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+ "Bombs or Dust Devils"

from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map There is a rule that most good journalists follow. It states that the simplest explanation for something is usually the correct one. Convoluted, conspiratorial, overly elaborate explanations are, on average, off the mark. Cloak and dagger intrigue is more often imagined than real. The trouble is that in a place like Peshawar it is often hard to decide which is the simplest explanation.

Here's a simple example. I am eating breakfast alone in the lobby of the hotel when I notice that a well dressed Pakistani staffer is slowly walking about the restaurant area peering under tables, looking into corners, and seemingly spying the flower beds just outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that front the hotel. He takes his work extremely seriously. I look up from the morning newspaper and think, "Ah ha, he is looking for bombs." This is not a ridiculous notion. The hotel's security is tight. This is a target. Outside, near the driveway entrance, guards stop everyone and sweep each vehicle for signs of explosives. Armed guards walk every floor. But then I look again at the man as he walks by my table and think, "No, perhaps this is the supervisor making sure the waiters are doing their jobs, keeping the place clean." Maybe he is looking for bread crumbs and dust devils, checking to see that the garden windows are clean. The truth is, I don't know.

Peshawar street.
Then there is an ongoing story that's in the news again this morning. Here's a picture of armed tribesmen angrily protesting the installation of electric meters in their homes. They are clearly pissed off, and according to the article they've taken up hilltop positions around the Khyber agency just outside of Peshawar, one of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They are threatening to blow up power lines if the installations don't cease. A former Afghan soldier who lives in the Khyber explained the protests to me yesterday. "The tribesmen fear letting the government inside their homes. It is invasion. Some may be harboring terrorists and installing the meters is the government's way of finding out what's going on inside." In other words, the tribesmen want to protect their independence. Imagine a bunch of disaffected farmers in rural Michigan or survivalist ranchers in Idaho. Enter the federal government sending "jack-booted thugs" into their homes, installing high-tech, fancy monitoring devices.

It is true that many Pakistani tribesmen have harbored escaping Al Qaeda fighters and most people don't like intruders even if it is the Con Ed man. But last night, over dinner with a wealthy Khyber Agency trader, I heard a far different explanation for the confrontations. We were talking about Al Qaeda movements in and around the Khyber Pass, and I brought up the story of the electric meters. The trader should know a thing or two about the Khyber; he was born there and for years he's made a living moving goods and people through the region. He knows what's up and who runs things. He knows whom you have to pay off to get business done. "The electric meters have nothing to do with the hunt for Al Qaeda," he said. "It's about who should pay for electricity. For years the tribes people have received free electricity from the central government. Now they are being expected to pay. So, the government is coming into their home to install meters. It's as simple as that."

Sounds good to me. But after returning from dinner I run into the former Afghan soldier, and he tells me that he was out in Bara market (literally, "smuggler's market") and saw a huge mobilization of Pakistani Frontier Corps troops. "There is an ongoing operation. Fifty Al Qaeda fighters have been arrested in a sweep over the last few days. Two hundred homes have been destroyed in the center of town. It is very, very dangerous out there. Very tense."

I asked him where he heard about the fifty Al Qaeda soldiers, and he said it was from an article in an Urdu paper called the Daily Haj. Yesterday he couldn't check it out himself, because he was afraid to get out of the car.

Now, at breakfast, I am thinking. I have a choice: bombs or dust devils? Spies or Con Ed? I go with the simpler story. The tribesmen are upset that they may have to pay for the electricity they use. They've taken up arms and the Pakistani army has moved in to put down an uprising. But after I assemble this explanation, there are a few "facts" left on the floor. What about the arrests of 50 Al Qaeda fighters, the 200 homes destroyed? I decide to check it out by talking to some of the local journalists I've met, to see if they can confirm or deny such a report.

While I wait for our driver outside the hotel, I am thinking that the papers here are full of stories of all kinds. I am reminded of the clich, "the first casualty of war is truth." Later that morning, I talk with Shameem Shahid, Peshawar bureau chief for the national English-language newspaper, The Nation. I ask about the arrests of "50 Al Qaeda fighters in Bara."

"No, no, no," he says, "this is a story about criminals. The tribal areas, you see, fall outside of the control of the Pakistani government and they become a haven for criminals. Once in a while the tribal chiefs allow for a crackdown and let the Frontier Corps in to arrest them with the cooperation of Khasadar forces (the local tribal police)."

"So," I ask, "this had nothing to do with Al Qaeda?"


"What about the destruction of 200 homes?"

"Ah, this is a local tribal custom. When there is a problem in these places, the Khasadar destroy the houses of criminals and refugees. This is a kind of punishment."

I guess it would be.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

+ Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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