Pakistani Tribes Caught Between Taliban and U.S. Airstrikes

In Pakistan's tribal areas, many don't like the Taliban, but U.S. airstrikes are creating enemies too.

Pakistani tribal people stand among the debris of houses after a suspected US air-strike in the Jani Khel area of the country's Northwestern Bannu district.

Pakistani tribal people stand among the debris of houses after a suspected US air-strike in the Jani Khel area of the country's Northwestern Bannu district.

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MIR ALI, Pakistan—Until last month, Habibullah was one of many Pakistani tribesmen who considered the Taliban and their foreign operatives as the prime reason for the woes. He was even planning to join an anti-Taliban jirga, or tribal assembly, to work for peace in the restive Waziristan region.

But three days after President Barack Obama took the oath of office, everything changed for the 26-year-old. A missile that Habibullah believes was fired by a U.S. drone hit his house, killing his two brothers and a mentally retarded relative. One of the brothers, Sibghatullah, 24, had recently completed his master's in chemistry.

Now, Habibullah has become a Taliban militant himself, swearing to avenge the deaths of his brothers in line with a centuries-old Pashtun custom of badal , or revenge.

Many Pakistani tribesmen resent the Taliban for the self-declared Islamic rules it has imposed on the local population, as well as its backing for foreign operatives living in the tribal regions. But the increasing number of U.S. drone attacks, coupled with bombing raids by Pakistani forces, have made it harder for many to oppose the Taliban's presence. "If we rise against Taliban and foreign militants here, who is going to support us?" asks Hazar Khan, a local tribal chieftain.

Hazar thinks that a majority of the local population wants peace in the region and is willing to cooperate with the government forces. "But what are [Pakistani] government forces doing? They are killing us instead of Taliban. They (the Taliban) are fully safe. The forces bomb, indiscriminately killing civilians, and dub them as miscreants or Taliban," Hazar says.

According to Hazar, whenever the tribal elders, and local religious leaders, who have been sidelined by the Taliban, manage to create an anti-Taliban environment, a U.S. drone attack or bombing by Pakistani jets often ruins their efforts. The "Taliban are very cleverly exploiting the drone attacks and bombings in their favor. And unfortunately, the killings of civilians in attacks also help them to coax the youths," he says.

Pakistani officials say that the approximately 23 people killed in five U.S. drone attacks in January in the north and south Waziristan areas were civilians. And Pakistani President Asif Zardari, the widower of the slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, warned the Obama administration last week that every drone attack adds more suicide bombers and fighters to the Taliban folder.

For their part, U.S. intelligence officials claim that several top al Qaeda and Taliban operatives have been killed in drone attacks, which have damaged the terrorist network to a great extent. When outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden was asked recently about al Qaeda's status in Pakistan's tribal regions, he responded, "It is my belief that the senior leadership of al Qaeda today believes it is neither safe nor a haven," adding, "I do know that what we and our Pakistani allies have been able to do has changed the equation."

However, many Pakistani tribesmen think otherwise, saying that although the drone attacks and bombings by Pakistani jets have killed "some" key Taliban and foreign fighters, a majority of those who died were civilians and had nothing to do with the Taliban.

Still, many in tribal areas remain hostile to the Taliban. Hazar says that the Taliban view tribal elders and prayer leaders as their main rivals and keep a close eye on them because they are generally respected by the civilians in the region. "We are better Muslims than the Taliban. We don't need their advice. We have already been following a decent way of life. What else do they want from us?" says Kamal Shah, a lawyer who heads the anti-Taliban jirga.

Hundreds of tribesmen displaced by the ongoing pitched battles between Pakistani security forces and Taliban militants in the restive northern tribal belt staged an anti-Taliban rally on Monday. This was the first time that the displaced tribesmen demonstrated against the Taliban, dubbing them responsible for their woes. The protesters, however, also blamed Pakistan's security forces' "indiscriminate" bombings and U.S. drone attacks for providing a cover to the Taliban's oppressive rule. "We want Taliban and security forces to leave our area and let us decide about our fate," says Shah.