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WELCOME to the land of Mohmand and Marble — the lettering on the concrete gateway announcing the limits of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have ended and Fata has begun — is the only overt sign that one is entering a warzone.

The check-posts on either side of the gateway are lightly fortified. Vehicles driving out of Mohmand and into Charsadda district are more likely to be stopped and searched by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police than those going the other way past the security forces in Mohmand.

Driving into the Agency on a visit privately arranged and without intimating the security forces or the local administration was a surprisingly easy affair. A few words exchanged in the local dialect between a translator and a guard on the Mohmand side of the gateway and on we were allowed to proceed, driving down towards the Agency headquarters, Ghallanai, a half-hour drive away.

But the tell-tale signs of a recent warzone are more difficult to scrub away. A few hundred yards past the entrance to Mohmand, a row of newly constructed and as-yet-unpainted shops marks the site where over a hundred people were killed in a suicide attack in July 2010.

The target was the assistant political agent’s office behind the row of shops where an anti-Taliban jirga had convened that July morning. The shops across the road that survived the attack have repainted their facades, though the pockmarks of shrapnel are still clearly visible.

Past the Ekkaghund Bazaar and through hilly terrain over a road torn up for rebuilding — part of a project to improve the infrastructure for trade with Afghanistan — lies Ghallanai.

Security along this stretch of the road is light. The most formidable obstacles in the day are the trucks loaded with precariously balanced slabs of marble, Mohmand’s only export of significance, winding their way across broken sections of road and the wagons ferrying passengers at dangerous speeds around blind corners.

A land stuck in the past

Mohmand is an arid, hilly area of less than a thousand square miles. Remote and rugged, the only economy of note is linked to the coveted marble quarries and small trade across the border with Afghanistan.

Unlike neighbouring Bajaur, with its larger population and thriving political culture, Mohmand has remained in thrall to the malik culture and regressive ways. Locals tell of neighbourhoods where schools were only allowed for the first time in the mid 2000s and where the only mechanised vehicles permitted until recent years were tractors.

“Some parents used to send their children to schools across the border in Afghanistan. The locals were opposed to schools and modernity. They said that their pardah would end, that they would lose their independence if the outside world was allowed in,” according to Gul Mohammad, a local journalist speaking at the Mohmand Press Club, established a decade ago, in Ghallanai.

Over tea and biscuits, a group of locals explained Mohmand’s descent into militancy. “After the Lal Masjid episode, Abdul Wali (nom de guerre Omar Khalid) seized the shrine of Haji Tarungzai in Safi tehsil and declared it the new Lal Masjid. They swore they would take revenge and went on a campaign of terror,” according to a local who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an area where both the security forces and the militants keep close tabs on the local population.

“They rounded up all those accused of criminal activities and who opposed them and killed them. Some were beheaded. They blew up schools. It was terrifying,” the local added.

The turning point came during Operation Brekhna, a three-phase military operation between January and September 2011 that, the army claims, resulted in 85-90 per cent of militants in the Agency being routed.

Locals, though, have a different view. “Before we used to fear the turban (the Taliban), now we fear the belt (the security forces),” said another resident of Ghallanai, referring to the army’s heavy-handed tactics in attempting to crush the Mohmand Taliban.

The Ghallanai bubble

The daytime, small-town hustle and bustle of Ghallanai is unmistakable. Headquarters of the political administration and with security forces in abundance, the Taliban’s public presence is not in evidence.

A visit to the office of the political agent, Adil Siddiq, inside a fortified compound of government and security offices, produced the official line: the main fight was over, security had improved dramatically and now the civil administration is ramping up development projects.

“In terms of security problems, I’d say Mohmand is 5.5 or six out of the seven agencies,” Siddiq said. “Since Operation Brekhna, the miscreants have been pushed out of the Pakistan border. There may be some local sympathisers but nothing more.”

“Mohmand isn’t like Karachi,” Siddiq added. “There are no no-go areas.”

In a nearby hujra, the head of an amn lashkar hinted at a different reality. Malik Sultan, a former local commander of the Afghan Taliban and belonging to the disputed Bahzai area nestled between the borders of Mohmand, Bajaur and Afghanistan, proudly displayed shrapnel scars on his limbs and talked of the many men he had lost fighting the Mohmand Taliban.

But when asked how and why the Mohmand Taliban were able to survive, Sultan demurred: “There is sympathy for the Afghan Taliban; after all, we are Muslims.”

Another local was more forthcoming in private: “The people (of Mohmand Agency) are backward and everything is about their culture and their religion. They have many children. So when someone comes and says, ‘Give us one of your sons for Islam,’ they don’t resist. The Taliban here have many sympathisers.”

And perhaps that’s why even in Ghallanai the day is of two very different halves.

“The bazaar here shuts at seven. After that no one dares go out. In other parts of the Agency, the shops close after Asr (prayers),” said a resident of Ghallanai while discussing the pervasive fear of either being ambushed by militants or targeted by security forces during what becomes a virtual curfew as the sun starts to set.Continuing onwards from Ghallanai, through the hills of Mohmand towards Safi tehsil, the stronghold of the Mohmand Taliban, it soon becomes obvious how far from normality the Agency still is.

(This is the first in a special two-part series on Mohmand Agency)

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