- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pashtun tribal chiefs, who for centuries have held sway in the Hindu Kush mountain range along the border with Afghanistan, say they are being thrust into an Iraq-style war between violent Islamists and the Pakistani army.

“It’s there. Bombs going off every day,” said Haroon-ur-Rasheed, one of eight tribal leaders who drove for hours to the regional capital of Peshawar to speak with a reporter and photographer for The Washington Times.

The leaders described a violent tribal area in which Islamic militants routinely behead women suspected of adultery and use bombs to destroy schools for girls — so far only on Sundays, when no students are present.

Pakistani army forces who venture into the area are also being targeted with rockets, mortars and roadside bombs modeled on those being used to attack American troops in Iraq.

In the latest incident yesterday, a burqa-wearing terrorist detonated herself in the town of Bannu on the fringe of the tribal areas, killing 14. Wire agencies said it appeared to be the first instance of a female suicide bomber in Pakistan.

Shortly after President Pervez Musharraf seized power eight years ago, he won support from Islamist political parties by holding elections in which a six-party coalition — many with close ethnic and tribal ties to the Taliban — won control of the legislature of the North West Frontier Province, including its autonomous tribal zones.

“The tribes are loyal to Pakistan,” insisted Mr. Rasheed, a former member of the national parliament.

“The tribal areas were used to supply the mujahideen [in Afghanistan] against the Russians,” he added. “We faced everything right in front of us, the Russian army. When the fighting ended, we expected prosperity, but the Americans left and we had thousands of [Afghan] refugees.”

Mr. Rasheed and his companions proposed the meeting in Peshawar on the grounds that their home territory has become so dangerous that they are unable to protect Western visitors.

Sporting tribal turbans and beards with varying streaks of gray, they all agreed that Gen. Musharraf’s decision to redeploy troops to autonomous tribal zones along the Afghan border last month had thrust them into a war in which Gen. Musharraf and the Pakistani army had become proxies for President Bush and the U.S. forces.

Asked who represents the biggest threat to Islam — Osama bin Laden or the United States — one of the tribal leaders, Zarhur Afridi, said there was “no comparison.”

“The U.S. doesn’t need Osama. In Iraq, there was Saddam [Hussein] and he was no Osama but they attacked anyway. It’s a wish of U.S. to attack Muslims,” he said. “Now when we see Bush poking his head into our affairs, we don’t like it.”

The leaders were particularly concerned about occasional raids by U.S. forces based in Afghanistan who have pursued Taliban insurgents across the border into Pakistan. Mr. Rasheed resigned his seat in the federal parliament to protest one such raid last year.

Such raids could become even more common if former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — who says she will return to Pakistan this month — is able to regain her post as prime minister.

“I would hope that I would be able to take Osama bin Laden myself without depending on the Americans,” she said in an interview yesterday on BBC World News America. “But if I couldn’t do it, of course we are fighting this war together and [I] would seek their cooperation in eliminating him.”

The tribal leaders scoffed at U.S. claims that Arab terrorists and other foreign fighters are hiding in the tribal areas. The only foreigners, they said, were fellow ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan.

“There never has been a full-fledged border. People are related, by blood. Members of the same family cross back and forth every day. It’s been like this for centuries,” said Mohammed Ameen. “The Americans see these people going back and forth and think they see the Taliban. To say they are Taliban is just as false as those chemical weapons in Iraq.”

None of the leaders’ arguments is likely to shake the convictions of U.S. military forces that Islamist militants have bases in Pakistan from which they train and wage war in Afghanistan, and that bin Laden is hiding in the area.

But the views of the eight tribal chiefs underscore the difficulty of the State Department’s effort to implement a key goal of public diplomacy — to convince the Muslim world that the United States is not an enemy of Islam.

A year ago, the Pakistan government signed a series of truces with tribal chiefs in which government troops would withdraw and area leaders would stop militants from attacking Afghanistan. The U.S. reluctantly accepted the arrangement.

The deal unraveled in July, when Pakistani troops raided a militant mosque and adjoining madrassa in Islamabad, after months in which its students had patrolled the city as vigilante enforcers of Shariah law, kidnapping suspected prostitutes and smashing video shops.

At the same time, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan had increased under the agreements.

When Gen. Musharraf redeployed troops to the tribal regions, fighting erupted almost immediately. At least 200 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoner, at least 100 of whom remain captive.

One of the most troublesome areas is the scenic Swat Valley, once billed in tourism promotions as the “Switzerland of the East.” Lately it has been taken over by extreme militants attempting to enforce the Taliban prohibition against girls attending school.

Schools throughout the valley have received threatening letters, warning students to follow strict dress codes and teachers to keep boys and girls separate.

On Sunday, a bomb struck a girl’s high school in the valley and local news reports said the two-story building was destroyed.

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