Hundreds of Taliban fighters rushed to disguise themselves with new haircuts in the weeks before a Pakistani army assault, it has emerged, as refugees revealed details of life under the militants – and their taste for imported luxuries.
Azam Khan was one of the top barbers in Miranshah — the main town of North Waziristan — until he, like nearly half a million others, fled the long-awaited offensive unleashed by the Pakistan military on the tribal area in June.
He told AFP his business boomed in the month leading up to the army assault as the militants sought to shed their distinctive long-haired, bearded look.
“I have trimmed the hair and beards of more than 700 local and Uzbek militants ahead of the security forces’ operation,” he said while cutting hair in a shop in Bannu, the town where most civilians fled.
For years he cut Taliban commanders’ hair to match the flowing locks of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, killed by a US drone last November, but in May a change in style was called for.
“The same leaders came asking for trimming their beards and hair very short, saying that they were going to the Gulf and wanted to avoid problems at Pakistani airports,” Khan said.
Even Uzbeks and Tajiks with little knowledge of the local language came to him, he said.
“Knowing little Pashto, they used to utter four words: ‘mulgari (friend), machine, zero, Islamabad’,” said Khan — asking him to shave their beards to nothing so they could go to Islamabad.
The Pakistani military launched the offensive against militants in North Waziristan tribal area on June 15, vowing to wipe out the strongholds they have used to wreak countless deadly terror attacks across the nuclear-armed state.
The rugged, mountainous area on the Afghan border has been a hideout for years for Islamist militants of all stripes — including Al-Qaeda and the homegrown TTP as well as foreign fighters including Uzbeks and Uighurs.
For years people from North Waziristan remained tight-lipped about life in a Taliban fiefdom, scared of being kidnapped or even beheaded if they shared information about the militants.
But as the exodus of people has grown, some have found the confidence to tell their stories.
While the militants bombed and maimed thousands in their fight to install an austere sharia regime in Pakistan and publicly professed contempt for the West, in North Waziristan they indulged themselves with fancy imported goods.