Caught in the crossfire of Pakistan's secret war

In North West Frontier Province the army is fighting the Taliban – and both want the locals on their side

Staying alive is not a simple business for people in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. The local Taliban and the army compete mercilessly to establish their authority along the border with Afghanistan. "If we support the army, the Taliban is unhappy and if we support the Taliban then the army is unhappy," lamented one local resident living outside Peshawar.

This unhappiness can have dire consequences for the civilian population. In the case of the army this usually means ordering civilians out of a hostile area and then plastering it with high explosives. The Taliban is on the retreat, but it likes to show it is still a force to be reckoned with by sending its suicide bombers to kill anybody it sees co-operating too enthusiastically with the army.

Mostly the Taliban favours soft targets. I was driving through Kohat district on the main road leading south from the Khyber Pass last weekend when we passed through a small village where a few hours earlier a suicide bomber had driven a vehicle packed with explosives into the gate of the local police station. The explosion had brought down concrete beams and ripped open the fronts of shops. Three police officers and four civilians had been killed. The police had draped brightly coloured sheets over the wreckage to hide the extent of the damage suffered by the police station. Some shopkeepers were milling around trying to salvage their goods, but overall nobody looked too surprised at what had happened.

It is a nasty little war that receives little attention in the rest of Pakistan or in the outside world. It is dangerous for journalists to visit the area. When they do come they are usually escorted by the army and police. These are sensible precautions as was recently underlined when a British journalist and his two advisers, two former members of Pakistan's powerful ISI military intelligence, were kidnapped; they are now being held for ransom in North Waziristan.

"It isn't just journalists but politicians from the rest of Pakistan who never come to see us," said local leaders in Ghazni Khel, a poor agricultural village in the middle of parched farmland. It was not difficult to see why. Though everybody agrees that security is better than when the Taliban were roaming freely, life is still dangerous. At a hastily called village meeting one man complained: "It is difficult for us to go out in the evening because we are afraid of kidnappers who pick us up on the road and take us away." A doctor described how he had been kidnapped with his 13-year-old son and held for 70 days until they escaped by digging through the ceiling of the room where they had been kept captive.

I was able to go to Ghazni Khel because it is the village of Selim Saitullah Khan, a powerful local tribal leader, politician and industrialist who was going there with his own well-armed bodyguards. Mr Khan felt that the outside world should get some inkling of what life is like on the north-west frontier of Pakistan. He is deeply conscious of the poverty that afflicts the area, mainly because of the lack of water and electricity. In an impromptu speech to villagers, he said that for all the slaughter caused by suicide bombers in the area a greater number of people were dying because of poor hospitals and bad administration. He says the best plan is to build a dam in a nearby gorge to provide water for irrigation and to generate electricity.

Mr Khan may be right about economic and social deprivation killing more people than political violence, but it must be a close thing. The Pakistan Taliban are being driven back by army offensives. They have lost several of their best-known leaders to US-directed drone attacks. But they are not going down without a fight and are eager to prove that nobody who turns against them will escape their vengeance.

Just how savage this revenge can be is illustrated by the fate of the village of Shah Hassan, not far from Lakki Marwat. At the end of last year the villagers had asked the Taliban, for whom it had been a sanctuary, to leave to avoid an onslaught by the army. The Taliban agreed to go but warned the villagers that they would exact vengeance. On 1 January many of the young men of the village were crowded together playing volleyball when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives killing about 100 of them. The bomber turned out to be from Shah Hassan and two of his victims were his brothers.

The violence in the North West Frontier Province is less reported than that in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in recent weeks more Pakistanis than Iraqis or Afghans have been dying in suicide bomb attacks. The Pakistan Taliban seem to have an endless supply of young men willing to kill themselves for the cause. Almost anybody might be their target. Recently they attacked Shia refugees from an army offensive as they collected food aid. In Peshawar a suicide bomber bizarrely targeted a meeting of the Janaat-i-Islami political party, which supports the Taliban, killing 24 and injuring 45.

But it would be wrong to think of the people of the frontier provinces as passive victims. "Everybody here is armed to the teeth," says one of Mr Khan's assistants with pride.

Even the Taliban have to take account of local public opinion because it is backed up by armed force organised along tribal lines. Mr Khan says that his tribe and its allies could easily raise a fighting force of 2,000 men in the course of a day.

This ability to command a significant armed force helped Mr Khan and other local leaders to get rid of the Taliban in Lakki Marwat, starting in 2006. "Before then we thought the army and the Taliban were in league," says a local leader. "We wanted to stop the army and the Taliban fighting there."

The army also has to keep in mind local feelings, particularly as its main supply route runs through Lakki Marwat. New bridges are being built and it is expected that the route will ultimately be used to support an offensive to drive the Afghan Taliban from their bastion in North Waziristan. We met several military convoys, the first vehicle with its lights on to warn civilian drivers to get off the road.

People are impressed by the ability of US drones to find their targets. There are many conspiratorial explanations for this, such as special electronic chips being covertly slipped into people's pockets so the drone can home in on them. But local leaders say that the Taliban's reputation for ferocity is enough to deter any conscious collusion with the army: "People are so frightened that they don't co-operate with the army because they are convinced the Taliban will come after them," one said.

The retreat of the Taliban is good news for the US-led forces in Afghanistan. The US and Nato convoys on the road are no longer such easy meat for the Taliban as they were when the Islamic militants had checkpoints on the road. Lorry drivers used to carry boards bearing the slogan "long live the Taliban" which they would attach to the front of their vehicles when entering Taliban-controlled territory.

Local businessmen recall happy days when they bought pirated Nato containers which on one occasion turned out to be entirely filled with whisky and on another contained a disassembled Apache helicopter. "Unsaleable," remembers one potential broker disgustedly. "We wouldn't have known how to put it together."

The state within a state once created by the Pakistan Taliban is ceasing to exist and can probably never be resurrected in its previous form. But they still have many militants waiting for the army to relax its grip. The people of the north-west frontier, cautious and skilled in personal survival, are not going to write off the Pakistan Taliban just yet.

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