Page last updated at 23:19 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 00:19 UK

In the shadow of Pakistan's Taliban war

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Dassu, Kohistan

In Pakistan's north-western district of Kohistan, public discourse is dominated by security issues, not the recently enacted Sharia (Islamic) law.

Kohistan is mountainous with none of the Swat valley's plains

The government is worried that if it fails to extend security cover to this largely ungoverned district, the Taliban will.

But the local tribes do not want either the army or the Taliban in the area.

"If the army comes in, the Taliban will follow, and vice versa," says an influential tribal elder and former member of parliament, Malik Saeed Ahmad.

"In either case, it threatens our way of life."

Nightmare scenario

The local people, being of a different ethnic stock from the Pashtuns, are opposed to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.

There is also a widespread belief that the Taliban are the creation of the army and are being used for the army's "secret" aims.

The tribes are proposing to raise their own tribal force to check possible incursions by the Taliban, who have bases in the neighbouring Swat district to the west.

But officials think such a force is unlikely to match the Taliban's equipment, training and discipline.

The local police are also insufficient in numbers and resources to do the job, they say.

"It is highly likely that the Taliban will try to enter Kohistan after being squeezed by the army in Swat valley," says a senior official, requesting not to be named.

This is a nightmare scenario.

Unlike Swat, where the militants' influence is concentrated in the central plains of the valley and the road network is good, Kohistan is 7,400 sq km of sheer mountains rising from 2,400 to 3,700 metres, with virtually no plains.

And there are no roads which the army could use to transport heavy equipment to different western valleys for defence purposes.

Members of the Dassu jirga
The Dassu jirga discusses how to stop Taliban incursions into Kohistan

The only road that passes through the district is the key Karakoram Highway (KKH) that connects Pakistan with China.

Officials are worried that once inside Kohistan, the Taliban could render this highway permanently insecure.

But their chief concern at the moment is the security of a Chinese construction firm which is building a hydro-power project on the Indus river in the Dubair area of Kohistan.

Chinese workers have been a favourite target of the Taliban.

This is partly because the Taliban sympathise with the ethnic Uighur Islamic militants of western China who are waging a separatist struggle in Xinjiang region.

On Tuesday, representatives of all the major and minor tribes of Kohistan gathered at Dassu, the administrative centre of the district, to discuss the issue.

The gathering unanimously decided against any military deployment in the area.

But they were persuaded by the local administration and police officials to allow a small contingent of troops to guard the Dubair works.

The gathering continued for well over two hours, but not a single word was uttered about the new Sharia law which has become a source of hostilities in Swat valley.

"The Sharia law has no priority here - in fact, people are not interested in any government law," says Mumtaz Khan Jalkoti, a local lawyer.

Sharia law

More than two-thirds of Kohistan's 500,000 people live a primitive nomadic life and move up and down the country in search of pastures.

Disputes either evolve into family feuds that run for generations, or are mediated by tribal elders who travel with the community.

Mumtaz Khan Jalkoti
By grouping us with areas like Swat and Buner, the government is exposing us to that threat
Mumtaz Khan Jalkoti

In Dassu, there are only about eight lawyers who cater to the legal needs of the entire population.

"Few people bring their grievances to local courts, and fewer pursue them through to the high court which is located at a day's journey from Kohistan, in Abbottabad city," Mr Jalkoti says.

Many young lawyers have only fading memory of the Sharia movement of 1994, which at that time used Kohistan as a major base, disrupting traffic on the KKH for several weeks.

The movement was led by Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a cleric from the Dir district of the neighbouring Malakand division.

He negotiated the recent failed peace deal between the government and the militants in Swat, also in Malakand.

When the government of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) enacted a Sharia law for Malakand region in 1994, its jurisdiction was also extended to Kohistan.

Since then, the fervour for the Sharia law has subsided everywhere except Swat.

"We wonder why a law basically demanded by the people of Malakand division has also been extended to Kohistan, which is not a part of that division," says Abdul Hakim, another lawyer.

At Tuesday's gathering in Dassu, Maulana Sufi Mohammad's top aide in Kohistan back in 1994, Maulana Abdul Halim, was the most vociferous in his anti-Taliban tirade.

But every fresh enactment of the Sharia law has since been routinely extended to Malakand division as well as Kohistan.

Mumtaz Khan Jalkoti says this amounts to conceding a moral upper hand to the Taliban in the government's battle for influence in Kohistan.

"There is no evidence of Talibanisation in Kohistan, but by grouping us with areas like Swat and Buner, the government is exposing us to that threat."

Pakistan map showing Dagar

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