BARA, Pakistan — The only thing standing between Pakistan's Taliban and the lifeline for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan may be an Islamist warlord who controls the area near Pakistan's famed Khyber Pass.
In an interview with McClatchy, Mangal Bagh, who leads a group called Lashkar-i-Islam, voiced his disdain for America but said he's rebuffed an offer from the Taliban to join them.
Truckloads of food, equipment and fuel for NATO troops wind through the Khyber Pass daily to the bustling border at Torkham. Last month, Taliban fighters bombed fuel trucks waiting at Torkham to cross into Afghanistan, and last week, fighting between Bagh's men and a pocket of Taliban resistance closed the highway for several days.
Locals said that Bagh wouldn't allow Taliban fighters to cross into the Khyber agency, which is part of Pakistan's tribal belt and is now largely under his control.
Bagh's stronghold, the market town of Bara, is a half-hour drive from the center of Peshawar, the provincial capital, but an escort of his heavily armed followers is needed to reach his fortified compound in the countryside.
"I'm not the ruler of Khyber, I'm the servant," said Bagh, 35, who had an unexpectedly gentle manner as he relaxed with his Kalashnikov-toting men, drinking tea. "My aim is to finish all social evils."
The Pakistani Taliban, who control other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the country's wild northwestern border, have issued repeated entreaties to Bagh to join forces with them. A traditional jirga, a meeting of elders, was held between Lashkar-i-Islam and the Taliban about 40 days ago.
"I told them (the Taliban) that what I am doing is enough. It is the right direction. There is no need to join you," he said.
"The Taliban consists of religious scholars. We are fighters for Islam, laypeople. We don't have any religious figures in our organization."
Unlike the Taliban and al Qaida, Lashkar-i-Islam opposes kidnappings and suicide bombings. Bagh's message is more an austere one, that "vices" must end, rather than the calls for international jihad, or Islamic holy war, of the Taliban and al Qaida.
However, he also called the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan "wrong" and said American troops must leave.
"While the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is no way to bring peace and prosperity, over there and here," Bagh said. "We do not want to kill Americans, we just want to make them Muslims."
Bagh, now called the "Emir," used to drive a bus and has built an empire in three years. He said he has more than 10,000 men under his command and could summon as many 120,000 — greater than the number of Pakistani soldiers stationed in all the tribal areas.
Bagh's stance has led to allegations that he has ties to Pakistani authorities or to the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
One of the senior members of Lashkar-i-Islam, Mistry-Sahib, denied any connection with the Pakistan state.
"We don't want to fight the government (unlike the Taliban); it is our country," said Mistry. "We just want peace in our area. We have no connection with the government because their policies are not right."
Pakistani authorities appear to have withdrawn from Bara and much of Khyber agency, and they've taken no recent action to rein in Bagh.
In Bara, the local government office was padlocked, and no army or police were visible on the streets. Lashkar-i-Islam has, it seems, become the de facto police, driving around in four-wheel-drive vehicles with flashing blue lights.
A local politician who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said: "If we finish Mangal Bagh, the Taliban will come in. He's a better alternative. At least he will never pick up his gun against Pakistan."
No women were walking around in Bara. Lashkar-i-Islam's harsh strictures, delivered on a pirate radio station, appear to have driven them indoors. In the market, people praised Bagh for cracking down on crime, which had been rampant.
Only a brave man, however, would criticize Bagh openly. Praying five times a day at the mosque is now mandatory, although it's a source of pride for Bagh that he's left Bara's small but conspicuous Sikh community alone.
"Conditions are good," said one Sikh in the market, Sant Singh. "When there is the azaan (the Islamic call to prayer), people leave their shops open and go to the mosque. There is no theft here anymore."
Bagh said that people frustrated by the government's failure to bring law and order to Khyber have flocked to his movement.
"I just preached, praised Islam. It was not difficult for me to organize these people. They are not my followers, they are followers of the Quran."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)