ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Barbers are too scared to shave their customers' chins. Alleged thieves are paraded before jeering crowds. People suspected of spying for Americans are found beheaded.
Tales of Taliban-style justice in the tribal belt along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan are proliferating, a sign the region, which already serves as a rear base for militants fighting in Afghanistan, is slipping further out of government control.
The United States voiced growing concern this week that Al Qaeda was regrouping in the same region. U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell said Tuesday in Washington that Usama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were believed to be hiding in northwestern Pakistan and trying to establish an operational base there.
A day earlier on a visit to Islamabad, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered that message of concern to Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose recent strategy to seek peace with pro-Taliban tribesmen in preference to military confrontation appears to have backfired.
"The pro-Taliban militants are making their presence felt in some very ugly ways," said Samina Ahmed, South Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that works toward conflict resolution. "They seem to be dictating the agenda."
For instance, in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan border region and a militant stronghold, residents say the Taliban run an office where locals can file complaints and receive a quick ruling based on Islamic law from a 10-member committee that includes a rebellious militant commander, Sadiq Noor.
The committee has reputedly dealt with family feuds and seized suspected thieves. Shopkeepers report that three men accused of stealing cars were driven through jeering crowds in the nearby town of Mir Ali last week, their faces blackened and their heads shaved.
The committee has not yet dealt with any major crimes, partly as the fear of Taliban justice has succeeded in curbing lawlessness, at least in the main towns, residents say.
Further north, several barbers in the Bajur region said in January that they would no longer shave customers' beards after receiving a warning that it was "un-Islamic" and threatening unspecified punishment.
The warning echoed a decree issued under Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime ordering all men to grow beards.
There is little indication that authorities are willing or able to confront such developments in an area steeped in Islamic radicalism since it was a base for the mujahideen war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Taliban fighters and al-Qaida militants — including Arabs and Central Asians — poured into Pakistan's rugged border zone in 2001 and 2002, as U.S.-led forces drove them from Afghanistan, and found refuge in the fortress-like houses of sympathetic tribes and Afghan refugee communities.
Under U.S. pressure to pursue the militants, Musharraf sent troops into the semiautonomous region for the first time in Pakistan's 60-year history. Hundreds have been killed in the operations, most since 2004.
Then Musharraf changed tack. A truce struck in North Waziristan in September demanded militants stop attacks into Afghanistan and halt 'Talibanization' in return for troops moving out of towns like Miran Shah, while retaining a presence along the border. A peace agreement was signed in neighboring South Waziristan in 2005.
Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai, the top official in northwestern Pakistan, defended the government's strategy. He recently told reporters that the reports of barbers refusing to shave beards and Taliban-style courts were isolated incidents that reflect ethnic Pashtun tribal tradition rather than a fundamentalist takeover.
But tribal elders who act as guarantors for the deal in North Waziristan appear powerless to enforce it, and even Musharraf has acknowledged that some security forces have been turning a blind eye to militant infiltration.
American and Afghan officials complain of rising cross-border attacks and U.S. intelligence director Mike McConnell said Tuesday in Washington that the September deal is helping efforts by al-Qaida to establish training camps and other operations there.
It remains very difficult to verify that intelligence, and Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao on Wednesday denied it, saying the U.S. had shared no such information with Pakistan.
Perhaps the most ominous sign on the ground that the peace deal is not working are the scores of individuals accused of being aligned with the government or working as foreign agents who have been found shot or beheaded.
The latest case came Tuesday, when the body of a school teacher was discovered in a sack by a road in South Waziristan.
A note found with the corpse identified the slain man as "Akhtar Usman, the one who spied for America." The single word "Hypocrite" was scrawled on the temple of his severed head in Urdu, Pakistan's main language.