Taliban builds Pakistan base

Group extends military, economic power in northern tribal areas

July 14, 2008|By New York Times News Service

ZIARAT, Pakistan - The mountain of white marble shines with such brilliance in the sun it looks like snow. For four years, the quarry beneath it lay dormant, its riches captive to tribal squabbles and government ineptitude in this corner of Pakistan's tribal areas.

But in April, the Taliban appeared and imposed a firm hand. They settled the feud between the tribes, demanded a fat fee upfront and a tax on every truck that ferried the treasure from the quarry. Since then, Mir Zaman, a contractor from the Masaud subtribe, which was picked by the Taliban to run the quarry, has watched contentedly as his trucks roll out of the quarry with colossal boulders bound for refining in nearby towns.

"With the Taliban it is not a question of a request to us, but a question of force," said Zaman, a bearded, middle-aged tribal leader who seemed philosophical about the reality of Taliban authority here. At least the quarry was now operating, he said.

The takeover of the Ziarat marble quarry, a coveted national asset, is one of the boldest examples of how the Taliban have made Pakistan's tribal areas far more than a base for training camps or a launching pad for sending fighters into Afghanistan.

A rare, unescorted visit to the region this month, during which the Taliban detained for two days a freelance reporter and photographer working for The New York Times, revealed how the Taliban is taking over territory, using the income they exact to strengthen their hold and turn themselves into a self-sustaining fighting force. The quarry alone has already brought the Taliban tens of thousands of dollars, Zaman said.

The seizure of the quarry is a measure of how in recent months, as the Pakistani military has pulled back under a series of peace deals, the Pakistani Taliban have extended their reach through more of the rugged 600-mile-long territory in northern Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.

Today the Taliban not only settle disputes in their consolidated domain but they also levy taxes, smuggle drugs and other contraband, and impose their own brand of rough justice, complete with courts and prisons.

From the security of this border region, they pivot their fighters and suicide bombers in two directions: against NATO and U.S. forces over the border in southern Afghanistan, and against Pakistani forces - police, army and intelligence officials - in major Pakistani cities.

The quarry here in the Mohmand tribal district, strategically situated between the city of Peshawar and the Afghan border, is a new effort by the Taliban to harness the abundant natural resources of a region where there are plenty of other mining operations for coal, gold, copper and chromate.

Of all the minerals in the tribal areas, the marble from Ziarat is one of the most highly prized for use in expensive floors and walls in Pakistan, and in limited quantities abroad.

A government body, the FATA Development Authority, failed over the last several years to mediate a dispute between the Masaud and Gurbaz subtribes over how the mining rights to the marble should be allocated, according to Pakistani government officials familiar with the quarry who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the effort's failure.

A new government mining corporation, Pakistan Stone Development Co., offered last year to invest in modern mining machinery, but even with the lure of added value, the development authority could not sort out the feud.

The Taliban came eager for a share of the business. Their reputation for brutality and the weakness of the local government allowed the Taliban to settle the dispute in short order.

Today the quarry operation is rudimentary, using dynamite, which harms the marble and renders production extremely inefficient. Antiquated trucks grind their way up the steep, tiered roadways carved in the mountainside to haul the rock away. But the quarry's reopening has given something to everyone.

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