Pakistan

THE DANGER ZONE

In the tribal areas by the Afghan border, support for the Taliban remains high

ADNAN R. KHAN November 24 2003
Pakistan

THE DANGER ZONE

In the tribal areas by the Afghan border, support for the Taliban remains high

ADNAN R. KHAN November 24 2003

THE DANGER ZONE

In the tribal areas by the Afghan border, support for the Taliban remains high

Pakistan

ADNAN R. KHAN

The attackers drove an SUV disguised to look like a police vehicle, and they detonated their deadly cargo in a residential compound within blocks of the main palaces of the Saudi royal family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 18 and wounded 122. That Nov. 8 assault was only the latest sign that al-Qaeda remains active. But where is Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of the terrorist organization? Reports continue to place him in the mountainous area of western Pakistan that borders on Afghanistan, where support for Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime and al-Qaeda remains strong. Maclean’s contributing editor Adrian R. Khan recently travelled to South Waziristan, one of the seven tribal zones in that region. His report:

AT THE POLICE checkpoint south of Peshawar, a group of drivers mill about, chatting quietly. Officers closed the gate a halfhour earlier, cutting off the main route to Pakistan’s seven self-administered tribal zones, stretching for 600 km along the country’s border with Afghanistan. From the rooftop patio of our grubby roadside motel, my translator Tariq tells me that the drivers, their trucks parked in a line stretching

almost 100 m, will wait for a police escort before risking the last leg of their journey. “Night is when the kafirs come out,” he says, pronouncing as “godless” the criminals that lurk along the desolate roads. Finally a pickup arrives, and six officers brandishing AK-47s climb in to lead the convoy. “Tribal country,” Tariq says, stuffing a wad of snuff into his mouth. “Who knows what’s out there waiting for you?”

The reputation for lawlessness in this area is well known. Since Sept. 11, the region has become a hot zone in the U.S.-led war on international terrorism. Like the Taliban, the tribesmen are Pashtuns and adhere to a deeply conservative interpretation of Islam. Security experts believe that remnants of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, are hiding in the

mountains along the porous border.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has had to balance the region’s fundamentalism against mounting U.S. pressure to act. Radical Muslims in his country, including many entrenched in the military and the country’s secretive Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, are deeply anti-American and continue to support the Taliban. But with elements of the former regime mounting attacks in Afghanistan, Musharraf sent troops into the region in October and arrested hundreds of suspects. Even so, critics say the border area remains largely unpoliced, and Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters can easily take refuge in Pakistan.

AS I PREPARE to leave Tank, a market town 200 km south of Peshawar, I have to check in with Pakistani officials. Earlier in Peshawar, I was told I would have no trouble travelling into the territories, but the Pakistani authorities in Tank make it clear they don’t want me to go on. “No foreign press allowed,” they tell us, before ushering us out of their compound. But Tariq and I decide to ignore them and press on. Tariq loans me a long shirt and baggy pants—the combination worn by almost every man in the area. Going local will draw less attention to

us, though Tariq can’t stop laughing. “Welcome home, my Canadian brother,” he says, adjusting my collar. “A skullcap and beard and we’ll make you into a mullah yet.” Nice, but religion can get you killed in this deeply conservative part of Pakistan.

CRITICS say the

region remains largely unpoliced, and that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters can easily find refuge there

The British created the tribal areas, which have a population of almost six million, in 1893 to serve as a buffer between India and Afghanistan. The people were granted semiautonomy, which they maintained following the partition of northwest India to create Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan neglected the area, and the seeds of militant Islam were sown amid abject poverty and a virtual absence of secular education.

Madrassas, the religious schools that have gained notoriety since Sept. 11, began to flourish in the region after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Money for the schools,

which teach a strict form of Islam that focuses on holy war, flooded into the region, mostly from Saudi Arabia. The intent was to bulk up the forces fighting the Soviets. The program worked: many of the former Taliban leaders were graduates of these schools.

As we drive toward Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the road goes over dry riverbeds and drifting sand dunes. There is a persistent feeling that we’ve stepped into the past. Nomads still wander with their camels over an incongruous mix of desert and green vegetation. There is a marked absence of power and telephone lines. It’s as if history has skipped over this narrow track of land; for the Pashtun tribesmen life is as it has always been—simple and elemental.

Our first stop is Makine, a small market village. At the Pakistani compound the previous day in Tank, we’d met a Makine elder, Guisa Khan, who claimed to be the leader of a tribal “peace” committee created by the government to quietly handle internal problems. “I’ve kept the peace in South Waziristan since 1996,” Khan told us after ushering us into a quiet corner of the compound. But something seems to have gone awry. The group of 52 elders who make up the committee now want him out. Khan

says he is caught in a power struggle. “There are two families,” he said, “who are fighting for control of the area around Makine. They don’t like the Americans and they protect the Taliban. I work with the Pakistanis, so they both want me out of the way.”

In Makine only a few people are willing to discuss Khan. “Guisa Khan is a murderer,” says one shopkeeper. “Everyone here is afraid of him and that’s why they won’t speak up.” An old man goes a step further. “Taliban? Of course there are Taliban here,” he says. “Everyone loves the Taliban. They are Pashtun and so are we. We are all Talibs in the tribal areas, except Khan.”

With winter fast approaching, migrant workers are making their way out of the Afghan mountains to settle in the verdant valleys of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Musharraf’s government is under pressure to ensure that elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not travelling with them. There is a steady stream of families passing through South Waziristan. One family has settled down for a few days in a clearing just off the road, setting up tents and letting their camels graze on the scattered trees and shrubs. As we approach, we’re greeted by Gulab Khan, the 60-year-old patriarch, and his eldest son,

Tor. The family, Gulab tells us, has been on the road for over a week. Getting into Pakistan was simply a matter of paying a bribe at the border. “We have no documents,” Tor explains, “but that’s never been a problem in the past either. The only problem

FOR MANY, getting

into Pakistan from Afghanistan is simply a run-of-the-mill matter of bribing the border guards

this time was that there were Pakistani troops looking for al-Qaeda and Taliban. They looked us over but didn’t ask anything.” Tor doesn’t believe the army’s presence will make any difference in securing the border against the Taliban. “Al-Qaeda is easy,” he says. “They’re foreigners, mosdy Arab-speakers easy to spot. But how do you tell a Taliban commander from anyone else? They’re all Pashtuns. I could be a commander.” Rumours have been swirling for the past weeks that large numbers of Taliban loyalists are quietly coming into Pakistan for rest before returning to continue their fight. “Pashtuns

will support Pashtuns,” he says. “That’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years.”

A HALF-HOUR further down the road and the inevitable happens. At a checkpoint a guard asks to see my identification. I pass over my Pakistani passport (keeping my Canadian ID tucked away in my moneybelt), and he leads us into a sparsely furnished, smokestained room. Another guard, a superior by the looks of his uniform, is seated behind a large wooden desk. “You were told not to come into South Waziristan,” he says. “You’re trying to dodge us. Get them out of here.”

He hands me my passport. Another guard leads us back to the car and tells our driver that he’ll be accompanying us to Tank. When we arrive and go to the government compound, it’s deserted. The guard hurries off, and a few minutes later he casually returns. “You’re very lucky,” he says. “Everyone has gone for the day. You can go, but if you get caught again, you will be put in jail.”

Secrecy is preferred in tribal country. After 56 years, the Pakistani government is delicately sifting its way through the chaos its neglect of the region has created. In today’s troubled times, it’s better that foreigners not be allowed in to tell the tale. 151