x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Taliban tame a wild town famous for selling guns

For months, Darra, the famous Pakistani arms bazaar, has been under the control of the Taliban .

Shah Mahmood at his arms shop in Darra Adam Khel. The famous Pakistani arms bazaar has been under Taliban control for months.
Shah Mahmood at his arms shop in Darra Adam Khel. The famous Pakistani arms bazaar has been under Taliban control for months.

Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan // The Taliban fighters were in a pickup truck, brazenly parked outside the army fort in Darra Adam Khel; militants and the state in an uneasy coexistence. For months, Darra, the famous Pakistani arms bazaar, has been under the control of Taliban extremists, who enforce their own austere rules. Their heads wrapped in scarves with only their eyes showing, bristling with weaponry, the Taliban are now such a normal sight in the town that no one paid them any attention. Even their presence outside the Frontier Corp's White Fort in Darra did not excite the interest of locals. "What's wrong with that?" said Shah Mahmood, a tribal elder. "They [the Taliban] don't bother us, only those who are doing anything wrong. They have finished the robbers, the drug dealers, the kidnappers. Look, there is peace here now." In theory, Pakistan's security forces are supposed to be in opposition to the Taliban, whose members are now firmly entrenched across the country's tribal belt. Last week, the Frontier Corp, a paramilitary force, launched an operation against militants based on the outskirts of Peshawar in Khyber Agency, a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Darra, just a 40-minute drive from Peshawar, is not even in FATA; it is a frontier region, which means it is not quite part of "settled" Pakistan, but it should not be as wild as the tribal belt. The militants around Peshawar are not Taliban and are positively tame in comparison with the kind of extremists happily ensconced in Darra - the kind that like to blow up girls' schools. A bombed paramilitary check post marks the edge of town. Business in Darra market did not seem adversely affected by the Taliban presence. Bursts of gunfire rattle though the high street every few minutes, as buyers test weapons by letting off a few rounds into the air. While the gun stores are unique to Darra, the other regular stores on the high street were also open for business: butchers, sweet shops and cafes grilling meat kebabs. "If there was any threat [from the Taliban], why would these shops be open? Before, there were shops that even had signs saying they sold drugs - they are gone," Mr Mahmood said. "There was the IRA [Irish Republican Army] in Belfast, wasn't there? People still lived there." In Mr Mahmood's shop, a locally made Kalashnikov costs just 6,000 rupees to 12,000 rupees (Dh337 to Dh675), while a Russian made model smuggled in was about 100,000 rupees. Darra produces all components of the weapons, with artisans using basic machinery and doing some of the work by hand. Even the bullets are made by hand. Over in the gun store of Mohammed Illyas, a much rarer weapon is on sale, a new-looking M16 assault rifle that was likely to have been taken from a dead American soldier fighting across the border in Afghanistan. Also for sale was a 1970s-era M16, which was much lighter and had, according to Mr Illyas, seen service in the Vietnam War. He wanted 450,000 rupees for the modern M16, and 220,000 rupees for the older model. "People say that these Taliban are Tajiks or Chechens, or whatever, but that is a lie. They are our own people," Mr Illyas said. "When they [the Taliban] had left Darra for a few days, the robbers came back. "When there was government rule here, the police took money, the army took money. The Taliban don't ? We say George Bush is the terrorist, not the Taliban." Of course, it would be a brave man to speak out against the Taliban in Darra, but locals across the tribal belt voluntarily voice support for them. That is not to say the Taliban are popular, exactly, but many believe their emphasis on strict law and order is preferable to the anarchy that prevailed under the reign of the Pakistani state. "I would say that 70 per cent of people support the Taliban," said Abdul Qadir Khan, a student in Peshawar from South Waziristan, a stronghold of Pakistan's Taliban. "That's because people don't have education, they don't have jobs. The Taliban say they are fighting a holy war." While the Taliban cannot bring economic development to an area, they do take a heavy-handed approach to lawlessness and provide their own Islamic courts that dispense speedy justice - both improvements on the chaos that existed previously. And development projects were not taking place anyway, locals said. Rustam Shah, an analyst focusing on the tribal area, who was formerly Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, said the colonial-era system of administration had broken down or been withdrawn from FATA and the settled areas. That system gave enormous powers to the local representative of the government, the political agent in the tribal territory and to the deputy commissioner in the rest of Pakistan. "The perception that we are fighting someone else's war and the destruction of the institutional framework that could have dealt with the [security] crisis created an administrative vacuum. That was filled by the Taliban," Mr Shah said. Under Pervez Musharraf, the president, the deputy commissioner system was abolished six years ago, while the political agent was marginalised after the army went into the tribal area for the first time, after the Sept 11 attacks. With the absence of an effective state, ordinary people in the tribal areas and in other parts of the north-west have been forced to rely on Taliban and other Islamist strongmen to safeguard them. sshah@thenational.ae