Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 16:23 UK

Making friends with the Taliban

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Pakistan

A Turkistan guard in Tank
Guards are all that remain at the compound during the funeral

The desert sun beats down on us as we slip through the gate of a compound in Tank, a small but important town in north-western Pakistan.

We are here for an appointment that we know has already been cancelled.

The compound, formerly a city inn, houses the central office of a group of Taliban militants led by Qari Zainuddin Mehsud.

But Mr Mehsud was murdered by one of his bodyguards on Tuesday, soon after the Muslim pre-dawn prayers and hours before his appointment with us for an interview.

A sombre-faced Taliban guard with long hair and an assault rifle meets us inside the compound.

He says he cannot invite us into the office because there is an emergency situation and all leaders of the group have left for Mr Mehsud's funeral.

Some 200m away, in an alley across the street, is the district office of the ministry of religious affairs which handles charity funds for the poor.

At least this is what the sign on the building says.

But actually, it houses the headquarters of another militant group, led by Haji Turkestan Bhittani.

This place is also deserted. Everybody has gone to the funeral, say a couple of armed foot soldiers left behind to guard the premises.

Residents fear Dera officials are encouraging violence

These groups are seen by many in Tank as the army's new "allies" in the impending military operation in South Waziristan, about 60km (37 miles) to the northwest.

Top Pakistani officials say the operation will target Baitullah Mehsud, feared Taliban commander who heads the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an alliance of regional militant groups fighting the army in the north-western regions of Waziristan, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur and Swat.

Analysts say a military offensive in South Waziristan, if successful, can break the back of Islamic militancy in Pakistan.

But they also point out that the assassination of Qari Zainuddin is evidence that Baitullah Mehsud's supporters still have the capability to strike at his enemies at will.

The Pakistani army started increasing troop numbers in South Waziristan in February, and accelerated the build-up in early May.

The army has reoccupied most positions it abandoned following a 2005 truce with Baitullah Mehsud. It has faced little resistance so far.

Militants are protected by quarters that are beyond accountability, and the ensuing anarchy has opened many avenues of corruption for officials both in the police and the administration
Dera administrative official

But before launching a major ground offensive, the army appears keen to soften up the enemy.

Its helicopter gunships and fighter jets have been bombing areas under Baitullah Mehsud's control, driving thousands of people out of their homes.

At the same time, it has been patronising the two Tank-based militant groups who have publicly opposed Baitullah Mehsud, accusing him of "un-Islamic" activities.

The army apparently wants to use these groups as their proxies in the war in South Waziristan.

The people of Tank interpret this as a strategy designed to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud, not Islamic militancy.

They have been living under Taliban control since 2006 when militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud walked into town and overpowered the local administration.

Since mid-2008, the Turkestan and Zainuddin groups, backed by the army, have gradually replaced Baitullah Mehsud's writ in Tank region.

Differing tactics

One Tank resident explains the difference between then and now.

"Baitullah's men would snatch only government vehicles, but the new groups don't make such distinctions. If they like a car, they will take it, no matter who owns it."

And Tank is not the only town under threat.

Some 60km south of Tank, the city of Dera Ismail Khan is in deep trouble, a top administrative official says.

"Militants are protected by quarters that are beyond accountability, and the ensuing anarchy has opened many avenues of corruption for officials both in the police and the administration," he says.

Dera is the winter home of most tribesmen from South Waziristan, and sits on the only road out of that region.

Since 2007, it has received several waves of refugees displaced by militant conflict in South Waziristan.

Police patrol in Tank
Police patrol in Tank, but no-one notices the armed men on the streets

Aid workers believe more than 50,000 people are again on the run ahead of the new operation, and most of them will end up in Dera.

But extremist influences have undermined its sectarian relationships.

Since 2007, more than 500 people have died in what appear to be tit-for-tat killings between the Shia and Sunni sects.

The fact that the conflict has gone on for so long has led some in Dera to suspect that it might be fuelled by "those elements in the government who benefit by perpetuating extremist views".

Islamabad has long been accused by local and international observers of using Islamic militants to achieve its strategic aims in India and Pakistan.

Three years ago, the army helped the militants of Mullah Nazir chase groups opposed to the army out of Wana region in South Waziristan.

People say they are witnessing a repeat performance in the Mehsud region of South Waziristan now.

This is clearly evident in Tank.

The main commercial street in Tank reverberates with the sound of boots and the cocking of guns whenever an army patrol vehicle runs into a road jam.

The purpose, apparently, is to scare away any potential suicide bomber among the public.

But no soldier turns to take a second glance at the man behind a light machine-gun planted on a tripod in the middle of the street, just outside the alley where the office of the Turkestan group is located.

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