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Why the Taliban won't take over Pakistan

For reasons of geography, ethnicity, military inferiority, and ancient rivalries, they represent neither the immediate threat that is often portrayed nor the inevitable victors that the West fears.

(Page 3 of 5)

One area halfway between Islamabad and Taliban country looks like the California Central Valley, with donkey carts. The roads in the area, the Haripur district, are lined with eucalyptus trees, agricultural fields tumble off in the distance, and brickmaking kilns puff smoke from stout stacks.

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The Taliban have threatened to come to this area to free comrades held in prison. As a result, officials mobilized extra security forces and intensified intelligence activity. But Haripur's best defenses lie with the people. "There is absolutely no support for Taliban in this district," says Yousaf Ayub Khan, Haripur's nazim, or ruler. The main reason: This is non-Pashto country.

More than 90 percent of residents speak Hindko, as opposed to Pashto, the language of the Pashtun people – and the Taliban. It's a common saying these days in Pakistan that all Taliban are Pashtuns, but not all Pashtuns are Taliban.

Haripur sits along a vast ethnic fire wall against further Taliban conquests. To the north and west are Pashtun lands, to the east and south – toward Islamabad – other groups dominate. "Pashtun areas have always been very conservative and religious, so they become easy prey," says the nazim, who also happens to be Pashtun. "People are docile here [and] their thinking is more toward Islamabad."

The grievances that the Taliban exploit, such as unemployment and tribal feudalism, don't exist as much here. Schools poke out from nearly every alley of Haripur city, and the district – with more than 1,000 private academies – is among the most educated in the country. Lush farmland and an industrial center support relative prosperity.

There are limits to the ethnic fire wall, of course. Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos," suggests the Taliban enjoy support in the Punjab region – Pakistan's heartland – among jihadi groups originally fighting in Kashmir. Moreover, many Pashtun refugees, including those displaced by the latest fighting, exist in places as far away as Karachi, the nation's financial center.

On the edge of Haripur, two camps house refugees who fled the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After three decades, the original tents have transformed into a little Kabul with mud, brick, and wood-pole structures. Residents say even police fear to go here, and some suspect the Afghan camps play host to militants.

"They visit often, they have links there," says Dr. Faiza Rasheed, a member of the provincial assembly and local gynecologist. "I think if [the Taliban] came, Afghans will support them, but not the local community."

Internet cafes in Haripur city have received threatening calls from insurgents, and some, like the Speed Link, have people frisking Afghans before entering.

Yet many Afghans chafe at the suspicions cast on them. "They blame us, saying that all Afghans are the Taliban," says Basti Gul, a barber at the Islamabad Beauty Parlor. He denies there are any Taliban in town and says the local populace – Afghan and Hindko speakers – are united against them. "We will not welcome them," he says. "The people of Swat liked them. But the people of Haripur don't."