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there's no simple solution: Producer Martin Smith's Journey Through the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Region

A conversation with "Return of the Taliban" producer Martin Smith and co-producer, Chris Durrance, that offers a chronicle in part of their experience and encounters travelling through Pakistan and Afghanistan -- including their brief time in the tribal areas where even the Pakistani Army is afraid to venture outside its base. They also discuss the increasing Talibanization of western Pakistan, and remember their friend and brave colleague, Pakistani journalist Hayat Ullah Khan.

Producer Martin Smith

What are the origins of this report?

MARTIN SMITH: The story came about because [FRONTLINE Executive Producer] David Fanning and I were having dinner together. We were thinking about 9/11, and he said, "Maybe you ought to go back to western Pakistan." I said, "I'd go back there in a second." And that was about the length of that conversation.

But you know, it always pays off to go back to places you've reported on once before because you have a network of contacts, and you can just go that much deeper, you understand the story better.

What was it exactly that made you say immediately, "I'd go back there in a second"?

MARTIN SMITH: There are few places in the world that are as interesting and foreign as the tribal areas of Pakistan. In terms of fully formed societies that have existed for hundreds or over a thousand years, operating more or less in the same fashion, there's few places that are that preserved.

It's a totally tribal society, wild society, in which people practice blood sport, kill you because you offended them somehow. You protect your own by going out and killing 10 members of the tribe over the hill. There's very few places like that.

And then there's bin Laden and Al Qaeda and the Taliban living there. It's just a richly fascinating, strange and extremely important part of the world. It's there that Al Qaeda began.

It also has a poignancy about it -- the project in Afghanistan was broadly supported by the people of Afghanistan and maybe still is. But yet, we're losing ground. There was a lot of hope there. So, exploring the cause of Afghanistan's instability through the sanctuaries the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan seemed a good way of getting at the story. So I wanted to go back.

The idea that Bush put forward, that 'You're either with us or against us,' well, Pakistan makes a mockery of that. It's not altogether clear.

You were there in 2002 for your film "In Search of Al Qaeda." What did you find had changed?

MARTIN SMITH: I was surprised by a couple things. When we were in Peshawar this time around, there was a lot more anxiety on the part of Pakistani journalists. There was much more nervousness about going out with us in areas beyond the city limits. They didn't think it was safe to drive, not just in the tribal areas themselves, but anywhere near the tribal areas.

In 2002, we drove all the way from Peshawar up north along the tribal areas, all the way up into Chitral. We really were told that it would not be safe to do that now, and certainly not to go south of Peshawar toward Waziristan. Even on the edge or just outside of the tribal areas, it wasn't safe.

And the other thing I noticed was the increasing Talibanization of Peshawar, which we mention in the program. So many of the women on the streets of Peshawar were covered fully. That wasn't true in 2002. And the billboards with the painted-over faces of women -- that wasn't the case in 2002.

How typical is that in Pakistan?

MARTIN SMITH: That's not typical of Pakistan. Islamabad has a whole middle class that's very secular, with parties, and fancy cars. It's western Pakistan where you'll see Talibanization, and in the rural areas of western Pakistan, particularly.

And then there's parts of western Pakistan where you won't even see women on the streets fully covered. You just won't see women, period. They just don't go out of the house.

Is that different from 2002?

MARTIN SMITH: Well, no, that existed in 2002 in the rural areas. What was different this time was that, in the city of Peshawar, which is a bustling metropolis, to see so many -- I mean you saw women that were fully covered before. But this time, it was well over half. It was 70 percent, I would say.

CHRIS DURRANCE: There's music stores being brought down, and barbershops under pressure.

MARTIN SMITH: TV sets are being smashed. Cable lines are being cut.

CHRIS DURRANCE: It's stuff that you would have seen in Afghanistan in the '90s when the Taliban was in power, and maybe a bit in the Pakistani tribal areas. But now, the stories you hear are that it's moving into bigger Pakistani towns, into Peshawar -- big towns that were seen as very sophisticated and modern.

What's the prognosis, then? Is it going to spread out from western Pakistan?

MARTIN SMITH: I think that is what Musharraf is very worried about, and what he told us in his interview.

I don't think that you're going to see all of Pakistan go that route because Pakistan is a pretty diverse country. But the mood on the street, and the general anti-Americanism or anti-Western feeling that results from the war in Afghanistan, is pervasive. People are, in a sense, going to their corners. They're going towards more conservative Islam as they are increasingly angered by U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

Where exactly did you travel?

MARTIN SMITH: We flew into Islamabad, where we had a lot of government officials to contact in order to arrange our itinerary with the military.

We then drove to Peshawar, which is on the edge of the tribal areas. And then we flew into Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. The rest of the shooting that took place in Bajaur tribal agency or in South Waziristan tribal agency, or even down in Quetta, was done by stringers or proxies, people that we hired and contacted in Peshawar, and trained how to use cameras. We sent them in. It is still virtually impossible as a Westerner to go into the tribal areas, unless you're escorted by the military.

Why did you get in this summer when you weren't able to in 2002?

MARTIN SMITH: Because I went to the military and I asked. They said, "Well, we're not going to pay for your trip in there." So we hired a private helicopter. They gave us some pilots, and they flew us in to a base in Miram Shah.

What was it like as a Westerner in the tribal areas?

MARTIN SMITH: The trip into Miram Shah? Well, I don't want to disappoint anybody, but it was heavily controlled by the military. They have had a number of occasions where they've put journalists into the tribal areas, but they are total dog-and-pony shows. They take a group of journalists from ABC and the BBC and whatever, and they take them in a helicopter, and they land them, as a group, a pack of journalists. Maybe they'll show them a military base. And then they'll take them up to the border, and show them a crossing point with a guard. And then they take you back.

We said we didn't want to go on one of those pack journalists trips. And that's why we had to make arrangements, and book our own helicopter. But even then, we flew into a base, which was heavily sandbagged and they, then, refused to take us into town or into the surrounding areas. They said it wasn't safe because the roads are all mined with IEDs. Instead, they set up a little patrol out into the desert. It was enormously hot. It was, I'd say, 115 degrees. And it was a hard hike for this old reporter to go out just a few kilometers out into the desert and back. So, you know, you're sort of looking for truth of the situation around the edges, because they're not really going to let you see much.

What we did do is we took a Pakistani cameraman with us. Co-producer and cameraman, Scott Anger, and I hired another guy. And so, when they said they couldn't take us into town because we look too foreign, we said, "Okay, take our Pakistani friend." And that sort of called their bluff. They took him in and we got a few shots in there. But even there, they were very afraid and nervous about being in the town. So what we learned from that trip, I mean the color we got from it, was how frightened the Pakistani military was of operating outside the walls of the base.

They brought in some village elders -- of course, they were all pro-government village elders -- for a group interview. We didn't use any of it, it was too slanted, too suspect. I did spend probably 45 minutes talking to a group of them. They were very interesting men; much more refined, well-spoken and considerate than the image we have, I think, of them, just looking at the pictures of these guys with these wild turbans and with guns slung over their shoulder.

Where did you go in Afghanistan?

MARTIN SMITH: We went into Kabul, and then we drove from there up to Bagram, which is the main airbase there. And then, from there, we flew into Khost Province, which is right across from North Waziristan. We were in Camp Salerno, which is an FOB, a Forward Operating Base, of the U.S. Army.

It's possible, as a reporter, to go and see the Army in these various FOBs up and down the border. But that's not the whole story. The U.S. special forces that do a lot of the man-hunting for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are in bases that are strictly off limits; they have been off limits to journalists since 9/11. Those are the bases that have the guys that are doing the real hard work, up and down the border, of trying to monitor who comes across or searching for Al Qaeda militants and whatnot. That story is a very difficult one to get at.

Co-producers Chris Durrance and Scott Anger and I went on patrol in Humvees, fully up-armored, wearing our flak jackets and helmets. And we slept outside the base one night. In fact, every day, we seemed to go out for a few hours into the heat and the mountains, and on one occasion right up to the border. But we didn't run into any combat. Most of that comes at night. If you remember in Vietnam the soldiers used to talk about controlling villages during the day. The Vietcong held them at night. It's like that.

We would come to villages where, clearly, the population was hostile to American presence. It's really striking. You go in these Humvee convoys and you go barreling through these villages and you're stirring up big clouds of dust, making a big racket. And the people stop what they're doing, stand there and stare at you as you rumble through their town, shaking it all up. You're totally behind bulletproof glass and armored plating, and with machine gunners pointing at them on top every vehicle.

It's something like the Romans rumbling through their empire way back when. It feels very unnerving because of the kind of distance you feel from the people. Even though you're only a few feet away, the distance, in terms of armored plating and all of that, you really feel it.

What the soldiers say is that they get nervous when they notice that the children have disappeared from the sides of the road. That can mean there's an IED nearby. Typlically, the army tries to avoid IEDs by going out one way, and then finding another way back. Many of the people in these villages are going to lay an IED for you on the same road you went out on. It's therefore wise to find an alternate route back, which often means you're driving on a riverbed, or even in an area where there isn't hardly a road, just to get back safely.

You went to visit a school that was being built.

MARTIN SMITH: Yeah, that was a very interesting trip. We went into this little town. The reason that the Army had a school project there is because it was in a border town across from North Waziristan, Pakistan and it was in an area with a lot of hostility, where the young people of the town were likely working with the Taliban at night.

Most of the attacks on outposts and checkpoints, by the way, come at night. So, you see people during the day, and you don't know who they or which side they're on. You can only guess.

In that situation, we got out of the Humvees. I started talking to these young guys standing around. I said, "Well, what do you think of the school that the Americans have built for you?" And they immediately said, "Well, we hate it." I said, "Well, why do you hate it?" They said, "Well, we don't like the color," or "We don't like the roof." "It's unsafe."

Then, I found out that the site of this new school was right up against an old madrassa. And the contractor that had built it was not a local because the coalition contracted with an outsider. He was an Afghan, but he lived somewhere else. He was afraid to go in there except when the U.S. Army was present. And, he was afraid to demolish the madrassa.

So they were all engaged in trying to get the village to dismantle this old, mud-brick madrassa, but nobody would do that. So they had this awkward new school right next to this empty, unused, half-burnt out madrassa. Symbolically, you know, it spoke volumes. And by the time we left there, there must have been a crowd of about 50 20-somethings, late teens, early 20s.

The commander of the unit had grown up in the South Bronx and he was talking to me. And he says, "Look at all these kids. Look at those guys. It's just like in the South Bronx, people without enough to do. Now, of course they're up to trouble." And that was my sense in talking to these guys.

When I turned the camera on the guys, they didn't want to talk. And I understand, as far as they're concerned, I'm U.S. government. I'm traveling -- I have a flak jacket and a helmet -- in a Humvee convoy. So they don't want to talk. But you've got a village out in nowhere, and you've got 50 unemployed, idle 20-somethings very hostile towards the development project that was going on in their village. So it spoke volumes to me about the challenge and the difficulty.

What do you think the fate of that school is?

MARTIN SMITH: Most likely, it will be bombed or burned down. I talked to the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, and to other people. And they say one of the main targets of the Taliban is schools.

CHRIS DURRANCE: We don't know about that particular one. But certainly, in the area and in the south, there's been a lot of that; teachers killed, schools burned down. There was a big Human Rights Watch report about this recently. Major, major problem.

MARTIN SMITH: What they do is target U.S. development projects. The population of the local village gets the idea that a school is going to get built, and then it's going to be attacked, and so they don't want to get involved in the project either -- especially if the local contractor comes from somewhere else and the money doesn't go into the town.

Did you get a sense of what the local population thinks?

MARTIN SMITH: There are hostile villages and there are friendly villages. It kind of breaks down depending on the village elder here or there; but along that border stretch -- we're talking inside Afghanistan, not Pakistan, but inside Afghanistan.

I'd say, if you go to Kabul and talk to people, you're still going to get most people feeling favorable about the coalition, although it's probably decreasing now as they see the lack of progress and the intensity of the fighting. They're not sure where to place their bets -- on the coalition or on the Taliban.

CHRIS DURRANCE: Their calculation is that the Americans are going to go. They've been before and they've gone before. And they're going to go again. And the Taliban are there, are going to be around. So, what do you do? I mean, at best, you're neutral.

MARTIN SMITH: Now that's Afghanistan. In Pakistan, in those tribal areas, I think you can see from the film that the sympathy of the people is fairly squarely behind the Taliban. And there, it has to do with Pashtun nationalism.

I mean, of course, if a superpower -- whether it's Russia or America -- comes into Afghanistan and starts killing your brethren, of course you're going to go support them. And especially when the United States has backed essentially a Tajik movement against the Taliban, which is predominantly a Pashtun movement, that has put a sectarian spin from the beginning.

Talk about your relationship with reporter Hayat Ullah Khan.

MARTIN SMITH: Well, it's a very sad story. Hayat Ullah was really an unusually talented reporter who went far beyond simply taking pictures and writing up daily dispatches. Perhaps he was the only one that was really an investigative reporter in that part of the country, in the tribal areas. He's from North Waziristan.

He worked with a number of Western reporters after we had worked with him. I think that he knew, therefore, he was at risk. We had a lot of correspondence with him over the years in which he said that he was fearing for his life because this or that report on tribal affairs or events. He'd had a number of death threats. So, we knew that he was at risk.

Who were his enemies?

MARTIN SMITH: I think that it was both the jihadists; he was worried about some of the mullahs. He was also worried about the political agent; the political agent being the representative of the Pakistani central government who has an office in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan.

There were times when the political agent and he didn't see eye to eye on things. He was reporting stories that the government didn't want to get out. And of course, the example of the missiles, the reports, and the publishing of those pictures was an example of that. Editor's Note: Four days before he disappeared, Hayat Ullah published photos showing that alleged Al Qaeda operative Abu Hamza Rabia was killed in North Waziristan by a U.S. missile, contradicting the Pakistani government's explanation that he was killed in a bomb-making accident.

We don't know who abducted him. But the conviction within Pakistan among journalists and in his own family is that it was the government for reasons that are obvious; that he had embarrassed them.

Hayat was going to be coming to the United States. He was going to be visiting us. He was only a couple of weeks away from making that trip to the U.S. when he disappeared. And we learned about it when the FBI knocked on our door. They had learned that he was coming to the U.S. and they figured out that he was going to see us. They were interested in talking to him, basically, because they don't get too many people from Waziristan coming to the United States. But, by the time the FBI knocked on our door, he had already been taken hostage. He was a wonderful guy. He was just very talented, and a skilled cameraman.

With the danger, who is telling the story of the tribal areas?

MARTIN SMITH: I think three journalists have been killed in the tribal areas. Most journalists that cover the tribal areas live outside the tribal areas. Hayat was an exception to that, in that he actually lived in Mir Ali, which is not far from Miram Shah, and really in the heart of the hottest area.

CHRIS DURRANCE: Many have been driven out or forced not to do journalism. They've been warned by people, political agents or army or mullahs, "We don't like this story. We don't like that."

MARTIN SMITH: One thing that happens there is that if you're going to live there and work there, you have to have contact with both people in the military and people in the ISI, in the intelligence agencies, and with the Taliban, and perhaps Al Qaeda. If you don't have those contacts, you're at a high risk.

The fact of having those contacts also puts you at risk. So it's a double-edge sword. Because Hayat Ullah, for instance, met with Taliban. And that makes the army that's monitoring his activities suspicious. At the same time, if he doesn't have contacts within the Taliban, they become suspicious. So, anybody who works in that area is taking great risk.

Let me say something else about Hayat. Hayat is actually special in that he decided to start a school. And if you think back to the part of our conversation about the importance of schools, the United States recognizes the importance of having alternatives to fundamentalist madrassas. And that's why they build schools. That's the same reason they get bombed or burned because the mullahs don't like to see this encroachment on their authority and power. They don't want secular education. They want Islamic education. And this has been going on for over a hundred years.

Winston Churchill, when he was an embedded reporter at the age of 22, in the tribal areas, wrote about "mad mullahs" who didn't want to see secular education encroaching on the tribal areas. It was the same thing a hundred years ago -- more than a hundred years ago.

So Hayat is unique in that this is a local Waziri tribesman, from a prominent family, deciding to build what he called an alternative madrassa, which was to provide reading and writing and arithmetic, and not just rote memorization of the Quran. It was a school to help kids in his village of Mir Ali to get a diverse education. He was doing this on his own -- he raised the money himself -- doing exactly what it is that the United States government says is most important to do in the area. That is, to provide some kind of alternative education.

So, it's a double tragedy that this guy, who was talking about getting out of journalism because of the risks, and dedicating himself to education, would disappear and turn up dead like this. It's very disturbing.

These other people that you hired on this trip to do some of the legwork for you on the ground, are they doing the same thing Hayat was doing?

MARTIN SMITH: They took risks in the same way that Hayat did. But, none of them live in the tribal areas, or live in the tribal areas. So they would go in and out.

Most professionals, many of them, have been driven out of the tribal areas. We didn't get into that in the film. But there's a large refugee flow out of the tribal areas into what they call the settled areas, into places like Peshawar, to get away from the repression and the war in the tribal areas. This applies mostly to North and South Waziristan and somewhat to Bajaur. There are other tribal agencies that are more or less, for the time being anyway, stable. But the Waziristans certainly have not been. [View a map of the area.]

The government of Pakistan knows -- Musharraf, himself, told us as much -- that they need to put development money into the tribal areas; development money not only to build pumps and sewage systems, but schools. But they haven't been able to do it because of the war. Again, just pointing up the importance of Hayat's move to put a school there. Hayat had three young children, by the way.

What would you say surprised you the most when you were making the film?

MARTIN SMITH: What surprised me most was what's revealed in the story of the negotiations and the peace deal with Nek Mohammed, and subsequent deals that have taken place. There is great fraternity between tribal militants and the Pakistani military; they are related, and they see the world in much the same way.

Many people of high rank within the Pakistani military that I talked to are quite anti-American, quite fervently believe that Osama bin Laden did not send planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. They think that America and Israel have conspired against Muslims. They share the same sense of victimhood that the tribals do. And so, they're very sympathetic to the Taliban. And the depth of that surprised me; the fact that some Taliban will have a brother in the army or an uncle.

So, there's no simple solution. The idea that Bush put forward, that "You're either with us or against us," well, Pakistan makes a mockery of that. It's not altogether clear whose side they are on. They are sort of on both sides.

If you were to go back again in another four years to revisit this, what would you expect to find?

MARTIN SMITH: Vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Musharraf is worried about Iran getting involved. He's worried about India getting in there. And, he knows the Americans are eventually going to go.

And so, he wants to keep his own hand in Afghanistan. If he doesn't, it'll fall to Iran or it'll fall into the orbit of India or Iran. So what leverage, what tool will he have if he gives up entirely on the Taliban? At least this is the argument of some of those in his clandestine service, the ISI. They know, in the Pakistan leadership, that America will eventually go home. The coalition will eventually leave. India is making a power play in Afghanistan. Iran is making a power play in Afghanistan. Should the Pakistanis not have their own proxy?

Given that, my prediction would be that you're going to see Pakistan holding on to some kind of religious militia like the Taliban. They're going to continue to be sheltered and given some kind of safe haven in the tribal areas. It's clear that Pakistan's interests are not our interests.

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posted oct. 3, 2006

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