PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistani holy warriors are deserting Taliban ranks and streaming home in large numbers, tribal leaders said Friday, while in the streets of Peshawar, portraits of Usama bin Laden go unsold.
Here where it counts, just across the Khyber Pass from the heartland of Afghanistan, the Taliban mystique is waning.
"It was shameful to us to see them run away from Kabul," said Syed Rais ul Hassan, a business executive who is a Pashtun like most of the Taliban. "Our way is to stay and fight."
Fazal Ullah, son of clan leader Maulana Sufi Mohammed, said a main force of 10,000 to 11,000 Pakistanis had been routed and at least half of them have come home over the past few days.
Ullah, reached by telephone in the autonomous tribal areas east of here, said he feared hundreds of those still missing may have been killed or captured. He said he had lost contact with his father in Afghanistan.
"This retreat was a war tactic of the Taliban because they could not resist both bombing and a ground attack," he said. But, he added, the Pakistanis chose not to follow the Taliban into their Kandahar stronghold.
One Pakistani tribal group, Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammedi, claimed they had sent more than 12,000 people to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Of that, 6,000 to 7,000 have returned in recent days, they said, while 600-700 others who went to Mazar-e-Sharif have not been heard from.
Other leaders confirmed that Pakistani fighters had returned from Afghanistan, leaving many casualties behind, although some had lower estimates.
The reports could not be confirmed with precision since neither foreigners nor uninvited non-Pashtun Pakistanis are allowed into the swath of tribal land that adjoins the unpatrolled mountainous border.
But in Peshawar itself, the picture was plain.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when President Bush blamed bin Laden and the Taliban, tents went up by crowded markets to collect money and recorded Quranic chants fired up sentiments.
When Kabul fell, the tents disappeared.
"The Taliban have gone, and those tents went with them," observed a banana vendor who uses the single name, Ashfaq.
Nearby, 18-year-old Taj Wali offered a discount on a T-shirt emblazoned with bin Laden's enigmatic smile and the words, "The Great Mujahid [warrior] of Islam. Jihad is our mission."
Wali had been selling at least a dozen a day, sometimes many more. Now, he said, he was lucky to unload two or three.
In late September and all through October, crowds in the thousands marched regularly through Peshawar's ancient narrow streets. After fiery abuse of America and Jews, they burned a comical effigy of Bush.
Clusters of armed police used to stand nearby, ready for action.
This Friday after prayers, several hundred Muslim militants shuffled through the streets, followed by a handful of policemen carrying sticks who looked more like a bunch of old friends on an afternoon stroll.
When speeches ended, there was no burning Bush.
Shops which had shut down during the earlier marches all remained open, and few customers cast a glance toward the rally.
Emotions "are not so high now," said Inayat Shah, police sector commander. "We don't think there's much risk for trouble anymore."
Mullahs harangued the crowd as before, shouting themselves hoarse to denounce America and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, but crowd responses were tepid. A low murmur followed the shouted word, "jihad!"
Maqsood Ahmad Salfi of a local religious party assured the small crowd the Taliban was merely regrouping for a big finish. "We should not be disappointed," he said. "There will be a triumphant end."
On the fringes, Ahmed Shah looked doubtful. A young man with fashionably flipped hair and a hound's tooth vest over a traditional knee-length shirt, he reflected aloud that the Taliban had lost credibility.
"They were very harsh, and they tortured women," he said. "We don't like that. Muslims don't teach that sort of thing."
Despite the shift in fortunes, bin Laden and the Taliban still have plenty of support in Peshawar and the surrounding tribal areas.
"It is not finished," proclaimed Kansar Hussain, 10, as he listened to the speeches. "The Taliban will come again."
Nonetheless, Peshawar's judgment was rendered in the Jehangir Pura tea house, where Peshawaris have sat on the tiled floor and argued right and wrong for generations.
Oil burbled in pans over open-fire stone stoves. Wood ceilings and painted murals were cracked with age, and the only sign of modernity was a television in the corner blaring bad news for Taliban sympathizers.
Inzar Gul, 48, sipped tea and expressed the majority opinion.
"The Taliban will still be there," he said. "But where before they were rulers, now they will be just ordinary people. Bin Laden will go back to where he came from. The Americans won't get him. He'll just go."