By Azhar Masood
AN ISLAMIC warlord who holds sway in Pakistan’s famous Khyber Pass may now be the only force stopping Pakistan’s Taliban from swooping in to cut off vital Nato supply routes to neighbouring Afghanistan. Former bus driver Mangal Bagh, who leads a group called Lashkar-i-Islam said that he has rebuffed an offer from Pakistan’s Taleban to join them. Although he voiced his disdain for the United States, his continued independence is likely to be pivotal for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan.
The Khyber agency, which is part of Pakistan’s tribal belt and is now largely in Mr Bagh’s control, is the lifeline for Nato soldiers in Afghanistan. Lorry loads of food, equipment and fuel wind through the Khyber Pass daily to the bustling border at Torkham. Last week, fighting between Mr Bagh’s men and a pocket of resistance around the town of Jamrut closed the “Pak-Afghan” highway for days.
Mangal Bagh’s stronghold, the market town of Bara, is just a half hour drive from the city centre of the provincial capital, Peshawar. An escort of his heavily armed followers is needed to reach his fortified compound in the countryside nearby.”I’m not the ruler of Khyber, I’m the servant,” said Mr Bagh, with an unexpectedly gentle manner, as he relaxed with his Kalashnikov-toting men, drinking tea. “My aim is to finish all social evils.”
He has received repeated entreaties to combine forces with the Pakistani Taleban, who run other parts of the country’s wild north western border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A traditional jirga – meeting of elders – was held between Lashkar-i-Islam and the Taleban about 40 days ago.
“I told them (the Taleban] that what I am doing is enough. It is the right direction. There is no need to join you,” he said.”The Taleban consists of religious scholars. We are fighters for Islam, lay people. We don’t have any religious figures in our organisation.”
However, he said, the US intervention in Afghanistan was “wrong” and its forces must leave. “While the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is no way to bring peace and prosperity, over there and here,” Mr Bagh said. “We do not want to kill Americans, we just want to make them Muslims.”
Locals said that Mangal Bagh would not allow Taleban fighters to cross into Khyber. If they ever got into the area however, the Taleban could potentially choke off the Pak-Afghan highway. Last month they bombed fuel lorries waiting at Torkham to cross into Afghanistan. In contrast to the Taleban, Lashkar-i-Islam forbids kidnapping and suicide bombings. Mr Bagh’s message is more an austere one, that “vices” must end, not the international jihad of the Taleban and Al-Qaeda.
The Pakistani state seems to have withdrawn from Bara and much of Khyber agency and it has taken no recent action to rein in Mr Bagh. In Bara town, the local government office was padlocked and no army or police were visible on the streets. Lashkar-i-Islam have become the de facto police, driving around in four-wheel-drive vehicles that even have a blue flashing light.
A local politician, who declined to be identified, said: “If we finish Mangal Bagh, the Taleban will come in. He’s a better alternative. At least he will never pick up his gun against Pakistan.”In Bara, there were no women walking around. The Lashkar-i-Islam’s harsh strictures, delivered through a pirate radio station, appear to have driven them indoors. In the market, local people praised Mr Bagh for cracking down on rampant crime – though it would be a brave man to openly criticise him. Praying five times a day at the mosque is now mandatory.
Mangal Bagh, known as the “Emir”, said that he had over 10,000 men under his command and could call on up to 120,000 – which would be greater than the Pakistan army soldiers stationed in the region. The 35-year-old has built an empire in just three years from humble origins. He used to drive a bus. He said that people’s frustration with the failure of the state to deliver law and order brought them flocking to him. “I just preached, praised Islam, it was not difficult for me to organise these people. They are not my followers, they are followers of the Koran.”
Mr Bagh belongs to the Afridi tribe, the biggest clan in the 2,500 sq km Khyber agency, with a population of about 550,000 and seen as the most developed part of FATA. He said his writ ran over almost the whole of Khyber. Others suggested that while he has Bara and its surrounding area, his command elsewhere is less certain.
The Jamrut battles showed just how close Lashkar-i-Islam is to “settled” areas of Pakistan. The fighting spread to an industrial estate in Hayatabad, a suburb of Peshawar, forcing factories to shut down.
Ayub Afridi a known tribal chief from Tirah told ‘Pakistan Times,we cannot underestimate Mangal Bagh’s strength now. Basically he is fighting out Afghans who have disturbed our tribal values”.
Mr Bagh suggested that his movement could branch out of Khyber – an ominous prospect for the rest of Pakistan.
LINKING Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass has for centuries been an important trade route between and strategic military locations. As with many passes, the start and finish are ill-defined. Recorded invasions through the Khyber begin with the conquests of Alexander the Great and also include later Muslim invasions of South Asia.
From India, the British invaded Afghanistan and fought three Afghan Wars in 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919. More recently, the pass became widely known to thousands of westerners and Japanese who travelled it in the days of the Hippie trail. It has also been connected with a counterfeit arms industry.