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Journalist Describes Impoverished, Islamist Northwest Pakistan

August 2, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, the rugged lands of Pakistan. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Last month, U.S. intelligence agencies called new attention to the sanctuary that al-Qaida and its Taliban sympathizers have established in the tribal areas and northwest province of Pakistan. What are these areas like, and what is it about this region that gives rise to Islamic extremism?

For that, we turn to Don Belt, senior editor at National Geographic. Earlier this year, he spent six weeks traveling throughout Pakistan with extensive time in the radical Islamic heartland and some of its major towns, including Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshah in Northern Waziristan. His story, “Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan,” appears in the September issue of the magazine.

And, Don Belt, welcome.

So, tell us, you went to these areas rarely seen by Western journalists. What’s it like? What are the people like?

DON BELT, National Geographic: Well, Margaret, there is an extraordinary difference in Pakistan between the lowlands of the east and the northwest territories that we’re talking about here. The northwest is mountainous. People tend to be mountaineers, much like the people in the Appalachians in this country are.

They’re resilient; they’re tough; they’re self-reliant; they’re independent as the dickens. They don’t take kindly to outsiders coming in and telling them what to do. Many, many people carry guns in these areas. By law they’re allowed to, so every person, every man, no matter how poor, is carrying a gun.

And every man is a king in certain ways. It’s incredibly difficult to lead or to control these territories because of this tradition that they have displayed for thousands of years of resisting outsiders.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is it very poor?

DON BELT: Very poor. The Pashtun areas of Pakistan, which is the region we’re talking about, is by far the poorest part of Pakistan, with very few government services, schools, health care facilities, et cetera, et cetera.

Islamists taking control

MARGARET WARNER: So you wrote that you found that the, quote, "Islamists" taking control, really taking control in this part. What did you mean by that? And how are they going about it? When you say "control," what you are talking about, the government?

DON BELT: No. Well, in the tribal areas, per se, where there was an agreement signed last September, where the government of Pakistan essentially ceded control to the pro-Taliban forces in the tribal areas, especially in North and South Waziristan, which is where all the problems have arisen recently. So, yes, they are firmly in control of those areas.

What I've found also is outside the tribal areas, in the rest of the northwest frontier province, for example, the Talibanization of Pakistan is proceeding rapidly. There are many cases where schools, barber shops, businesses are being terrorized by Taliban forces that are coming in the night, posting letters on the doors, saying, you know, "Stop shaving beards or you will be killed," video shops being torched, girls' schools being targeted, et cetera. So there is kind of a radiation out from these tribal areas that's encroaching in the rest of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did you manage to get into the tribal areas? Often the government doesn't even want Western journalists there.

DON BELT: Well, we were fortunate in that we made our appeal at the right time, at a time when the government was trying to demonstrate how hard they're working to try to control that border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And so it was under their auspices that we went into Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, and spent time there, flew out to the border, looked at the outpost, et cetera, watched some training, that sort of thing.

Military presence on the border

MARGARET WARNER: So you flew out with the military to the border?

DON BELT: Yes, yes, exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Pakistani military has been taking it to some of these fighters recently there. What did you find when you talked to people in the military, particularly the rank-and-file? Is there heart in the fight, and how good are they at it?

DON BELT: Well, those are two very important questions. I would say that their heart is in it, to a degree. The problem is that many of the forces, the Pakistani government army forces that are in Waziristan, are not Pashtun. They're Punjabis from another part of Pakistan, and they're regarded by the locals as foreigners basically encroaching in their territory.

And so I think that, among the rank-and-file, at least, I heard a real respect and sort of awe for the tenacity and the fighting skills of the people that they were trying to control. Among the commanders, one of the brigadiers that was leading us around described it as like trying to ride a bull to control these people, these tribal communities, because they just will not sit still for that.

You know, these are the same people that attacked Alexander the Great, you know, when he tried to go through the Khyber Pass. These people have been making life difficult for any outsider for a long, long time.

Students of the madrassas

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of your most compelling portraits were these young people who go to these madrassas, these mosque-run schools where many are inculcated in this sort of radical Islamic belief. What did they tell you about why they're there, what they believe, what their dreams are?

DON BELT: Well, it's interesting. You know, the madrassas have gotten so much press in the last year or so, what I found when I actually talked to kids who are there, and sometimes without the knowledge of the leaders of the madrassa, even knowing I was there -- I had dinner. I was invited in and had dinner with some kids between the ages of, say, 15 and 18, one night in their madrassa in Peshawar in the northwest frontier province.

And many of these kids are at a madrassa because they're from poor areas in the remote parts of Pakistan where there is no functioning public school. This is really their parents' only chance to get their kids an education. And so, you know, rather than let these kids be illiterate, they send them off to Peshawar go to school in a madrassa where they get three square meals a day, they learn to read the Koran, they learn to read and write, and their prospects for some future employment are better than they would be if they'd stayed in the village and gone to a non-functioning public school.

MARGARET WARNER: So would you say they are being radicalized, that they are being turned into -- well, the nightmare here is potential terrorist or terrorist sympathizers?

DON BELT: Well, I think that that is a danger.

Sympathy for terrorists

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, did they tell you this, that they support suicide bombings or that they support that kind of radical fight against, what, their own government or outsiders?

DON BELT: Well, what they said, what they told me was that they see Islam under attack by the West. I mean, this is not a new idea. We've heard this a lot. And this is very much the spirit inside these madrassas, that they see this as a battle joined between the forces of Islam and the forces of the West.

They see the government in Islamabad, President Musharraf's government, as being so in league with the West that they see him as an enemy just as much as the United States would be. I think that, from their perspective, you know, they are quick to point out that, in the 1980s when it suited us, when we were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, that we supported these madrassas, that the Saudis and us and Pakistan all supported these madrassas and created a jihadi army to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. And here it is, you know, 30 years later, and we're inheriting the fruits of that effort in certain ways.

MARGARET WARNER: So based on your six weeks there, your extensive time on the ground, not just in this region but throughout Pakistan, who's winning this struggle between the moderate Islamists, or Islam that has been practiced for so long in that part of the world, and the radicals?

DON BELT: Well, I would say that right now is a critical, critical time. I mean, what we're seeing right this minute, really, in Pakistan is the struggle being joined finally between the moderates and the Islamists. You know, the storming of the mosque, the Red Mosque in Islamabad a few weeks ago, was really a watershed. And I think that now the burden on moderate Pakistanis, who are the vast majority of the country, is to somehow come together and to create a consensus for dealing with this Islamist threat.

MARGARET WARNER: Don Belt, National Geographic, thank you.

DON BELT: Thank you.