DARRA ADAM KHEL, Pakistan — The Taliban fighters were sitting in the back of a pickup, parked right outside the army fort in Darra Adam Khel, a wild town in Pakistan's troubled northwest that's famous for its arms bazaar.
The Islamic militia, linked with al Qaida, has controlled Darra for about six months. Wrapped in head scarves, with just their eyes showing, and bristling with weaponry, its members patrol the streets and impose their own austere rules. They've become such a routine sight in the town that no one pays them any attention.
The security forces, when they emerge from their fort, don't challenge the hot-blooded young militants. Even their presence outside the Pakistan Frontier Corp's White Fort in Darra didn't concern residents.
"What's wrong with that?" said Shah Mahmood, a tribal elder and gun store owner, when he was asked about the scene at the fort. "They (the Taliban) don't bother us, only those who are doing wrong. They have finished the robbers, the drug dealers, the kidnappers. Look, there is peace here now."
In theory, Pakistan's security forces are in opposition to the Taliban, who are now firmly entrenched across the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and encroaching on the adjacent region in the North West Frontier Province, known as the "settled" areas. In reality, the government has ceded large swathes of territory to the extremists.
Some blame President Pervez Musharraf, who removed colonial-era local government structures and replaced them with weak elected local officials in the settled areas and the military in the tribal areas, who couldn't maintain law and order.
Late last month, the Frontier Corp, a paramilitary force, launched an operation against Islamist warlords not linked to the Taliban who were based on the outskirts of Peshawar in the Khyber agency, a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Darra, just a 40-minute drive from Peshawar, is in the North West Frontier Province, which means it shouldn't be as lawless as the tribal areas. Yet the Taliban, far more hard-line than the Khyber agency's militants, operate with impunity in Darra. The rubble of a paramilitary checkpoint that they bombed marks the edge of the town.
The Taliban presence didn't seem to dent business in Darra's market. Bursts of gunfire jolted the main street every few minutes, as buyers tested weapons by letting off a few rounds into the air. While the gun stores are unique to Darra, butchers, candy shops and cafes grilling meat kebabs also were open.
In Mahmood's shop, a Kalashnikov copy made in Darra starts at $92, while a smuggled Russian-made model would cost $1,500. Darra produces all components of the weapons in tiny workshops, even the bullets.
On display at Mohammad Illyas' store was a new-looking American M-16 rifle, a bulky submachine gun that could have been taken from a dead U.S. soldier across the border in Afghanistan. Illyas wanted $7,000 for that M-16, and $3,400 for a 1970s-era model.
"People say that these Taliban here are Tajiks or Chechens or whatever, but that's a lie. They are our own people," Illyas said. "When there was government rule here, the police took money, the army took money. The Taliban don't. . . . We say George Bush is the terrorist, not the Taliban."
It would take a brave person to speak out against the Taliban. Girls and women in particular suffer under their rule, often banned from going to school or working. But the Taliban seem to be genuinely welcome in Darra and across the tribal belt, so exasperated is the population by the anarchy that prevailed under the Pakistani government.
"I would say that 70 percent of people support the Taliban," said Abdul Qadir Khan, a student in Peshawar from South Waziristan, the epicenter of Pakistan's Taliban movement. "That's because people don't have education, they don't have jobs. The Taliban say they are fighting a holy war."
While the Taliban can't bring economic development, they've cracked down on the criminal gangs that plague the northwest and have set up their own Islamic courts, which dispense speedy justice. And development projects weren't taking place anyway, locals said.
The Taliban were able to spread rapidly across Pakistan's northwest, experts said, because the colonial-era system of local government had broken down or been removed.
That administrative system, a legacy of the British empire, gave enormous powers to the local chief bureaucrat, known as the political agent in the tribal territories and the deputy commissioner in the rest of Pakistan. He controlled the security forces and acted as a magistrate, adjudicating on disputes, powers that could have been used to quash Taliban cells before they had a chance to mushroom. Adding fuel was the anger that the tribes of the area felt about Pakistan's alliance with Washington after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
"The perception that we are fighting someone else's war and the destruction of the institutional framework that could have dealt with the (security) crisis created an administrative vacuum. That was filled by the Taliban," said Rustam Shah, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan.
Musharraf's regime abolished the deputy commissioner structure six years ago — replacing it with elected mayors who had far fewer powers — in an attempt to provide democratic legitimacy to his army-led government. The political agent was sidelined after the army went into the tribal areas for the first time, after 9-11, against Afghan insurgents whom Pakistani tribes had given refuge there.
"The blunder was taking power away from the political administration and giving it to the army. The army then indulged in war with the local people," said Mohammad Amad, the executive director of IDEA, a nongovernmental organization that conducts social surveys in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Bashir Bilour, the senior minister of the provincial government in the North West Frontier Province, said that Taliban militants never would have been able to move last year into the area of Swat, a valley in the settled area, if a deputy commissioner had been in place.
"There was no government to challenge them" in Swat, Bilour said in an interview. "We propose bringing the (colonial) administrative system back."
To reinstate the deputy commissioners and wrest control of the tribal territories from the army would require strong action from the new federal government. However, Islamabad is caught up in a spiraling political crisis, and while some members of the coalition government have vowed to reverse Musharraf's local government revisions, the complexity of the task means that it's a long way down the agenda.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)