'Safe Haven' For Taliban, Al Qaeda In Pakistan

Miram Shah, Pakistan--With Pashtun tribesmen gathered around him, a bearded man clad in militia garb and with a gun clinging to his shoulder issued a directive on behalf of the local Taliban commander: "Any looter disguised as Taliban must be shot and killed on the spot to restore peace."

Later, the same message was repeated on loudspeakers from various mosques in the town. The Taliban, who operate widely in this largely lawless region, apparently are concerned that ordinary bandits are hurting their relations with the local tribes. Or they just want to show that they remain a force, perhaps the only real authority, operating here.

Miram Shah is the capital of the troubled North Waziristan area, which has become a stronghold for the Taliban and for al Qaeda-allied Uzbek militants--and provides staging grounds for attacks against U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan and locations for terrorist training camps.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is under intense pressure from Washington to take military action to clean out the radical "safe haven," but the clashes between government forces and the militants are mostly sporadic. And it is unclear how far Musharraf is prepared to go to confront the Islamic militants in the area.

President Bush and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai met Monday for security talks that reflected their concerns about the situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Karzai plans to discuss the flow of foreign fighters from Pakistan into his country in talks later this week with Musharraf.

The major U.S. concern is that al Qaeda has established terrorist training camps in the North Waziristan tribal region. The National Intelligence Estimate issued last month characterized the border area as a terrorist safe haven, which officials attribute to the Musharraf peace deal that allowed more freedom for militants to operate.

On-the-scene reporting shows that the Taliban move widely in the area, although Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam asserted at a weekly briefing Monday, "There is no al Qaeda or Taliban safe haven in Pakistan."

A cease-fire between the radicals and Pakistani authorities collapsed in the aftermath of the government's deadly assault last month on the Islamic militants occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad. "The situation has been very tense here since July 15. Both sides are pounding each other with rockets and mortars," says tribesman Noroz Khan.

The once bustling city, on a main trade route with neighboring Afghanistan, now has a ghost-town feel. The banks, schools, post offices, and even hospitals and clinics have closed, and government workers have fled, fearing a full-scale military assault. Residents say that almost 30 percent of the population has left.

Tribal police have stopped functioning in the entire North Waziristan area in the face of threats from local Taliban, who operate widely, if not always openly. Taliban turn up carrying weapons and strutting on the roads. They appear all of a sudden in marketplaces, issue directives, and disappear. Along with Taliban, around 2,500 to 3,000 Uzbek militants are hiding in the area, intelligence sources believe.

There is a shortage of food, fuel, and other basic necessities as the Pakistani government has imposed a ban on the entry of many products into the area, a tribal region officially outside central government control. Civilians get caught in the crossfire. For instance, a barrage of rockets that landed in a residential area killed 14 civilians in the nearby town of Bannu in the second week of July.

Gul Zameen Khan, a local tribesman, thinks that a majority of residents cannot risk speaking out against either the Taliban or the government forces: "We have to live here. We can't afford the hostility."

Locals say it is difficult to turn down Taliban appeals for help against what are viewed as foreign occupiers in Afghanistan "People living across the tribal belt are relatives to each other," says tribesman Noroz Khan. "It is almost impossible for Pashtuns to see their brothers or cousins fight and they sit idle."

By Aamir Latif