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 valuable 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 American 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 Company, 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 arguments were fierce because the tribes knew that the Ziarat marble was of particularly fine texture and purity, comparable to Italian Carrara marble, according to an assessment done for the FATA Development Authority.
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.
The Taliban decided that one mountain in the Ziarat area belonged to the Masaud division of the main Safi tribe, and said that the Gurbaz subtribe would be rewarded with another mountain, Zaman, the contractor, said.
The mountain assigned to the Masauds was divided into 30 portions, he said, and each of six villages in the area was assigned five of the 30 portions. Zaman said the Taliban demanded about $1,500 commission upfront for each portions, giving the insurgents a quick $45,000.
The Taliban also demanded a tax of about $7 on each truckload of marble, he said. With a constant flow of trucks out of the quarry, the Taliban were now collecting up to $500 a day, Zaman said.
A senior Pakistani official and a Pakistani businessman who works in the marble industry, neither of whom wanted to be identified for fear of retaliation from the Taliban, confirmed the account.
Today the quarry runs as a relatively rudimentary affair 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 ferry the rock away. But the quarry’s reopening has given something to everyone.
The local tribes are profiting along with the Taliban. Once the trucks reach the processing plants, the government, too, collects a hefty tax, nearly double that of the Taliban, Zaman said, though there was no way to verify the claim. The Taliban appeared to have no problem with the government taking a share, he said.
So far, he said, the Taliban were overseeing the operation with a light hand: a single armed Taliban fighter sat at a checkpoint not far from Zaman’s hut to ensure that the tax was paid.
The Taliban is today a loose organization of mostly ethnic Pashtuns divided in two wings, one on each side of the border. Their leader in Mohmand goes by the name Abdul Wali, a guerrilla fighter in his 30s who rose to prominence last year when his group occupied a famous shrine in the village of Ghazi Abad in Mohmand.
He is affiliated with the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, a powerful ally of Al Qaeda who keeps his base in South Waziristan, another part of the tribal areas.
Working with Al Qaeda, the Taliban have steadily tightened their grip over much of the tribal areas in the last several years by cowing or killing hundreds of local tribal chiefs who were the area’s traditional authorities.
In Mohmand, the Taliban have speedily consolidated control in the last year. They have filled a vacuum left by a vacillating government, unable and unwilling to assert its authority, said Munir Orekzei, a member of Parliament from Kurram, southwest of Mohmand, one of the seven districts, or agencies, in the tribal areas.
“In every agency the most powerful man is the Taliban,” Orekzei said. “Because if someone says, ‘I’m in favor of the government,’ he will be killed.”
At the same time, people in the tribal areas believe some branches of the Pakistani government are encouraging the Taliban in their route to power, he said.
Orekzei said he recently attended a meeting with Rehman Malik, the Pakistani interior minister, and tribal leaders in Peshawar, capital of the nearby North-West Frontier Province.
“Rehman Malik asked why the people in the tribal areas were not fighting back against the Taliban,” Orekzei said. “I told him the people believe the government is behind the Taliban. I said, you tell the public what you are doing, and if they believe the government is not behind the Taliban, they will fight.”
The Taliban’s authority had become so firm in the last two months, it was too dangerous for legislators from the tribal areas to return to their constituencies, Orekzei said.
Only the capital of Mohmand, the small town of Ghalanai, remains unequivocally in government hands. There, the political agent, the representative of the governor of North-West Frontier Province, keeps a house and offices. But his power barely extends beyond the town’s limits, and he is unable to offer government services to ease the region’s poverty, local people say.
Next door to his compound, a public hospital remains underused because doctors, put off by poor salaries and insecurity, refuse to work there. Health conditions are appalling.
The weakness of the government has left people helpless before the Taliban threat, Orekzei and other local officials said. Most families had given a man to the Taliban cause, often as a measure of protection against the militants.
The territory has become a magnet for other militants from farther afield as well. More and more of them are coming from abroad, American officials say. But Taliban fighters encountered in Mohmand said they had come from all over Pakistan, revealing the Taliban’s reach into the heart of the country.
Some Taliban fighters said that they had come for the summer from cities like Karachi and Rawalpindi, where they run food stalls or work in hotels, and that they would return home at the start of winter when freezing weather envelops the mountains.
The government security force, a paramilitary group called the Frontier Corps, which serves under the command of the Pakistani Army, does little to challenge the Taliban in the tribal areas, despite occasional skirmishes. On the road north of Ghalanai, there were no Frontier Corps patrols, and 25 miles from Ghalanai the Taliban were in firm control.
With the government so weak, the Taliban are accepted as the ruling power in many places in the tribal areas, local officials say. They wield an unflinching hand, to the point of conducting public executions, against the lawlessness that prevails in the region.
In Mohmand, they have imposed extra restrictions on women in the already conservative society, forbidding them to venture into fields and ordering their heads shaved if they flout the edict, according to the handful of legislators who represent the tribal areas in Parliament.
In a place called Chinarai, a two-hour drive from the Afghan border, the Taliban maintain a prison, where the reporter and photographer were held. On a recent day, there were about a dozen people in the compound, all of them manacled and kept in dark small rooms.
In a sign that the internal workings of the Taliban were not entirely smooth, several of the detainees were Taliban, and one of the prisoners was a relative of top Taliban commanders.
Life for the prisoners was spare at best. They were denied cellphones, the most valued possession among the Taliban. Prison food consisted of poorly cooked rice and vegetables. Soap appeared to be used only for body washing, not for cleaning of cooking pots and utensils.
Taliban officials reviewing the prisoners’ cases spent much time debating how they should be punished under the Shariah, or Islamic law, imposed by the Taliban. One of the prisoners was suspected of working with the Afghan Army; another was accused of tearing down a Taliban notice.
One man accused of kidnapping was taken out of the prison and beaten into confessing.
Recently, Mohmand has become a center of kidnapping for ransom, a new activity that appears to be another important source of revenue for the Taliban. But the Ziarat quarry will be far more profitable, many people here say.
Even in its current rough condition, the quarry is such a good deal for the Taliban that one tribesman, known as Bahadar, who works there, predicted, “If this continues for two more years, they will take on America itself.”