Shahidullah Afridi’s roots are in a village in the Bara administrative division of the Khyber agency. For the last four years, Afridi has been living in the neighbouring city of Peshawar, but keeps a keen eye on events at home.
He was shocked when he heard that last week, the outlawed militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) had started a rather strange recruitment drive in his village that asked residents to enrol at least one of their sons to madrassas run by LI or pay Rs 400,000 (£2,397.96) as penalty.
Afridi is glad he left when he could. “I have a five-year old son. I don’t want my son to study in a madressa. I didn’t and I consider myself a fairly good Muslim,” he said, adding: “If you don’t study in a school [as opposed to a madressa], you don’t find work.”
The news was confirmed by Zahir Shah Sherazi, Dawn TV’s bureau chief in Peshawar who also reports on FATA and KPK. “My sources tell me that A4 sized posters have been plastered all over the marketplace in the Malik Din Khel area, controlled by LI, demanding locals put their sons into the seminaries run by them,” he told Index, adding: “They also said admission in madrassas other than theirs would not be acceptable.”
Afridi has not visited his village since he left. “I neither sport a beard nor do I wear a skull cap,” he told Index by phone from Peshawar, where he works as a daily wage earner.
Ambreen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, said Mangal Bagh assumed the leadership of LI in 2007, emerging as a new face of extremism and Islamic fundamentalism. “He imposed his version of the Shariah, issuing diktats against women’s education, making it compulsory for men to keep beards and forced women to wear burqa.”
Neither the Pakistani government nor the army took any actions.
“It shows the incompetency of the establishment,” said Agha, adding: “Eight years of Bagh’s control of the area says enough about the will of the Pakistani state in dealing with the militants. ”
To Farahnaz Ispahani, public policy scholar with the Washington D.C. based-Woodrow Wilson Centre and a former parliamentarian, it’s a “reflection of the virtual end of pluralism and choice in Pakistan”.
“Extremist ideology has partnered with criminality; the so-called Lashkar-e-Islam is engaging in mafia-like extortion but seeking respectability as an Islamist insurgent group,” she told Index.
Sherazi terms Bagh a “criminal” adding that his is not an ideological fight. “He is just doing business — in drugs,” he said.
Journalist Taha Siddiqui, winner of this year’s Albert Londres Prize, has travelled extensively in the area controlled by Bagh as well as written about militancy. Siddiqui told Index: “Locals that I have spoken to tell me that the smuggling trade from Bagh’s area is most lucrative.”
But why has the state allowed Bagh to flex his muscles with such impunity?
Khyber agency is on the last leg of the NATO supply route before it enters Afghanistan. Siddiqui says it suits the Pakistani security establishment to keep the area lawless. “It helps to keep it infested with militants — and using the latter as proxies to keep the pressure on NATO when it’s exiting.”
In addition, he said, Pakistan had often hinted at acquiring the leftover military equipment. “What better way to have their way if the ISAF does not cooperate — keep attacking the supply route — and that is only possible if they have proxies there,” he explained.
At another level, Siddiqui said the state is using militancy to achieve some other objectives. “They created Ansar ul Islam [another banned militant group] to counter LI in Khyber agency. To me, it proves that they do not want to eradicate militancy, but keep arming one group to disarm the others, especially those who have turned against them.”
Bagh’s enrolment ultimatum is just another example of how emboldened the militant outfits have become and in comparison how weak the Pakistani state appears.
However, there is time still and if the state is sincere in protecting the next generation of children from embracing militancy, Siddiqui said, the civilian government should ask the military what it has been doing in Khyber agency for almost half a decade. “If it’s fighting militancy, then this should not be the result. On the other hand, if it is not, those responsible should be held accountable and heads should roll so that an effective counter-terrorism policy is actually implemented which is not limited to paying lip-service to gain international sympathy and aid through deceit and cheating that Pakistan has come to be known for.”