PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Feb. 7) — Last weekâ€™s suicide attack in Pakistanâ€™s volatile Lower Dir region, the site of Pakistani military operations against the Pakistani Taliban, has added fuel to an already raging wildfire of conspiracy theories in the country. The attack killed not only its presumed American targets but also two schoolgirls, and injured more than 100 others. But what caused the Pakistani government special discomfort was the spotlight it shone on the American military presence here.
For Pakistanis, that presence is only part of a larger and increasingly murky game being played out in the war-torn Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjoining Tribal Areas. Even as operations against militants continue, rumors of meetings between militants and the Pakistani army have clouded perceptions of the governmentâ€™s strategy to confront Pakistanâ€™s growing insurgency.
Anti-American sentiment has surged in recent days with the conviction in New York of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui on terrorism charges, a judgment the Pakistani government and the Taliban alike have condemned as proof of U.S. prejudice against Muslims.
If that werenâ€™t enough, American intelligence sources claimed this week that a drone attack last month killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a key Pakistani Taliban leader. Officials in Pakistan, where drone attacks are another daily unwanted reminder of Islamabadâ€™s highly unpopular cooperation with U.S., have pointedly not confirmed the death.
That disconnect highlights what has become a deadly public relations exercise, pitting a nervous U.S. administration keen to win over Pakistani public opinion against a Pakistan army that is trying both to maintain its links with shady militant groups it considers useful and at the same time appease U.S. demands that it crack down on them.
For years, Pakistan has refused to let go of its links to the militants while Washington has turned a blind eye to Pakistanâ€™s duplicity, fearful of losing a crucial ally in its war on Islamic extremism. The net result has been confusion and chaos. Even beneath that U.S.-Pakistani tension, the war in NWFP, on the Afghanistan border, is treacherous and bewildering even to those in its midst.
â€œNo one knows what exactly is going on,â€ says Faheem Urrahman, the 42-year-old mayor of Bazi Khel, a dusty town just south of Peshawar, capital of NWFP, and bordering the Khyber tribal agency. â€œI donâ€™t know who exactly Iâ€™m supposed to be fighting anymore.â€
Urrahman has seen first-hand how the game is played and how men like him can turn suddenly from favored ally to expendable pawn. A few short months ago, he was the darling of the Pakistani military, which lavished him with praise for raising a small army to take on Taliban-linked militants in his war-torn region of Khyber. Today, Urrahman fears for his life, and he blames not just the Taliban, but also the Pakistani Army.
A few miles from his heavily guarded compound, his sworn enemies, the Lashkar-i-Islam (LiI), an Islamist group now considered part of the Pakistani Taliban, are re-grouping. A military operation against them that began in August last year has done little to weaken their presence. The leader, Mangal Bagh, one of the most wanted men in Pakistan, remains at large, yet that operation appears to be winding down.
â€œI donâ€™t understand it,â€ Urrahman says. â€œIf the Pakistani army made a sincere effort to get rid of these guys, it could be over in a month.â€
The abortive operation in Khyber suggests to him and others that Pakistanâ€™s war against Islamic militancy is sometimes more a public relations exercise than a legitimate push to cleanse the country of its fundamentalist threat.
According to one senior agent with Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence, or ISI, Bagh, an illiterate former bus conductor, is only the latest in a long line of Pakistani militants groomed by ISI agents. As Taliban influence rises throughout Pakistanâ€™s tribal areas, the ISI has struggled to maintain its influence over an ever more complex array of militant groups formed in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. â€œMangal Bagh was supposed to be our man in Khyber,â€ says the ISI source. â€œBut it hasnâ€™t quite worked out that way. â€œ
That is putting it mildly. Since Bagh took control in Khyber, Taliban influence there has skyrocketed, with violence spilling over into Peshawar itself. In August last year, the Pakistani army began a major operation, listing Bagh as one of Pakistanâ€™s most-wanted militants and promising to rid Khyber Agency of the LiI. Months earlier, Faheem had set up his own anti-Bagh militia, after attacks against his men in Bazi Khel forced his hand. â€œWe had the support of the military then,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™d like to think we still have the support of the military now.â€
But that appears less and less likely. The Pakistani military recently announced a moratorium on military operations and has strongly backed an initiative by Afghan President Hamid Karzai seeking reconciliation with low- to mid-level Taliban commanders. Al Jazeera recently reported that meetings were under way between the United Nations and the Quetta Council, the Afghan Talibanâ€™s central authority, including Mullah Omar, which has been operating out of the Pakistani city Quetta bordering Afghanistanâ€™s restive Kandahar province.
â€œThis Khyber operation has been a game,â€ says one officer of Pakistanâ€™s Frontier Corps. â€œI can tell you from what I saw: there is no operation. Not in Khyber and not in other places the military claims it is taking on the Taliban.â€
In fact, the officer says the army is still on speaking terms with Bagh, even as it claims publicly to be hunting him down.
â€œI saw [Bagh] meet with senior generals at Bala Hisar in the middle of December,â€ he says, referring to the British-era fort in Peshawarâ€™s old city . â€œI donâ€™t know what the meeting was about but I saw him come in with a convoy of military officers.â€
The Pakistani military could not be reached for comment, but a former senior officer with Inter-services Public Relations, the armyâ€™s media wing, told AOL News that no one there would â€œever confirm such a meeting took place.â€
So where does that leave Urrahman , so recently hailed as an anti-Taliban patriot? Nervously glancing around his compound, he admits he is uneasy. Two attempts on his life in recent months have left him on edge. He never stays at the same place for more than one night. On November 8 last year, Haji Abdul Malik, another anti-Taliban militia commander operating just a few miles south, was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Urrahman senses he might be next.
â€œOf course I have reservations,â€ he says, blaming the government for not doing enough to protect him. â€œHow can I trust the authorities after all that has happened? They havenâ€™t arrested a single person linked to the attacks on me, even though they know who was behind them.â€