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.
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.
Pakistani government and military officials vehemently deny such claims.
"There is no court, no police station [run by the Taliban]," says Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the military's spokesman. "It is absolutely wrong to say that the Taliban are in control."
General Sultan conceded, however, that clerics have now accumulated a dangerous amount of power. "We do agree that religious clerics have certainly gained some kind of strength in the area. They have caused some targeted kinds of killing."
Some area politicians refute this claim, however, attributing the deaths to criminality or old feuds. "I don't think that any religious scholar can incite others to kill, because it is against our faith to kill or harm anyone," says Maulana Merajuddin, a member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan.
If there are disagreements on the rise of the Taliban's institutional power, most observers agree that what is spreading is their mindset, a call for orthodox Islam to bring peace and justice in a land where age-old tribal ways no longer can. It is a distinction recently made by President Pervez Musharraf.
"I would divide them into two parts. First, those Taliban who are involved in militancy here and there [Afghanistan]. They carry out ambushes and detonate mines," he told Khyber TV in May. "But the second part is a mindset of spreading the Taliban culture. For example, kill the barber who shaves beards, ban songs, and break televisions."
The ethos spreads in part by fear, but others are won over by the promise of security and justice. "The people's sympathy are with those who want to keep the land safe from the foreign occupying forces," says Mr. Merajuddin.
Asked whether resentment of the military is growing, Sultan, the military spokesman, said: "It is yes and no. 'Yes' because there are certain people who are resentful, especially those who are siding with the miscreants. It is 'no' because when people meet with us in private, they say that these miscreants need to be eliminated."
The short-term solution, ironically, may in fact lie in old tribal ways.
In mid-May, civilian and military officials proposed a grand jirga along traditional tribal lines, consisting of a cross-section of elders, religious scholars, militants, and the military from Waziristan. Some sources say it was actually the Taliban who demanded it. Whatever the case, it's seen as a sign that both sides realize they have reached an impasse.
"They have come to the conclusion that even if they fight for five years, neither side will get the desired result," says Mr. Yousefzai, the journalist. Jirgas have been called before. But some say this will be different - the first jirga to put the military and militants in one room alongside elders from the region. Short of longer-term solutions, which include development and FATA's integration with the rest of Pakistan, some see this as the only hope.
"Throughout our history, there are many examples where a jirga solved a problem bigger than the current one," says Mr. Sayyat.