Timing it up today.


The Truth About Talibanistan
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007 By ARYN BAKER / KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Afghan Border Police officers patrol near the Pakistani border in Gurbuz district
Balazs Gardi for TIME

The residents of Dara Adam Khel, a gunsmiths' village 30 miles south of Peshawar, Pakistan, awoke one morning last month to find their streets littered with pamphlets demanding that they observe Islamic law. Women were instructed to wear all-enveloping burqas and men to grow their beards. Music and television were banned. Then the jihadists really got serious. These days, dawn is often accompanied by the wailing of women as another beheaded corpse is found by the side of the road, a note pinned to the chest claiming that the victim was a spy for either the Americans or the Pakistani government. Beheadings are recorded and sold on DVD in the area's bazaars. "It's the knife that terrifies me," says Hafizullah, 40, a local arms smith. "Before they kill you, they sharpen the knife in front of you. They are worse than butchers."

Stories like these are being repeated across the tribal region of Pakistan, a rugged no-man's-land that forms the country's border with Afghanistan--and that is rapidly becoming home base for a new generation of potential terrorists. Fueled by zealotry and hardened by war, young religious extremists have overrun scores of towns and villages in the border areas, with the intention of imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on a population unable to fight back. Like the Taliban in the late 1990s in Afghanistan, the jihadists are believed to be providing leaders of al-Qaeda with the protection they need to regroup and train new operatives. U.S. intelligence officials think that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have found refuge in these environs. And though 49,000 U.S. and NATO troops are stationed just across the border in Afghanistan, they aren't authorized to operate on the Pakistani side. Remote, tribal and deeply conservative, the border region is less a part of either country than a world unto itself, a lawless frontier so beyond the control of the West and its allies that it has earned a name of its own: Talibanistan.

Since Sept. 11, the strategic hinge in the U.S.'s campaign against al-Qaeda has been Pakistan, handmaiden to the Taliban movement that turned Afghanistan into a sanctuary for bin Laden and his lieutenants. While members of Pakistan's intelligence services have long been suspected of being in league with the Taliban, the Bush Administration has consistently praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for his cooperation in rooting out and apprehending members of bin Laden's network. But the Talibanization of the borderlands--and their role in arming and financing insurgents in Afghanistan--has renewed doubts about whether Musharraf still possesses the will to face down the jihadists.

Those doubts are surfacing at a time when Musharraf confronts his biggest political crisis since grabbing power eight years ago. Since March 12, Pakistani streets have been the scene of clashes between police and thousands of lawyers and opposition activists outraged by Musharraf's decision to suspend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, for alleged abuse of office. Musharraf's critics say the President is attempting to rig the system to ensure he stays in power. Their ire boiled over when Pakistani police raided a television station to prevent it from covering protests outside the Supreme Court. Some Pakistanis who have excused Musharraf's authoritarianism in the past now portray him as a jackbooted dictator. "I think he has ruined himself," says retired Lieut. General Hamid Gul, former director general of the Pakistani intelligence organization Inter-Services Intelligence. "He's not going to be able to placate the forces he has unleashed."

Because Musharraf also heads Pakistan's army, it's unlikely that he will be forced from office. But a loss of support from his moderate base could deepen his dependence on fundamentalist parties, which are staunch supporters of the Taliban. If the protests against Musharraf continue, he will be even less inclined to crack down on the militants holding sway in Talibanistan--grim news for the U.S. and its allies and good news for their foes throughout the region. Says a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan: "The bottom line is that the Taliban can do what they want in the tribal areas because the [Pakistani] army is not going to come after them."

In fact, the territory at the heart of Talibanistan--a heavily forested band of mountains that is officially called North and South Waziristan--has never fully submitted to the rule of any country. The colonial British were unable to conquer the region's Pashtun tribes and allowed them to run their own affairs according to local custom. In exchange, the tribesmen protected the subcontinental empire from northern invaders. Following independence in 1947, Pakistan continued the arrangement.

After 9/11, Islamabad initially left the tribal areas alone. But when it became obvious that al-Qaeda and Taliban militants were crossing the border to escape U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan sent in the first of what eventually became 80,000 troops. They had some success: the Pakistani army captured terrorist leaders and destroyed training camps. But the harder the military pressed, the more locals resented its presence, especially when civilians were killed in botched raids against terrorists.

As part of peace accords signed last September with tribal leaders in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military agreed to take down roadblocks, stop patrols and return to their barracks. In exchange, local militants promised not to attack troops and to end cross-border raids into Afghanistan. The accords came in part because the Pakistani army was simply unable to tame the region. Over the past two years, it has lost more than 700 troops there. The change in tactics, says Gul, was an admission that the Pakistani military had "lost the game."

The army isn't the only one paying the price now. Since Pakistani forces scaled back operations in the border region, the insurgency in Afghanistan has intensified. Cross-border raids and suicide bombings aimed at U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have tripled, according to the senior U.S. military official. He concedes that "the Pakistanis are in a very difficult position. You could put 50,000 men on that border, and you wouldn't be able to seal it."

The troop drawback has allowed Pakistani militants allied with the Taliban to impose their will on the border areas. They have established Shari'a courts and executed "criminals" on the basis of Islamic law. Even Pakistani-army convoys are sometimes escorted by Taliban militants to ensure safe passage, a scene witnessed by TIME in North Waziristan one recent afternoon. "The state has withdrawn and ceded this territory," says Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group. "[The Taliban] have been given their own little piece of real estate."

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