JAMRUD, PAKISTAN // The man in charge of one of Pakistan's key tribal areas was in no mood for parleys last weekend after an increased level of militant attacks in his fiefdom. Tariq Hayat Khan, a political agent - a civil servant with overreaching powers - who is responsible for administering the pivotal tribal area that is home to the Khyber Pass, said the militants needed a "thrashing". As he stood alongside the main thoroughfare of the Khyber Pass, surrounded by his tribal levies armed with rocket-launchers, he inspected pickets he had set up along the route to protect convoys of trucks transporting supplies across the border for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A Cobra gunship clattered overhead. "Ah, my beloved gunships," said Mr Khan, a fiery, chain-smoking former soldier. He had bolstered security on the road taken after 12 lorries, whose cargo included four Humvee vehicles, were hijacked this month. Mr Khan pointed to the spot in Jamrud where the militants had seized the lorries and the dry river bed along which they had escaped with their plunder. In the distance, amid a scene of high, fortress-like, mud-walled compounds that dotted an arid, inhospitable plain leading up to haze-obscured mountains, was the base of the alleged culprit.
"He is a local man. Unfortunately he is also the head of a significant clan," Mr Khan said. "He is linked to one of the proxies of Baitullah Mehsud," he added, referring to the dominant Taliban chief from the South Waziristan tribal agency. Suspected militants fired a rocket on Wednesday that hit a terminal for trucks carrying supplies to Nato and US troops in Afghanistan. And on Monday, the drivers of two trucks delivering supplies to Nato forces were killed in a grenade and gun attack on their convoy near Peshawar, a key stop for convoys en route to the Khyber Pass and on to western Afghanistan. Mr Khan said he had a backlog of about 400 trucks to steer through the pass since it had been closed after the weekend hijacking of the trucks. Up to 75 per cent of the supplies for western forces in landlocked Afghanistan must pass through Pakistan. This year, four US helicopter engines worth more than US$13 million (Dh48m) were stolen in north-west Pakistan while being trucked from Afghanistan to a port in Karachi to be shipped home. In March, insurgents set fire to 40 to 50 Nato oil tankers near Torkham, at the base of the Khyber Pass. Mr Khan said he was contemplating launching a full-scale military operation to flush out the militants. "This local 'tribal' has made a decision, as one has to in this tough environment, and he has gone with militants. We will show him that the right decision would have been to side with the government, which always prevails in the end." Mr Khan is the most senior political agent working in Pakistan's seven tribal agencies. "I am unusual in that I can still travel in my area - it has become too dangerous elsewhere," Mr Khan said. Indeed, elsewhere, the British colonial-era system of political agents and their tribal levies, khassadars, has all but broken down; officials are deemed to be corrupt and are bunkered in their offices; khassadars are not paid; the paramilitary Frontier Corps is overstretched; intelligence has failed to stem the flow of arms and cash to militants. Mr Khan estimated that 700 tribal elders have been killed by militants over the past several years. "They have made a sacrifice for America's war on terrorism. A whole generation of tribal leaders has been wiped out," he said. The tribal area, once lionised by British colonial administrators for its "fiercely independent" Pashtun tribesmen, is a series of endless mountainous ramparts cut by hidden valleys and plateaus. Its tribes are often heavily engaged in centuries-old feuds and subsist on trade, smuggling, kidnapping and extracting the maximum price from ever-shifting political allegiances. Mr Khan has had to navigate these tricky tribal shoals. "It is like fire-fighting. You have to move from one spark to the next to make sure a wildfire does not start," he said. In his area he has had to deal with a variety of Islamic militias that vie for superiority. A warlord from Khyber's Bara district, Mangal Bagh, was initially used as a proxy by the government, but then "turned into a rogue elephant". Mr Bagh launched attacks on Peshawar's outskirts. But following background political machinations conducted by the administration, Bagh announced his resignation as the head of his militia last week. Mr Khan merely smiled enigmatically when asked how this was achieved. He believes that most of the militants in his militia are criminals. He said they were mostly funded by India. The political agent cited intelligence photographs he had seen in 2005 of an Afghan leaving the Indian consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Khost with a bag. Another photograph showed the man handing the same bag to Mr Mehsud. At Jamrud, pick-up trucks, with white Islamic pendants fluttering on their bonnets, ferried posses of long-haired, heavily armed militants, along the main artery of the Khyber Pass. They belonged to a faction of Islamic warriors fighting against Mr Mehsud's proxies. "They are with us. At least for now," Mr Khan said. email@example.com