By Sharmeen Obaid
correspondent Sharmeen Obaid.
September 14, 2004
On a warm afternoon in August, I traveled by car along the
old caravan route toward Wazirdhand, a village in the tribal
belt of the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan. The road
is lined with camels and mules that make their way from Afghanistan
into Pakistan laden with smuggled wares, including spare parts
for cars, Chinese television sets and -- especially since the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- drugs and guns.
For security reasons, the Pakistani government deters foreigners
from entering the tribal belt, and there are several police
checkpoints along this route. The ban had been imposed when
the United States began bombing Afghanistan. At that time, tribal
emotions were running high, and it was feared that foreigners
might be attacked on sight. Our car was flagged down at one
checkpoint, and my driver and I were provided with two local
policemen as armed escorts.
On a Razor's Edge"
Watch the streaming video of a FRONTLINE/World story, aired in March 2004, on Pakistan's turbulent politics.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan are located
on a narrow strip of land that runs along the Afghan border.
One of these tribal areas is South Waziristan, where Osama bin
Laden is rumored to be hiding and where the Pakistani army has
in recent months arrested hundreds of al Qaeda operatives.
The terrain here is a tangle of difficult mountains intersected
by long narrow valleys. Clusters of fortified hamlets dot the
land. Our car passed several signboards warning motorists not
to wander off the main highway because just a few meters off
the main road Pakistani law gives way to tribal law. Our car
passed half a dozen shops crammed with guns and -- as my driver
pointed out -- hashish and opium paste. This is a region where
women seldom leave their homes unaccompanied. The few women
that I did see were scurrying along, wrapped in bright blue
burqas, reminiscent of the Taliban. Yet here I was, traveling
alone but for my driver.
the start of the tribal belt, signs such as this one warn
foreigners from entering the area.
Under pressure from the United States after 9/11, Pakistan deployed its army in the tribal belt for the first time in the country's history. In March 2004, notwithstanding stiff resistance from tribal leaders and leading religious clerics, President Pervez Musharraf's government launched its massive "spring operation" in South Waziristan, deploying 70,000 troops along the Afghan border to capture members of al Qaeda who were seeking refuge in the area. Just last week the Pakistani army announced it had bombed a suspected al Qaeda border camp, killing at least 50 people, including Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens.
When I was in the North-West Frontier province earlier this
year, doing a television
segment for FRONTLINE/World, I met with Maulana Sami
ul-Haq, a founding member of Muttahida Majlis-e-Ama, a coalition
of powerful religious parties. Sami ul-Haq is best known for
his madrassah (Islamic religious school), which has trained
thousands of students over the years to fight in Afghanistan
and Kashmir as jihadis. He accused Pakistan's President Musharraf
of allowing U.S. troops to cross the Afghan-Pakistan border
in search of al Qaeda. "They will leave our borders in shambles,"
he protested. "They want Muslims to be tied up like goats and
sheep so that they can slaughter us at their will."
Sami ul-Haq's views are shared by a large segment of the uneducated
Pakistani population, who strongly oppose the Pakistani army's
incursions into the tribal belt. Although there are no official
figures as to how many soldiers have lost their lives in the
conflict, the army has faced fierce opposition. But that has
not deterred Musharraf's government, which signed an agreement
with tribal representatives earlier this month stipulating that
any tribesman found guilty of providing shelter to foreign militants
would have to pay a fine of approximately $80,000 and would
have his house demolished.
Gul Zaman Jahan, who fought in Afghanistan
against the Soviets and later alongside the Taliban, poses
with his horse in Wazirdhand's market.
As the U.S. presidential election approaches, many in the
tribal belt are worried that terrorist attacks within Pakistan
will intensify. Al Qaeda has a strong following in Pakistan because of the Pakistani
madrassa system (Islamic religious schools), which has a student population
of close to two million. A large number of recruits for al Qaeda
come from these schools. As the hunt for bin Laden continues,
so do the assassination attempts on the lives of the Pakistani
president and his government officials. Nevertheless, the Pakistani
government does not seem to be backing down. Neither, however,
are the followers of bin Laden backing down, leaving the country
in a precarious state.
Now Entering Wazirdhand
In the village of Wazirdhand's main market, turbaned Pashtuns,
armed with semi-automatic guns, sat sipping tea. Loud Indian
music blared from colorfully decorated buses that were crammed
with passengers heading to Afghanistan. Young boys made their
way through narrow mud alleys carrying trays of green tea for
shopkeepers. Vegetable sellers lined the streets, screaming
their prices to whoever cared to hear them. And at one end of
the market, a few children played marbles in the dirt, occasionally
stopping to stare at me.
The tribal belt is unlike any other part of Pakistan, and people
living in the cities sometimes consider practices here to be barbaric.
Local women are rarely educated and never work outside their homes.
The Pashtuns are renowned for their ferocity and for their feudal
code, Pashtunwali, which is based upon hospitality, revenge and
honor. Under the code, swara persists, a practice in which
young girls and women are handed over to rival parties to settle
disputes or conflicts. If a man has committed an offense against
a particular family, his younger sister is frequently delivered
to the aggrieved family to keep them from prosecuting or initiating
other formal redress.
Under the practice of swara,
young Pashtun tribal girls are often handed over to rival
parties to settle disputes.
Few of Pakistan's federal laws apply in its tribal areas. To settle differences, a system of jirga is enforced. A jirga is a group of tribal elders, mostly uneducated, who sit together and solve problems in accordance with their customs and traditions and in as short a time as possible. The jirga is in charge of prescribing punishments to offenders as well as maintaining law and order.
Of late, conversations in Wazirdhand have centered on the role of the Pakistan army in South Waziristan. A large number of Pashtuns are upset with the Musharraf government because the army incursions go against the tribal laws of hospitality. Whether outlaw, defector or long-lost relative, anyone who takes refuge in the tribal belt is considered a guest, and tribal leaders do not turn their guests over to the police or the army.
On this afternoon, Malik Niseer Khan, a tribal elder of Wazirdhand, was
sitting in his courtyard discussing politics with tribal leaders
from adjoining areas. When I walked in, they grew silent. The
silence lasted for a few minutes -- the leaders were deciding
what to make of me. Women have never been allowed to listen to
their deliberations, indeed, are not even allowed to enter the
male-dominated courtyard. However, because I was Malik Niseer
Khan's guest, the conversation soon resumed.
Tribal men relaxed the rules to allow the reporter, a woman, to join them
for a meal. Many Muslims sit on the ground and eat because their Prophet
Mohammed did so. These men are eating a typical lunch of barbecued meat,
flat bread and green tea.
I was apprehensive and unsure of how I was supposed to act around tribal elders. As a sign of respect, I had to keep my head covered at all times, and I had to keep reminding myself not to interrupt a conversation between two elders because to do so is considered disrespectful. I sat down in one corner of the courtyard and remained there until Malik Niseer gestured in my direction and asked me to join the conversation. I later learned that there had been an intense debate about how I was to be treated, and it was decided that I would be regarded as an "honorary male" because I was a journalist.
I was surprised to hear a few elders blaming the militants for disrupting
the peace in this region. "We gave the Afghans refuge and look
what they did to us -- they brought in arms and drugs and took
away our sons for jihad. Now these very same Afghans are planning
attacks on our soil. The Pakistani government needs to send
them home," argued 65-year-old Gul Zaman Jahan, who fought in
Afghanistan against the Soviets and later against the Northern
Alliance. Jahan felt that the Afghans have never been loyal
to Pakistan and that their influences have ruined the Pashtun
Through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, there were more than 2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, almost 80 percent of them in the tribal areas. These refugees took jobs away from Pakistanis by working for lower wages, and their sheer numbers put pressure on the already fragile social system of schools and hospitals.
Among the guests I met that afternoon was a young man named Abdur Hameed, who had just started a computer training school for young adults in the area. He had briefly served in the Pakistan army a few years ago and was very proud of their incursions into South Waziristan. "The terrain there is very hostile," he told me, "and the Pakistani soldiers are not familiar with the area at all, yet they have managed to arrest a large number of these terrorists."
His younger brother, Abdur Ghani, who had recently spent some time in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban, was not so convinced. "The Pakistan army has no right to be in the tribal belt. They claim that the militants are members of al Qaeda, but the people they are arresting are Pakistanis who have no connection to militant groups. It's all a show. The army just wants to please the Americans," he said.
The courtyard was buzzing with multiple conversations, and
I noticed that the younger members of the group had far more
radical views about Islam and Pakistan's future than the elders
had. These young men had either grown up during the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan or had fought alongside the Taliban. Their religious
indoctrination was far more rigorous than that of their parents,
and they seemed more inclined to use violence to achieve their
goals. Naik Ali Khan, a retired government official, pulled
me aside and told me, "The so-called militants in Waziristan
will fight until they die, but they won't give up. These young
men believe in their cause, and there's nothing you and I or
the army can do to stop them."
politics with locals from Wazirdhand, in the courtyard of
Malik Niseer Khan, a tribal elder.
People here believe that President Musharraf is under pressure
from the United States to hunt down Osama bin Laden before November
2, 2004. "The Musharraf government has to produce results before
the U.S. elections," said Naik Ali Khan. "And it is very apparent
to us that they are trying hard to capture or kill as many [al
Qaeda] suspects as they can, not only in the tribal belt but
all over Pakistan." A number of young men sitting around him
in the courtyard nodded in agreement, and one of them voiced
his opinions, directing them at me, "We should catch all the
small fish, but we should not catch Osama bin Laden or his deputy
Ayman al-Zawahri because once we do, America will no longer
need us, and we may suffer the same fate as Iraq."
People here want the United States to help them build schools
and hospitals and wells for water. They like that the U.S. government
is providing $400 million in aid to Pakistan, and they hope
that some of this money will find its way to the tribal areas,
where the literacy rate is as low as 18 percent among men and
is less than 1 percent among women.
"If our government has decided to help the U.S., then they
should be compensated for it properly," said Gulzar Khawar,
a tribal leader from the neighboring village. "We don't like
what the Musharraf government is doing, but if they have decided
to go down this path, they should at least benefit from it in
some way, and the only thing that we need from the Americans
is their money."
young man carries a Klashinkov, a Russian gun that is frequently
copied by Pakistani craftsmen in a tribal village not far
from Wazirdhand. Guns are part of daily life in the tribal
In 2002, during the first phase of the U.S. war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, there was a lot of support for Osama bin Laden here because the Pashtuns considered him a hero for standing up to the Americans and for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. Posters and toys bearing bin Laden's face flew off store shelves, and almost every child in the area showed off bin Laden memorabilia. Nearly three years after 9/11, bin Laden is still considered a hero, but his support has diminished as political violence increases and law and order break down. "We never had suicide bombings or bomb attacks until a few years ago," said Malik Niseer. "All of this started happening to us once Osama bin Laden came into the picture. But because he is a great Muslim, we cannot hand him over to our American enemies. Still, Osama's followers should not attack the very country that they are hiding in."
But not everyone shared Malik Niseer's views. His 12-year-old son, Jamun Khan, disagreed with him, saying, "The Musharraf government is forcing Osama bin Laden and his followers to attack Pakistan. We are straying away from the true path of Islam and jihad and are becoming subservient to America and its policies. Once we give up these un-Islamic ways, bin Laden's followers will leave us alone."
Many villagers of Wazirdhand said they believe bin Laden is
hiding in the mountains on the Afghanistan side of the border.
It is unlikely, they said, that he is hiding in the tribal belt
of Pakistan because of the enmity that exists in this region
between clans. "If he was hiding with one clan," explained Khawar,
"and the other clan found out, they would tell on him. That
is one of the main reasons we think that he is shuttling between
Pakistan and Afghanistan. If he stays on the Pakistani side
for a long period of time, there is reason to believe that he
will be caught -- and we think he knows that."
this year in Peshawar, demonstrators protested the U. S.
invasion of Iraq.
Outside the tribal areas, many Pakistanis view President Pervez Musharraf as a leader who salvaged Pakistan in the post-9/11 era. Although most Pakistanis do not agree with his pro-American policies, a large segment of the educated middle classes and the elite understand why Pakistan has had to take such an active stance in the war against terrorism. Since 9/11, they have seen Pakistan's economy grow, the Karachi stock exchange prosper and a free press flourish, and there are fears that all of this may disappear if Musharraf is assassinated or if America's support for Musharraf diminishes.
Pakistanis know that the November 2004 elections in the United States can have a wide-ranging effect on their country. The Democrats are often viewed with suspicion because their policies have generally favored India, not Pakistan. People here still remember President Clinton's reluctant stopover of a mere few hours in Islamabad in 2000, after he had spent five days in India.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have adopted policies
that have benefited Pakistan, including generous monetary aid
packages, and many here hope that the administration in Washington
does not change in November. "We in Pakistan are paying a very
high price for friendship with the United States," said Naik
Ali Khan."Come November, we hope that Bush is re-elected --
because it is better to know an old enemy than to have to face
a new one in the form of John Kerry."
Sharmeen Obaid is a Pakistani journalist
who works for New York Times Television. Her story about her
country's political dilemmas, "On
a Razor's Edge," aired last March on FRONTLINE/World.
She has also produced and reported two documentaries: "Terror's
Children," about young Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and
"Reinventing the Taliban," about the rise of Islamic
fundamentalism in Pakistan.
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