Defying a travel ban, ADNAN R. KHAN visits northwest Pakistan, where the West is seen as the aggressor
Defying a travel ban, ADNAN R. KHAN visits northwest Pakistan, where the West is seen as the aggressor
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, semi-autonomous fief doms on Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan, sit amid the birthplace of Islamic extremism. Notoriously hard to administer by the British Empire and independent Pakistan alike, the region thrives on a culture of smuggling and a distrust of outsiders. It is here that Osama bin Laden may have found refuge among people honour-bound to protect their guests. And it is here that Islamic schools, or madrasas, of the type that trained two of the bombers in the July 7 attacks on London, indoctrinate students with a virulently anti-Western strain of the religion. Defying a Pakistani ban on journalists visiting the area, Adnan R. Khan took the back roads south of Peshawar, and found a culture convinced that Islam—and the local Pashtun people—have to protect themselves from a belligerent West.
IT BEGINS with a midnight meeting on a rooftop restaurant in the heart of Peshawar’s old city. Muhammad is there when I arrive, sprawled out on the Afghan carpeting with a brighdy coloured cushion tucked under one elbow. Three storeys down on the frenetic street, the buzz of people is beginning to taper off after a frenzy of nighttime activity, typical of Peshawar in the hot summer months. Most people don’t dare venture out during the day, when the temperature tops 40 and restaurants sit empty until the oppressive sun sinks low into the thick blanket of pollution. Muhammad lights a cigarette as my translator and I sit down around a half-eaten roasted chicken.
He has a plan. “We will go on a back route to Angoor Ada,” he says after the customary greetings and introduction. That’s on the Afghan border, in the heart of the Tribal Areas on Pakistan’s restive western frontier. Pakistan’s militant indoctrination centres, the ideologically extreme madrasas that have been the bane of moderate Islam, are concentrated in the region. They preach a puritan brand of Islam, one
Smuggling is a prime source of income along the rugged frontier
that fancies itself at war with the West.
Muhammad (a pseudonym) sucks back Player’s Gold Flake cigarettes like an asthmatic uses an inhaler. He’s trustworthy enough as a guide, my translator assures me, but not someone you want to cross. With his luxuriant beard framing a set of
pursed lips, his asymmetrical eyes constantiy squinting, he looks like he’s trying to decide whether to kill you or merely do some damage. But he knows the back routes well, having plied them for over 20 years, ferrying a variety of goods, licit and not so licit, back and forth across the rugged mountains that nominally divide Pakistan from its warravaged neighbour. And he knows how to slip the military checkpoints that have popped up all across Tribal country since the onset of the war on terror.
Gen. Shaukat Sultan, a ranking military public relations officer, tells me the government has barred journalists from going into the region “for your own security.” I suspect it has more to do with the Pakistan military’s failure to bring order to the region. The numbers tell the story: 70,000 troops deployed in Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs), bordering Afghanistan’s restive southeast. Since operations there began in 2003, 306 suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have been killed, along with 251 Pakistani soldiers—a dispiriting ratio that underscores the lack of success in confronting terrorist threats in the mountainous Tribal belt.
Tribal country is notoriously difficult to tame. Finding itself unable to bring the fierce Pashtun tribes in line, the Empire resorted to special-status deals with local leaders. Caught in its own military stalemate over the past two years, Pakistan has adopted a similar tack, opting for negotiated settlements rather than armed confrontation. Maliks, the leaders of the disparate tribes, have been paid off or granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for peace.
The tactic has had mixed results. One malik from the powerful Wazir tribe was killed, allegedly by an American laser-guided missile, when a peace deal he signed in April 2004 fell apart almost immediately. Other agreements have secured an unsteady peace, but without forcing the tribal leaders to disarm their militias or turn over terrorist suspects. Part of the problem, explains Sultan, are local “sensitivities,” a euphemism for the strict honour code called pashtunwali. Any attempt to infringe on what Pashtuns feel are their inherent rights, including possessing weapons and protecting their guests, is met with firm resistance.
In addition, Muhammad warns, the Tribal Areas are now crawling with Pakistani security agents. “We will not be able to stay
very long,” he says before we board a bus to Wana, the main city in the South Waziristan Tribal Agency. “Someone will figure out you’re a foreigner and start asking questions. You can stay one night at my house in Angoor Ada, two maybe, but that’s all.” I agree. Despite the local look I’ve adopted
—a reverse-Pygmalion transformation swapping my dress shirt and cargo pants for a $5 shalwar-kameez, the baggy shirt and pant combo worn by 100 per cent of the male population in the Tribal Areas—I still have the aura of someone who just doesn’t belong. I was born a few hundred kilometres from
here, but I’m Punjabi, and the Pashtuns know the difference.
The road to Angoor Ada from Wana, through dry riverbeds and oddly incongruous forest and arid mountain terrain, is an apt metaphor for the wayward course of history in this area. Time and distance don’t mesh here, a place where the 50-km trip takes nearly three hours, and feels more like a lifetime. Muhammad has hired a friend in Wana to drive us in his 4x4 pickup, and the two of them spend the vast majority of the journey fixated on how difficult it’s become to carry on their smuggling operations. “I’m paying five times the bribes I used to pay to get across the border,” the friend complains. “And the routes in Afghanistan are patrolled by Americans. I can get around them but it makes my job harder, taking the more
doesn’t mean anything to us,’ says a tea stall owner. ‘It’s just another word for Westernization.’
difficult trails.” Many of the locals in the dilapidated mud villages we pass depend on smuggling for their livelihoods, and any disruption to the industry has a trickle-down effect. Anger in Tribal country, as a result, can be grounded as much in economics as in religious zeal.
Angoor Ada is a tense place, a one-road village locked in a perpetual battle with erosion. Muhammad’s warning that I would stick out was well-placed: people stare, curiously at first but with a gradual transition to scorn. “You look Punjabi,” Muhammad says. “Pashtuns and Punjabis don’t have a very good relationship.” The Pakistan military’s ongoing presence in Tribal country has strained the rapport between the various groups that make up Pakistan’s complex ethnic mosaic. Attacks on non-Pashtuns in the Tribal Areas are on the rise, a direct consequence of Pakistan’s war on the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. In other parts of Pakistan, sectarian violence, largely between Shia and Sunni Muslims, has marred the philosophy of “enlightened moderation” promoted so zealously by President
Pakistan | >
Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
“Moderation doesn’t mean anything to us,” says Ghulam Nabi, a tea stall owner in Angoor Ada. “It’s just another word for Westernization. We are Pashtuns and we will die honourably as Pashtuns.” And they are dying, eight shot and killed in Angoor Ada alone since the start of Pakistan’s military operations, according to Nabi. In other parts of the Tribal belt, the death toll is difficult to gauge. Tribal conflicts mixed with criminal activity peppered with the war on terror have produced a culture of violence so deeply entrenched that it seems impossible it will ever be completely purged. The solution, according to Nabi, is simple: “Leave us alone.”
But that seems unlikely. With the London underground bombings and their connection to Pakistan reigniting tensions, villages like Angoor Ada are facing a difficult future. “There are dozens like this one in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Muhammad, whose smuggling routes often run through the scattered settlements in the border region. “They are isolated and very close-knit communities. An entire village is usually made up of only one or two families, so the ties are strong.” Support for the Taliban runs high, he adds, but not for the reasons someone in the West might think.
“These aren’t religious fanatics,” Muhammad insists. “My brother has a picture of Osama in his house. He also has pictures of Bollywood stars. He’s nothing like the fanatics you read about in the newspapers. He’s a gentle man who works hard to support his family. Like you, I think. Not much different from anyone in the West.” But in Pashtun culture, Muhammad explains, the tie to family and tribe trumps everything. The Taliban are Pashtun and, therefore, allegiance to them is natural for the conservative villagers. “Besides,” he adds, “the Americans and Pakistanis have only brought pain and heartache.”
The next morning, I ask Muhammad to take me to one of the madrasas that still operate around Angoor Ada, despite the Pakistani government’s vow to crack down on them. When we arrive at the religious school,
only for show, to show the Americans that something is being done.” As for al-Qaeda, Sultan Muhammad only laughs. “What is al-Qaeda?” he asks. Foreigners, even if they’re Muslim, are viewed with suspicion in Tribal country, more so now than ever. The Pashtuns are not fighting for al-Qaeda, he says. They’re fighting for Pashtuns.
In these time-encapsulated areas, al-Qaeda appears no more than a loose rubric designed to give a face to a feeling. If al-Qaeda means anti-Americanism, then yes, these people are al-Qaeda supporters. But if we include all of the other facets of terrorism—the cold disregard for innocent lives, the psychology of fear and the insatiable hunger for revenge—then any evidence that the people of Angoor Ada are anything like the “evil-doers” of the Western imagination is hard to come by.
And yet, almost to a person, they would observe tradition and protect bin Laden, give him shelter and the meagre food they have, and guard him against the roaming bands of Pakistani military. “It would be an honour,” says Ghulam Nabi. “He fights for our way of life.” Al-Qaeda or no al-Qaeda, the sad fact remains that the violent culture the Tribal Areas has nurtured has become a threat to the West. “Life here will have to change,” says Muhammad as we begin our arduous journey out of Tribal country, “but not before a lot more blood is spilled.” lí1!!
the students, ranging in age from 5 to their teens, are engrossed in memorizing the Koran. The imam, Sultan Muhammad, proudly points out that his school has produced half a dozen hafiz, people who have memorized the entire holy book, in the past year alone.
While the imam insists he does not preach violence, the message of hostility toward Western culture is undeniable. “The West is
even if they’re Muslim, are viewed with suspicion in the Tribal Areas, now more than ever
an enemy of Islam,” he says. “They have attacked us and we are defending ourselves.” But he adds that sending holy warriors abroad is not something he agrees with; there is enough of a fight to be had in Afghanistan and the Tribal Areas, a fight he believes the jihadists are destined to win. The Pakistani military “can’t do regular patrols in the Tribal Areas, it would be too dangerous for them,” he says. “They don’t realize what they’re dealing with. The mountain people are warriors. Their operations are
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