January 18, 2008
Frontier Insurgency Spills Into Peshawar
By JANE PERLEZ
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — For centuries, fighting and lawlessness have been part of the fabric of this frontier city. But in the past year, Pakistan’s war with Islamic militants has spilled right into its alleys and bazaars, its forts and armories, killing policemen and soldiers and scaring its famously tough citizens.
There is a sense of siege here, as the Islamic insurgency pours out of the adjacent tribal region into this city, one of Pakistan’s largest, and its surrounding districts.
The Taliban and their militant sympathizers now hold strategic pockets on the city’s outskirts, the police say, from where they strike at the military and the police, order schoolgirls to wear the burqa and blow up stores selling DVDs, among other acts of violence.
Suicide bombings, bomb explosions and missile attacks occurred an average of once a week here in 2007, according to a tally by the city’s police department. In 2006, while there were occasional grenade attacks and explosions, the authorities did not record a single suicide bombing or rocket attack inside the city.
The proximity of Peshawar to the tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the past two years makes the city a feasible prize for the militants in Pakistan’s quickly escalating internal strife that pits the Islamic extremists against the American-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Though few here believe that the Taliban will rule anytime soon, the police and residents say that by the standards of counterinsurgency warfare the extremists are doing well. They have undermined public faith in the government, sown distrust and made the police fearful for their lives. “People feel the insecurity is so high, no one can fix it,” said Humair Bilour, the sister-in-law of Malik Saad, a popular Peshawar police chief who was killed in a suicide bomb attack last year. “How can the government do anything when the government itself is involved in it?”
She said she and her friends were now afraid to go out. “People go to the bazaar and make jokes: ‘Is this going to be my last trip?’ ” she said.
The extremists have selected the police and the army, two important pillars of the Pakistani state, as particular targets.
Last week, rockets were fired at an army barracks in Warsak on the city’s perimeter, a warning of the power of the militants to strike from Mohmand, a district in the tribal areas adjacent to Peshawar, an area that a few months ago was considered free of the Taliban.
The army headquarters in the center of the city were struck last month by a bomber who was hiding explosives under her burqa that were set off by remote control. The assassination a year ago of the police chief, Mr. Saad, who was killed while on duty trying to control a religious procession in one of the bazaars, shook the city.
“It’s asymmetrical warfare against an established state,” said Muhammad Sulaman Khan, chief of operations for the Peshawar police and a close friend of Mr. Saad. “The terrorists only don’t have to lose it, we need to win it.”
At the core of the troubles here, many say, lie demands by the United States that the Pakistani military, generously financed by Washington, join in its campaign against terrorism, which means killing fellow Pakistanis in the tribal areas. Even if those Pakistanis are extremists, the people here say, they do not like a policy of killing fellow tribesmen, and fellow countrymen, particularly on behalf of the United States.
The Bush administration is convinced that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have gained new strength in the past two years, particularly in the tribal regions of North and South Waziristan and Bajaur. It has said it is considering sending American forces to help the Pakistani soldiers in those areas. Mr. Musharraf has scoffed at the idea.
Any direct intervention by American forces would only strengthen the backlash now under way against soldiers and the police in Peshawar, said Farook Adam Khan, a lawyer here. That reaction spread last week to Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, where a suicide bomber killed almost two dozen policemen at a lawyers’ rally, he said.
“Pakistani soldiers never used to be targets,” Mr. Khan said. “Now we have the radicals antagonized by Musharraf and his politics of cozying up to the United States. The actions taken by the army in Waziristan and Bajaur and Swat are causing the problems here.” Swat is an area 100 miles north of Peshawar, where the Pakistani Army is currently battling a Pakistani Taliban insurgent group with mixed results.
The standing of the Pakistani military is being further harmed by an increasing awareness here that it is for the first time suffering significant numbers of defections, mostly among soldiers reluctant to fight in the tribal areas. The defections gain only scant mention in the press, but people talk about them.
There are rumors of courts-martial, although the information is tightly held by the army, former officers said. Morale among the police in Peshawar has plummeted amid a series of police killings, making the city far from the glamorous posting it once was, when the police were fighting smugglers and other outlaws.
Terrorist activities around Peshawar began to increase, Mr. Khan said, after a major attack on a madrasa in Bajaur in October 2006, in which 82 people, including 12 teenagers, were killed. The Pakistani Army said intelligence had shown that the madrasa was used as a training base by Al Qaeda. Local residents said the killings were the work of an American remotely piloted drone, a charge that Washington denied.
A few months later, government schools for girls around Peshawar began to receive threats that they would be blown up if the students did not wear burqas.
At one such school, in Shah Dhand Baba, a town on the northern fringes of Peshawar, the principal, Gul Bahar Begum, said she received a handwritten letter in the mail last February demanding that the students cover up or the school would be blown up.
Ms. Begum, who wears lipstick and lightly covers her hair with a scarf, and whose office is filled with sports trophies won by her students, said that about 70 percent of the girls now wore burqas when they stepped outside the school.
“It is the Islamic way to cover,” she said of her instructions to the girls to cover up. “So the militants were right, but the way they imposed their decision was not.”
The students, dressed in loose white pants and long shirts, suggested that they accepted the demands because they had to, not because they believed it was a religious necessity.
Maryam Sultan, 16, who wore a denim jacket over her uniform, said she and her friends came to school in burqas “for security.” Ms. Sultan, who was more interested in talking about her desire to become a doctor, said there was little choice but to cover up.
The outward bravura at the school masked a deeper problem: the inability of the police or any other authorities to deter the militants. At another school where a threatening letter was received, the principal protested.
She made contact with the militants, saying that burqas were too expensive for some of the girls. The militants replied, saying, “If the girls can afford makeup, they can afford burqas,” according to officials in the district. Days later, the girls were in burqas.
Himayat Mayar, the local mayor, blamed the government for the threats against the girls.
He said that during the five years that Mr. Musharraf and his allies in a coalition of Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, had governed the North-West Frontier Province, they had allowed madrasas for young Islamic jihadists to flourish.
“There are so many madrasas run by mullahs that train jihadis and get funds from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,” Mr. Mayar said. “These jihadists know only jihad. They should be brought into the mainstream.” If it wanted to, he added, the government could easily provide teachers and computers to the madrasas, and register them.
Peshawar’s booming business in illicit Western and Indian DVDs has been another target of the militants. Many of the city’s myriad retail outlets have closed after being bombed, or threatened with violence.
At the Bilal DVD Parlor, the owners, Bilal Javed and Akhtar Ali, said their sales — ranging from “Pride and Prejudice” to “Die Hard 4.0,” to the latest Bollywood films and old Bruce Lee movies — had fallen by 90 percent. Their decade-old wholesale business in the tribal region was finished, they said.
On a recent day, their modern retail store, fitted with polished chrome, was packed floor to ceiling with DVDs. There were no customers. They said people had been afraid to shop there since a bomb hidden in a water cooler exploded at a DVD store across the street last year, killing five people, including a 7-year-old boy who wanted to buy a computer mouse.
“The police chief said, ‘We can’t secure ourselves, how can we secure you?’ ” Mr. Javed said.