Elders losing to extremists in Pakistan
About 150 elders have been killed in Waziristan in recent years, emboldening mullahs.
To be a tribal elder in Pakistan's Waziristan region once meant unquestioned power and respect. These days it connotes title to a way of life ruptured by the modern world. Increasingly, it also carries a death sentence.Skip to next paragraph
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Some 150 tribal elders have been killed in Waziristan in the past three years. No arrests have been made; no prosecutions handed down. But most of the whispers point to the Taliban, who have publicly condemned many elders for supporting the military's war against radical militants.
Without the authority of the elders, there is little to stop the growing power of radical mullahs and the Taliban they support in a troubled land where top Al Qaeda figures have been thought to hide. Government efforts to clean up the region have only backfired, pushing the tribal system to the verge of collapse, observers contend. What is happening in Waziristan, they add, is a wake-up call for the rest of the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan.
"There is no platform for the tribal people to integrate themselves socially. The opportunity lies only for the mullahs, who have hijacked the platform from the [elders]," says Muzaffar Sayat, the tribal elder of Mohmand Agency, one of seven areas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
This breakdown of tribal authority, those familiar with FATA say, began in the 1980s, when Pakistan's intelligence services marginalized tribal elders and used the mullahs to unite feuding tribes against the Russians.
Tribal authority has been on the wane ever since. In 2003, the Army marched through Waziristan at the behest of Washington, usurping further power from the elders while sidelining the region's political agent, the government's appointed official. The Army failed to provide a viable political alternative, and, in its quest to root out Al Qaeda, has also sewn resentment. Some reports estimate that more than 50 civilians and 600 Army soldiers have also been killed since 2003; few top Al Qaeda figures have been nabbed.
"Before the Army came, things were very quiet in Waziristan," says Ramiullah Yousefzai, a journalist in Peshawar who has covered the fighting in Waziristan. "Whole villages have now been displaced. After any bombing, the whole village leaves because they know the Army will come and search and detain people. Schools are closed; there are no jobs. That's how village after village has turned against the Army. And they side with the militants - give them refuge."
Today, the true extent of the Taliban's power in Waziristan is hard to gauge. Few journalists dare venture inside, meaning accurate accounts are in short supply.
But those that exist paint Waziristan as a Taliban stronghold, replete with a political and justice administration that runs parallel - sometimes counter - to the government's. In December, local press reports described how a Taliban court meted out a death sentence to two men believed to be extortionists. After their bodies were strung up, marchers took to the streets threatening to kill anyone opposed to the Taliban.
Recent press accounts also claim the Taliban in South Waziristan have replaced the jirga, or tribal courts, with an Islamic court and are forcing residents to register with their cause or die.