Pakistan’s Taliban Battle Military for Frontier Arms Bazaar and Strategic Tunnel

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 6

Darra Adam Khel is a familiar name to all those who have any acquaintance with Pakistan’s lawless tribal frontier region of seven tribal districts, or agencies. The town takes its name from the Adam Khel clan of the Pashtun Afridi tribe native to this region. Situated about 20 miles to the south of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and halfway to the garrison city of Kohat, Darra Adam Khel has long been considered a hub of criminals, car thefts, fake academic degrees and counterfeit foreign currencies. More importantly, this small town has a notorious reputation as South Asia’s largest illegal arms and ammunitions market (Dawn [Karachi], March 27, 2003). It is entirely run by local tribesmen without any state control or supervision. The extraordinarily skillful gunsmiths of Darra Adam Khel can make replicas of anything from small arms to AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns. The Afghan War provided a great boost to the local arms industry as local weapons manufacturing became a highly profitable business (Daily Times [Lahore], June 9, 2003). A survey conducted by the Peshawar-based Sustainable Peace and Development Organization (SPADO) three years ago found there were 1,200 shops selling guns in Darra Adam Khel. According to the survey, these were supplied by nearly 1,500 small workshops and more than 50 medium-scale manufacturing units employing over 6,000 gunsmiths.

Unlike the turbulent Wazir and Mehsud tribes in the Waziristan region, the Afridi tribe—living mainly in the Khyber Agency and partly in the region of Darra Adam Khel—is considered to be composed mostly of business-minded people with little or no inclination toward militancy or sheltering foreign militants with links to al-Qaeda. However, the local arms production industry long ago made Darra Adam Khel an attractive spot for local as well as foreign militants. It did not take long for weapons made in Darra to reach al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan for their battle against U.S. troops (Dawn, December 3, 2002).

The roots of militancy in Darra can be traced to a local tribesman returned from Saudi Arabia, Haji Saidan Gul, who launched a Taliban-style movement against what he called "social evils" in mid-2005. In an interview with this writer, Gul vowed to take all steps necessary to rebuild society along Islamic lines. Soon other local Taliban also made their appearance on the scene and launched full-scale activities within a year. As usual in the region, the first target was female educational institutions. Local Taliban not only affixed notices to the gates of girls’ schools asking people to keep their daughters away, they also started bombing them. Similarly, they targeted music and video shops, sending threatening letters to barbers not to shave beards and warnings to female health workers and female teachers (Dawn, December 22, 2006).

With the passage of time, local militants gained more ground and began to take the law into their hands. In Darra town, militants warned people to stop all criminal activities upon threat of punishment. Those who ignored these warnings typically paid a heavy price—last summer, an alleged gang leader was shot dead by militants in broad day light (Daily Times, August 7, 2007).

In a show of strength, tribal militants seized four military trucks carrying ammunition and took thirteen soldiers hostage in late January (Dawn, January 24). It was another daring display on the part of the militants after the abduction of more than two hundred soldiers in South Waziristan last August. To the utter dismay of the authorities, militants also seized the Kohat tunnel on the Indus Highway, which links the NWFP with the central and southern part of the country. It is also the main route for supplies of troops and ammunition to the embattled armed forces in the troubled southern and northern Waziristan agencies. The 1.1-mile tunnel is additionally used for transportation to Afghanistan. After an intensive three-day military operation involving helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, Pakistani paramilitary troops regained control over this strategically important tunnel (PakTribune, January 28). Officials say that militants suffered more than 70 casualties in three days of fierce fighting, with seven soldiers of the security forces killed (The Nation [Islamabad], January 31).

These bloody clashes between security forces and militants at Darra plainly indicate the Waziristan-based militants are gearing up their war against the Pakistani forces by opening new fronts. A purported spokesman of the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan), led by tribal militant commander Baitullah Mehsud, was quick to take credit for the seizure of the ammunition trucks and abduction of the thirteen soldiers, who were later found dead (BBC Urdu, January 31; Daily Times, January 31).

The military says that calm has returned to the area and militants have been flushed from the mountains surrounding Darra Adam Khel, but local people believe that while the military has retaken the tunnel and is now controlling parts of the region, the militants are still holding positions on some peaks. More importantly, militants backed by some banned groups have formed deep roots in the region. According to some media reports, they have also set up military training camps for producing jihadis (Daily Times, January 29). Militants are now expanding their presence in different parts of the region by leaps and bounds. First it was only Waziristan, then the beautiful and picturesque Swat valley, and now Darra Adam Khel. It is a clear sign that tribal militants are now knocking at the door of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province.