s deputies over a P.A. system fixed to a flatbed truck parked beside the platform. Along with the three accused men, who were lashed in turn, a dozen militants also stood on the platform, holding Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. Another lay on his stomach on the roof of a nearby shed, his eyes lined up behind the sights of an automatic machine gun.
Everyone knew that Fazlullah’s decision to take the law into his own hands was in blatant defiance of the government’s writ: the militants’ job was to repel any sudden ambush by the Pakistani Army or paramilitary forces; the deputy on the P.A. system, meanwhile, had to persuade the people that the lashings accorded with Islamic law.
“Even if there is no central Islamic government, these punishments are permitted in parts of the country if it contributes to maintaining peace,” the deputy explained, speaking in Pashto. “We have no intention to occupy the government or for any political authority. This is only for peace and security.”
After the lashings, thousands of people lined up to ride the tram back across the river. Ghafoor took us to Mingora by another route, through a cluster of villages loyal to Fazlullah. On the way, I asked Ghafoor what he thought about Maulana Fazlur Rehman. “He and his party deceived the public for votes, all in the name of Islam,” Ghafoor said.
Ghafoor voted for the M.M.A. in 2002, hoping that they would enforce Shariah as they had promised. “But Maulana Fazlur Rehman didn’t even implement an Islamic system within himself,” Ghafoor said. “He gets photographed with women, which is against the principles of Islam. And he failed to resolve the Jamia Hafsa crisis. He couldn’t protect all the innocent people who died.”
Jamia Hafsa was the women’s madrassa adjoining the Red Mosque.
We got into an S.U.V. and rode on a single-lane dirt road, lined with lush fields of cauliflower, apricot orchards and persimmon trees, their ends tipped with the bright orange fruit. We passed through a village made of mud-brick homes, and on one of the walls someone had chalked “Shariat ya Shahadat” (“Shariah or Martyrdom”).
“I will never vote for the M.M.A. again,” Ghafoor said, “and we will totally boycott the next election.” Democracy, he added, was un-Islamic.
The Pakistani Army now claims to have killed hundreds of Taliban, and arrested hundreds more, in its Swat Valley operation.
The army also says that local people in Swat greeted them with sweets, and that the homes of some top leaders, including Sirajuddin, had been destroyed. Ghafoor’s phone line has been cut for weeks, as have those of others in the group – although Sirajuddin has made occasional calls to the press, as when he accepted responsibility for a suicide attack in late December.
When I met Rehman in Peshawar in the fall we sat outside on plastic lawn furniture in the shade of a large oak tree. He rubbed a strand of chunky, orange prayer beads, and we discussed the changing leadership in the borderlands of Pakistan. I
n the past five years, more than 150 pro-government maliks, or tribal elders, had been killed by the Taliban. Oftentimes, the Taliban dumped the bodies by the side of the road for passers-by to see, with a note, written in Pashto, pinned to the corpse’s chest, damning the dead man as an American spy.
“When the jihad in Afghanistan started,” Rehman told me, “the maliks and the old tribal system in Afghanistan ended; a new leadership arose, based on jihad. Similar is the case here in the Tribal Areas. The old, tribal system is being relegated to the background, and a new leadership, composed of these young militants, has emerged.” He added, “This is something natural.”
Though Rehman describes the emergence of the local Taliban in evolutionary terms, he explains it as a result of a leadership crisis in Pakistan. He respects the secular-minded people who created Pakistan but insists that social and religious changes over the past two decades have made such leaders much less relevant: “We have to adjust to reality, and that demands new leaders with new visions.”
I asked if he considered himself such a new leader with a new vision.
“I don’t consider myself as someone extraordinary,” Rehman said. “I have the same feelings as everyone else in the current age: if the weather is warm, everyone feels warm; if it is cold, everyone feels cold. The difference between me and other people is in our responsibilities.” He took a long breath of the fresh, fall air, continued rubbing his prayer beads and leaned over the chair to spit.
“That’s why I am so careful, because my decisions can affect many, many people. I am trying to bring people back from the fire, not push them toward it.” Rehman once seemed ready to introduce Taliban-style rule in Pakistan. Now he is trying to preserve democracy from being destroyed by ruthless militants. If he can’t succeed, can anyone?
Nicholas Schmidle is a Pakistan-based writer and a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. This is his first article for the magazine.
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