The Lawless Frontier
The Lawless Frontier - The Atlantic
This past April in Quetta, the bleached-gray, drought-stricken capital of the Pakistani border province of Baluchistan, I awoke to explosions and gunfire. In search of the violence, my translator, Jamil, and I jumped into a four-wheel-drive Toyota and raced through the section of town inhabited by Pashtoon tribesmen. Suddenly we were surrounded by Pakistani soldiers, who forced us out of the car and pointed assault rifles in our faces. While they searched us, I saw two other soldiers with automatic weapons run along a high wall a few feet from where we stood. Shots rang out from inside the adjacent compound. By 11:00 a.m. five people had been killed and twenty wounded, and a large cache of weapons had been confiscated in a raid on the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami (Pashtoon National People’s Party), a group supporting an independent “Pashtoonistan” created out of Pakistani territory. The party stood accused of murders and kidnapping. Security forces claimed victory, but reports later circulated that party members had filtered back into the area with weapons.
Quetta’s mainly Pashtoon shop owners called a strike to protest the raid. It was the second strike that week against the recently installed military regime of General Pervez Musharraf. For the previous two days owners had shut their businesses to protest the regime’s plan to tax the cross-border smuggling of computer parts, fuel, automatic weapons, and much other contraband on which the province’s economy depends—as it depends on the heroin trade. The week I was in Quetta, there was also a series of bomb blasts in government buildings, relating to the arrests of a hundred members of an ethnic-Baluch clan who were wanted in connection with the murder of a judge. A few weeks before that two bombs had gone off inside army bases in Quetta. Musharraf’s regime was trying to extend taxation and the rule of law to this tribal area hard by Afghanistan, and it was encountering stiff resistance. Chiefs here were nervous about Musharraf’s plan to hold local elections, which could threaten their power.
“The government wants to destroy the tribal system, but there are no institutions to replace it,” the head of the Raisani tribe, Nawabzada Mir Lashkari Raisani, told me inside his walled compound, which was protected by white-turbaned bodyguards armed with Kalashnikovs. “Much of my time is spent deciding cases that in another country would be handled by family courts,” he said, as we devoured mounds of rice and spicy grilled meats laid out on a carpet in his residence. “The tribes are large social-welfare networks. The government wants us to stop smuggling, and that will cause huge social distress.”
The Raisanis, numbering some 20,000, speak a Dravidian language of southern India—unlike the Turco-Iranian Baluchis and the Indo-Aryan Pashtoons, whose languages borrow heavily from Persian. The Raisanis are traditional enemies of the Bugtis, an ethnic-Baluch tribe. “I will not disarm, because I do not trust the government to protect me,” Mir Lashkari told me. He added, “Only the army needs Pakistan.” The tribes and ethnic groups, he said, can defend themselves without the state. Indeed, the international arms bazaar and the unrestricted flow of drugs and electronic goods have increased the tribes’ autonomy.
Inside Mir Lashkari’s compound, surrounded by a sandpaper desert and bare saw-toothed escarpments, it occurred to me that a topographical map would explain, at least partially, why both military and democratic governments in Pakistan have failed, even as India’s democracy has gone more than half a century without a coup—and why, I believe, Pakistan and its problems will for the next few years generate headlines.
Pakistan, in fact, could be a Yugoslavia in the making, but with nuclear weapons. In the Balkans the collapse of both communist authoritarianism and the Cold War security structure unleashed disintegrative tribal forces. But in South Asia globalization itself could bring collapse. South Asia illustrates that globalization is not a uniform coat of paint. It can lead to war and chaos as easily as to prosperity and human rights. Just as the media’s fascination with Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall obscured for a time the dissolution that had already begun in Yugoslavia, the current consternation over the extremist government in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, and the fighting in Kashmir obscures the core issue of South Asia: the institutional meltdown of Pakistan. And as was true of Yugoslavia, it is the bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions that makes Pakistan so fragile. My comparison to 1980s Yugoslavia, a place that I also saw firsthand, is not casual. In both cases it was the very accumulation of disorder and irrationality that was so striking and that must be described in detail—not merely stated—to be understood.
Pakistan covers the desert frontier of the Subcontinent. British civil administration extended only to Lahore, in the fertile Punjab, near Pakistan’s eastern border with India; its Mogul architecture, gardens, and rich bazaars give Lahore a closer resemblance to the Indian cities of New Delhi and Calcutta than to any other place in Pakistan. But the rest of Pakistan—the rugged Afghan-border regions of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, the alkaline wasteland of Sind, and the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountains embracing Kashmir—has never been subdued by the British or anyone else. This area was grossly underdeveloped compared with British India; the few entrepreneurs were Hindus, who fled after Partition, in 1947. Even Karachi, now Pakistan’s business center and a city of 14 million riddled by sectarian violence, was only an isolated settlement on the Arabian Sea when the British departed. Karachi’s lack of the prideful identity and civilizing urbanity found in Lahore and the great cities of India helps to explain its current unrest. Islamabad, Pakistan’s sterile capital, with its vast, empty avenues lined with Mogul-cum-Stalinist structures, was not built until the 1960s.
When seven million Muslim refugees, fleeing India, created Pakistan, the role of the military became paramount, by necessity. The refugees were consumed by the need to manage enormous and unruly borderlands and by fear of their much larger, Hindu-dominated neighbor. Furthermore, with local tribal and ethnic identities so strong, civilian politics became a bureaucratic forum for revenge and unsavory tradeoffs. In the ancient tribal and feudal cultures of the region leaders bartered water wells and tracts of desert; in the new state they bartered flour mills, electricity grids, and transport systems.
Thinking purely in terms of blood and territory comes naturally in Quetta, a cinder-block jumble of shops whose outskirts are composed of walled tribal compounds and Afghan refugee camps. Since Afghanistan erupted into war, in the late 1970s, and refugees poured across the border, Quetta has increasingly become an Afghan city inside Pakistan. Cheap, Western-style polyesters have taken over much of the Third World, but in Quetta nearly everyone still wears traditional shalwar kameez: baggy cotton pants and a long, flowing shirt, with a blanket over the shoulder for praying and sleeping. The Baluch are identified by their grandiose white turbans, the Pashtoons from southern Afghanistan by smaller, darker ones, and the Pashtoons from northern Afghanistan by flat woolen caps called pakols. In addition there are Asian-looking Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras—descendants of Genghis Khan’s Mongols who settled in central Afghanistan before becoming refugees here.
I had last visited Quetta in 1988, when it was a clean, relatively quiet place of fewer than 500,000 people. Now it was noisy and dirty, crowded with beggars and drug addicts, and its population was unofficially estimated at 1.2 million. A three-year drought afflicting southern Asia from Afghanistan to India had provoked an exodus from the surrounding desert into the city. The delightful water channels I remembered from the 1980s are now dry and filled with crud. Traveling outside Quetta, I saw empty riverbeds and dam catchments. Desperate men equipped with nothing but shovels dug ninety-foot-deep wells in the 110° heat, searching for water near Hanna Lake, which was once beautiful and full, and is now brown and diminished. With irrigation canals dry, aquifers are being depleted by overuse. Agriculture is in decline because of the water shortage, with cultivation reduced in many areas by 70 percent. Political disorder and mismanagement have blocked new industry and investment.
Pakistan’s Afghan-border region—1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide—is a deathly volcanic landscape of crags and winding canyons where the tropical floor of the Subcontinent pushes upward into the high, shaved wastes of Central Asia, and where desert and mountain tribesmen replace the darker-skinned people in the cities. From Baluchistan north through the “tribal agencies” of Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand, and Bajaur—near Peshawar, the destitute capital of the North-West Frontier Province—one finds an anarchic realm of highwaymen, religious and tribal violence, heroin laboratories, and weapons smuggling.
Here the religious extremism and disorder begot by two decades of war in Afghanistan merge with the troubles in Pakistan. With 148 million people, Pakistan is the world’s seventh largest nation, and its annual population-growth rate of 2.6 percent will make it the third most populous nation by 2050, behind India and China—if it still exists.
Afghanistan and Pakistan should be seen as one political unit. This is a result of Pakistan’s heavy involvement in the Afghan guerrilla struggle against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s and in the rise of Afghanistan’s Taliban extremists afterward. But geography and British colonial history are factors too.
No border here could be natural. The transition from the steamy lowlands of the Subcontinent to the high moonscapes of Central Asia is gradual. The Pashtoons controlling the frontier zone of eastern and southern Afghanistan have never accepted the arbitrary boundary between Afghanistan and colonial India drawn in 1893 by the British envoy, Sir Mortimer Durand. Moreover, the British bequeathed to the Pakistanis the belt of anarchic territories they called tribal agencies, which lie to the east of the Durand Line. This had the effect of further confusing the boundary between settled land and the chaos of Afghanistan. Pakistani governments have always felt besieged—not only by India but also by Afghan tribesmen. In order to fight India, in the Pakistani view, it is necessary to dominate Afghanistan.
But this Pakistan has never been able to accomplish. The story of the lawless frontier, and of its emerging importance as a crisis point, is the story of failure: the failure of a sophisticated people from the industrial and agricultural plain of Punjab—the Pakistani military and political elite—to dominate an unreconstructed tribal people of the high desert.
When the explosions and gunfire awakened me in Quetta, I was staying at the home of a friend, Hamed Karzai, who from 1992 to 1994 had been Afghanistan’s first deputy foreign minister. At that time Afghanistan was governed by the mujahideen, the “holy warriors” who had defeated the Soviets. That was before the emergence of the radical Taliban (“Knowledge Seekers”), of whom Karzai is now an outspoken opponent. Not only was the iron gate outside his home bolted at night, with an armed Afghan on duty, but Karzai insisted that a former mujahideen commander guard the door of my room. I forgave Karzai his anxiety on my behalf. In July of last year his father was assassinated while walking home from evening prayers at a nearby mosque; the gunman escaped on a waiting motorbike. The murder, together with many others in Pakistan’s borderland, was attributed to the Taliban.
Karzai, forty-two, is Afghan royalty. He is tall and olive-complexioned, with a clipped salt-and-pepper beard and a starched shalwar kameez. The slope of his bald head and nose gives him the look of an eagle. After the murder of his father Karzai inherited the title khan (“head”) of the 500,000-strong Popolzai—the Pashtoon clan of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Persian army commander who conquered the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and in 1747 became the first king of Afghanistan. Because tribal position is of great importance in Afghan society, the mujahideen always trusted the Westernized and moderate Karzai. The same went for the Taliban, who sought him out long before they seized power and later offered him the post of United Nations ambassador.
“The Taliban were good, honest people,” Karzai told me over green Afghan tea and almonds. “They were connected to the madrassas [Islamic academies] in Quetta and Peshawar, and were my friends from the jihad [holy war] against the Soviets. They came to me in May, 1994, saying, ‘Hamed, we must do something about the situation in Kandahar. It is unbearable.’ I had no reservations about helping them. I had a lot of money and weapons left over from the jihad. I also helped them with political legitimacy. It was only in September of 1994 that others began to appear at the meetings—silent ones I did not recognize, people who took over the Taliban movement. That was the hidden hand of Pakistani intelligence.”
I heard versions of this story from several former commanders of the jihad, who told me how they had supported the Taliban only to be deceived by the Pakistani intelligence agents who were behind the movement.
These incomplete and somewhat self-serving accounts encapsulated much complicated history. By early 1994 Afghanistan was in disarray. The mujahideen who warred against the Soviets had been a motley collection of seven Pakistan-based resistance groups, divided by region, clan, politics, and religious ideology. Worse, the resistance commanders inside Afghanistan had only the loosest of links to the seven groups. For them, party affiliation was merely a matter of access to weaponry—the groups were awash in guns and money, provided by the CIA through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Thus when the Soviet-backed Afghan regime collapsed in Kabul, the capital, in 1992, Afghanistan became a writhing nest of petty warlords who fought and negotiated with one another for small chunks of territory. Girls and young boys were raped and traded between commanders. The situation was especially bad in Kandahar. The road leading to it from Quetta was shared by at least twenty factions, each of which put a chain across the road and demanded tolls.
But there were also honest commanders, backwoodsmen who lived by a primitive creed called Pashtoonwali— “the way of the Pashtoons,” a code more severe even than Koranic law. While emphasizing hospitality and chivalry, Pashtoonwali demands blood vengeance on fellow Muslims for killing and punishes adultery based on hearsay alone. In addition to these commanders there were hordes of young boys who had grown up in crowded refugee camps in Quetta and Peshawar, where they were educated in madrassas supported by Saudi Arabia. The schools taught a more ideological and austere brand of Islam than the ones practiced in the mountains of Afghanistan, where before the Soviet occupation religion had been a natural outgrowth of rural life. (In the mountains women need not always wear veils, for example, because in the course of a day the only males they encounter are their relatives.) In the urban anonymity of Pakistani cities and adjacent refugee camps religion was reinvented in harsher form, to preserve values suddenly under attack.
The communist ideology brought to Afghanistan by the Soviet occupation had required an equally harsh response, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the madrassas for Afghan refugees in Pakistan provided it. The fierce brand of Islam they taught was not just a reaction to urban conditions but also a result of evolving and intertwining Saudi and Pakistani philosophies. In the Afghan refugee academies Saudi Wahabism merged (as it did nowhere else) with the Deobandism of the Subcontinent. Wahabism arose in the Arabian peninsula in the eighteenth century with the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab, who led a puritanical reaction against what he considered lax observance. Deobandism takes its name from the village of Deoband, outside New Delhi, where in the nineteenth century an Islamic academy developed an orthodox pan-Islam in reaction against British rule. When the Muslim state of Pakistan was created, Deobandism was further radicalized by an Islamic theorist named Abdul A’la Maududi, who propagated a form of Islam with striking resemblances to totalitarianism. Maududi believed that the Koran had to be accepted in full and that many Muslims had corrupted Islam by letting themselves be influenced by the liberal West. Islam is perfect, Maududi asserted, and requires no judgment on the part of the believer. It should override all other laws of the state.
There is no contradiction between the radical Islamists’ hatred for the Russians in Chechnya and their hatred for the Americans everywhere else: both are reactions to a challenge from an impure West that is more proximate than ever before, because of technology.
As Afghanistan fell apart in an orgy of banditry, madrassa students in Pakistan came into contact with uncorrupted backwoodsmen inside Afghanistan; together they filled the vacuum in authority. One of the backwoodsmen was Mullah Mohammed Omar, a mujahideen commander who is said to have ignited the Taliban revolt, in early 1994, by leading a small force in Kandahar that captured and hanged from the barrel of a tank a fellow commander guilty of raping two girls.
The Taliban rose and swept across late-twentieth-century Afghanistan much as Islam itself had swept across seventh-century Arabia and North Africa, filling the void left by the anarchy and decadence of waning Byzantine rule. In the process of overrunning 80 percent of the country, the Taliban captured Kabul, in 1996. There they carried out amputations and stonings and seized the Soviet puppet ruler of Afghanistan, Najibullah, from a United Nations compound, castrating and jeep-dragging him before hanging him from a traffic post.
The atrocities demonstrated the Taliban obsession with the notion that the city, with its foreign influences, is the root of all evil. In the recently published Taliban the journalist [Ahmed Rashid]1 writes that because many of the Taliban are orphans of war, who have never known the company of women, they have retreated into a male brotherhood reminiscent of the Crusaders. Indeed, the most dangerous movements are often composed of war orphans, who, being unsocialized, are exceptionally brutal (the Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, and the Revolutionary United Front, in Sierra Leone, are two examples). Of course, the longer wars go on, the more orphans are created.
The Taliban embody a lethal combination: a primitive tribal creed, a fierce religious ideology, and the sheer incompetence, naiveté, and cruelty that are begot by isolation from the outside world and growing up amid war without parents. They are also an example of globalization, influenced by imported pan-Islamic ideologies and supported economically by both Osama bin Laden’s worldwide terrorist network (for whom they provide a base) and a multibillion-dollar smuggling industry in which ships and trucks bring consumer goods from the wealthy Arabian Gulf emirate of Dubai (less a state than the world’s largest shopping mall) through Iran and Afghanistan and on to Quetta and Karachi.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also relied on crucial help from Pakistan. By 1994 Pakistan was tiring of its Afghan mujahideen puppet, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s its Inter-Services Intelligence had channeled more arms and money from the CIA to Hekmatyar’s radical-fundamentalist faction than to any of the more moderate mujahideen groups. Hekmatyar was young, charismatic, highly educated, and power-hungry. Yet his attraction for the ISI lay in the fact that he had little grassroots support inside Afghanistan itself and was thus beholden to the Pakistanis. The continuing anarchy in Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets showed the fundamental flaw in the ISI’s policy. Hekmatyar could never consolidate power to the extent Pakistan required in order to safeguard its land routes to the new oil states of Central Asia—routes that would create a bulwark of Muslim states that could confront India.
It was a democratically elected Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, along with her Interior Minister, the retired general Naseerullah Babar, who conceived of the Taliban as a solution to Pakistan’s problem. Through the ISI the Bhutto government began to provide the Taliban with money, fuel, subsidized wheat, vehicles, weapons, and volunteers from Pakistan’s madrassas. It also linked Afghanistan to Pakistan’s telephone grid.
But the Taliban won’t play the role of puppet. And Afghanistan’s religious extremism is accelerating Pakistan’s, through the network of madrassas. Furthermore, the future of the Taliban themselves is uncertain. They have restored security in Afghanistan by disarming much of the countryside, but they have built no institutions to sustain their rule—and 70 percent of working-age Afghans are jobless. Just as the Taliban rose and spread like Islam itself, they could also descend into disorderly power struggles, much like the medieval Muslim rulers who followed the prophet Mohammed.
Ultimately, the Taliban are tribal Pashtoons from the southern and eastern Afghan borderlands—an anarchic mountain people who have ground up one foreign invader after another, defying attempts by the Moguls, the Sikhs, the British, the Soviets, and the Pakistanis to control them. As Mahauddin, a white-robed Pashtoon cleric from southwestern Afghanistan, told me in Karzai’s home, “We are thirsty for a pure Afghan government, a loya jirga [grand council of tribal chiefs] without Russia or the ISI to influence us.”
In fact, with mujahideen field commanders no longer getting CIA money and weapons through the ISI, power in Afghanistan is inexorably gravitating back to the tribal heads. For example, commanders of Popolzai descent who were loyal to Hekmatyar and the other mujahideen party leaders have returned to Karzai’s fold, which is why he is so troublesome to the Taliban and their Pakistani backers—and why Quetta is dangerous for Karzai.
The North-West Frontier
Several hundred miles north of Quetta lies Peshawar, at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass—the fabled gateway connecting Central Asia to the Subcontinent, which in our day means connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan. Here the religious disputes that run parallel to tribal divides come more clearly into focus. In the late 1970s Peshawar went from being a quaint backwater whose bazaars were interspersed with stately lawns and red-brick mansions in Anglo-Indian Gothic style to becoming a geopolitical fault line. Afghan refugees poured through the Khyber Pass by the millions, escaping the Soviet invasion. At the same time, the Iranian revolution closed off an important route for drug smugglers, who began transporting locally produced heroin eastward through the Khyber Pass and down to the port of Karachi. Peshawar’s population doubled to a million. Throughout the 1980s war, crime, and urbanization generated an intolerant religiosity.
Returning to Peshawar for the first time in more than a decade, I found an even more crowded, poor, and polluted city than the one I remembered. It was also more Afghan. In the 1980s Peshawar’s Afghan population consisted of refugees from the rural hinterlands. But from 1992 to 1994, when a civil war among the mujahideen destroyed Kabul with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the sophisticated urbanites of the Afghan capital migrated to Peshawar. Unlike the rural refugees, these people had an exportable cosmopolitan culture, and this added another layer of change to Peshawar. Now there are many more Afghan restaurants and carpet shops and nightclubs for Afghan music—especially owing to the Taliban ban on music in Kabul. There are also many Afghan prostitutes, fairer-skinned and reputed to be more compliant than their Pakistani counterparts. The presence of educated Afghans made me realize that the very element of the population most averse to Taliban rule was now absent from Afghanistan, reducing the likelihood of an uprising.
In the 1980s traveling outside Peshawar into the tribal agencies of the North-West Frontier Province was easy for journalists, because the Pakistani regime encouraged news coverage of the mujahideen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This time it took me several days to get a permit to travel from Peshawar into the Orakzai and Kurram tribal agencies, which in recent years have been plagued by communal violence between members of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. The permit was valid only provided that I was accompanied by an armed escort of local tribal militia.
The road south and west of Peshawar runs past squalid mud-brick and wattle stalls crowded with bearded and turbaned Pashtoon men; the women, concealed under burkas, resemble moving tents. The sky is polluted by a greasy haze of black smoke from tire-fed fires, used to bake mud bricks. The odor in each town is a rich mixture of dung, hashish, grilled meat, and diesel oil—and also cordite in Darra Adam Khel, where Pashtoons work at foot-powered lathes producing local copies of Kalashnikovs and other assault rifles.
In one shop, whose glass cases were filled with rifles, pistols, and bullet magazines, I met Haji Mohammed Zaman Khan, a local tribal leader. Haji Zaman wore a bulbous red cloth hat with an ostentatious bow around it—the signature of the Afridi, a branch of the Pashtoons thought to be descended from Greek soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army, which came down the Khyber Pass. Here, as in Quetta, all the stores had been closed in protest against the military government’s plan to tax the smuggling trade. Haji Zaman explained, “The government tries to stop production of opium poppies, our only cash crop. It wants to ban the transport of guns, which will make thousands jobless. Smuggling is the only means of survival we have left. Why doesn’t the government raise money from the corrupt? When we see that the corrupt are being punished, then maybe we will trust the government.”
By “the corrupt,” Zaman meant officials of previous democratic governments who are under investigation for taking billions of dollars in bribes and depositing them in foreign bank accounts. Throughout Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier, I heard calls for revenge against those officials. No one with whom I spoke voiced any interest in national elections, which are very tentatively scheduled to take place in three years; political analysts in Islamabad call them a dead issue among the masses, though only for now.
Beyond Darra Adam Khel the landscape consisted of naked rock, heat, and haze. High temperatures had come a month early, with 110° common by early May, and there had been no seasonal rains to cool the ground. I saw women in burkas searching for water trickling through otherwise dry gravel beds. Low-walled fortresses of red brick were scarred with graffiti that read, in English and Urdu, LONG LIVE OSAMA BIN LADEN and WE WANT ISLAMIC LAW. Throughout the tribal lands of Pakistan people are naming their newborns Osama. To these people, Bin Laden represents an Islamic David against a global American Goliath. It is the American government’s promotion of Bin Laden as a formidable enemy that helps to give him credibility here. To the poor, he embodies the idea that only strict Islam has the power to vanquish the advancing materialism of the West. In the nearby tribal agency of Waziristan, Pakistani members of the Taliban have been destroying television sets, videos, and other reminders of the West. Bin Laden’s terrorist organization, with operatives on several continents, is both a symptom of and a reaction against globalization.
Parachinar, the largest town in the Kurram tribal agency, was a small market center twelve years ago. Now it is a crowded city of 300,000, characterized by brutal concrete, electricity outages, water shortages, battles over property rights, and terrorism powered by guns that are filtering back into Pakistan from Afghanistan. When I asked the assistant political agent for Kurram, Massoud Urrahma, if military rule had made a difference, he replied dismissively, “Whether the government in Islamabad is military or democratic doesn’t matter. We have no civil law here—only Pashtoon tribal law.”
The Pashtoon population of Kurram is split between Sunnis and Shias. In September of 1996 a gun battle among teenage members of the two rival Muslim sects escalated into a communal war in which more than 200 people were killed and women and children were kidnapped. A paramilitary official said that the atrocities were out of “the Stone Age”; militants even executed out-of-towners who were staying at a local hotel.
Now the situation in Parachinar is peaceful but extremely tense. Paramilitaries guard the streets around the Sunni and Shia mosques, which stand nearly side by side, their minarets scarred by bullet holes. Only a few weeks before my visit seventeen people had been killed in violence between Sunnis and Shias in another tribal region of the North-West Frontier.
“The Shias are eighty percent of the Kurram agency,”the Shia leader in Parachinar, Mohammed Anwar, told me. “The problems have all been caused by Afghan refugees who support the Sunnis.”Yet the Sunni leader, Haji Asghar Din, claims that 75 percent of the local population is Sunni. He told me that Sunnis cannot buy land from Shias—“so how can we consider them our brothers?” The only certainty is that Parachinar, hemmed in by the Safed Koh Mountains on the Afghan border, has little more room to expand. A high birth rate and a flood of Afghan refugees have intensified the property conflicts. Population growth has also weakened the power of tribal elders and created extremist youth factions. The lack of water and electricity has increased anger. Meanwhile, the government schools are abysmal—often without teachers, books, and roofs. The poor, who form the overwhelming majority, cannot afford the private academies, so they send their children to Sunni and Shia madrassas, where students are well cared for and indoctrinated with sectarian beliefs.
Every person I interviewed was sullen and reticent. One day a crowd of men surrounded me and led me to the back of a pharmacy, where they took turns denouncing America and telling me that the Taliban were good because they had restored security to Afghanistan, ending mujahideen lawlessness. The “external hand of India” was to blame for the local troubles between Sunnis and Shias here, I was told. Conspiracy theories, I have noticed, are inflamed by illiteracy: people who can’t read rely on hearsay. In Pakistan the adult literacy rate is below 33 percent. In the tribal areas it is below that. As for the percentage of women in Parachinar who can read, I heard figures as low as two percent; nobody really knows.
Tribal and religious unrest in Pakistan is aggravated by terrible living conditions and divisive nationalisms. These are most clearly seen in Karachi, far to the south, on the Arabian Sea. Traditionless, dysfunctional, and unstable, Karachi is an unfortunately apt metaphor for Pakistan’s general condition. Only a quarter of the 14 million residents are native to Sind, the region around Karachi, and are themselves migrants from the drought-stricken interior. The rest are immigrants from elsewhere on the Subcontinent. At least a quarter of the populace lives in katchiabaadis, “temporary houses” built haphazardly of corrugated iron, cinder blocks, wattle, burlap, and cardboard, with stones and tires anchoring their rattling roofs. Vistas of these houses go on for miles. Some katchiabaadi neighborhoods have existed for decades; they have shops, teahouses, and makeshift playgrounds. Goats wander everywhere. Children and adults sift through mounds of garbage in search of items to recycle. “The water situation is getting worse; electricity and other infrastructure are hopeless,” a foreign expert told me. “The entire foundation of life here is imploding—except, of course, in the neighborhoods where people have lots of money.”
Most Third World cities manifest dramatic contrasts between rich and poor. But in no other place have I seen rich and poor live in such close and hostile proximity as in Karachi. On one street a grimy warren of katchiabaadis lay to my right, and a high wall guarding luxury villas and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet lay to my left. Karachi’s villas look like embassies, with guards, barbed wire, iron grilles, and beautiful bougainvillaea and jacaranda trees adorning stucco ramparts. The villas, with their satellite dishes for watching CNN, MTV, and other international channels, symbolize a high-end kind of globalization; the katchiabaadis—so much like the slums I have seen throughout the developing world—a low-end kind.
During the week that I was in Karachi in May, seven vehicles, including a bus, were set afire by rampaging youths, who also broke windows at a McDonald’s and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Seven other vehicles were carjacked. Bombs exploded near a police station and in the central business district, killing one person and injuring six others. Three people were murdered by unidentified assailants. As in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, political, ethnic, and religious reasons are given for the violence. But the evidence is often murky. Seeing how people lived in Karachi, I wondered if sheer rage might have much to do with it. I consider it a triumph of the human spirit, in fact, that there is not more violence here: the day that the youths went rampaging was the tenth in succession without water for part of the city. The wealthy have their own private water tanks, water-distribution network, and generators.
More than 4,000 people have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded in Karachi since the mid-1980s, when the city began to overflow with weapons from the Afghan war and communal fighting broke out between Pashtoons and two generations of mohajirs, Muslim refugees from India. In the late 1980s and the 1990s mohajirs and Sindhis fought each other here and elsewhere in Sind. In the first ten months of 1998 there were 629 murders in Karachi committed by what a local magazine called “unaffiliated contract killers”; none was solved by the police. Mobile phones were banned in the 1990s, because urban guerrillas were using them. Wire services dutifully report all the violence in Karachi, and in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier, too. The reports are rarely picked up by the American media.
Just as the yearning for an independent Pashtoonistan is ever present in the Afghan borderlands, in southern Pakistan some Sindhis long for an independent Sind. Sind has been inhabited for 6,000 years, and although the Sindhis are a mixture of Arabs, Persians, and other passing conquerors, they retain a strong cultural identity. But the idea of a stable, independent Sind is ludicrous, given the enmity between Sunnis and Shias that I saw in Karachi.
I drove through a mishmash of gleaming high-rises, katchiabaadis, and sloppily constructed overpasses to arrive at a guarded house where a man introduced himself as a “retired school principal” and a “moderate Shia.” Surrounded by his friends, he told me, “They’ll kill us if you identify us by name.”
General Musharraf, Pakistan’s new ruler, “is a serious, humane man, but he has arrived too late to save Pakistan,” the Shia leader explained. “With life getting worse materially, religion is more enticing, and tensions between us and the Sunni extremists are on the rise.” The man spoke at length about universal love, honor, and tolerance in a very soft and patient tone, while offering me tea and dainty sweets. He gave me several books that laid out the Shia view of Muslim history—doctrines, he told me, that had gotten his friends murdered. Nothing he said seemed offensive or narrow-minded. Rather, it was the obsession with Shi’ism itself that was the problem. His orthodoxy conflicted with others in a land where poverty is stark, ignorance and conspiracy-mongering are widespread, and the state itself is weak.
Next I visited the Sunnis. I drove through another succession of katchiabaadis to a bleak industrial zone, where I left the car and banged at an iron gate. Inside was a complex of school buildings with armed security guards. One of the guards led me to a room with a wall-to-wall carpet that had just been vacuumed. People sat on the floor with cushions behind them, in the traditional Oriental fashion. All had beards, skullcaps, and spotless white robes. The low glass coffee tables had just been polished. After the filth of so much of Karachi, I couldn’t help being impressed.
I noticed security cameras mounted over all the doors. After removing my shoes, I was brought an ice-cold Pepsi. Then I was ushered into another spotless room, also with a vacuumed rug. Behind a low glass desk in a corner I saw three closed-circuit television screens, a speakerphone, headphones, a VCR, and a computer. A tiny, pudgy man with a gray beard and fashionable glasses, wearing a skullcap and a white shalwar kameez, entered the room.
“Will you excuse me while I say my prayers?” he asked. I waited as he knelt on the floor and prayed. Then he sat down behind the desk, turned on the television screens, put on the headphones, and proceeded to observe two classes in progress, giving orders to the teachers over the speakerphone while monitoring the entrance on a third screen. Speaking in a finely enunciated blend of Urdu and Arabic, he seemed both meticulous and relentless.
Mufti Mohammed Naeem is the rector of the Jamia Binoria, a “society” of Islamic madrassas linked to the extreme Wahabi and Deobandi traditions. (Masood Azhar, a militant whom India jailed for fanning Islamic separatism in Kashmir and was forced to release after an airline hijacking last December, studied in one of these academies.) Mufti Naeem rattled off statistics for me: the Jamia Binoria has 2,300 students, ages eight through twenty, from thirty countries, including the United States. The twelve-acre campus includes a hotel and a supermarket. Separate accommodations and cafeterias are provided for boys and girls. “The girls arrive from abroad with skirts, but now they are fully covered,” he said breezily. “We have changed their minds.” He explained that although the foreign students paid tuition, the poor of the katchiabaadis were educated without charge. Yes, he had a Web site. As he spoke, he fielded calls and kept checking the television monitors.
“What do you teach?” I asked.
“Islam, not math or anything else, only Islam.” Mufti Naeem called in a number of foreign students. One, a teenage American boy from Los Angeles, explained, “We only study those sciences—such as grammar, Arabic linguistics, and jurisprudence—that help us understand Islam.” When I asked the students what they planned to do when they returned home, they all said, “Propagate Islam.” Some of the Americans came from Muslim backgrounds; others were Christians who had converted. The Americans agreed that the United States was a land of decadence and materialism for which only the prophet Mohammed had the answer.
The most significant aspect of the madrassa was the service it provided for the poor. Here was the one school in Karachi, a local analyst told me, where the children of the katchiabaadis were fed, educated, protected, and even loved. Mufti Naeem said, “The state is bathed in corruption. The teachers at the government schools are unqualified. They get their jobs through political connections. We, not the government, are educating the common people. And we are putting all our efforts into training those who will spread Islam.”
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, many of the country’s public schools are “ghost schools” that exist only on paper. If there was one thing the military regime could accomplish, I thought, it would be to force parents, particularly in the backward tribal areas, to send their children, boys and girls, to school, and to make the schools decent. But General Musharraf is not doing that. Nor is he being pressured by the West to do it, even as the West spends its political capital here demanding a return to the same parliamentary system that bankrupted the country and resulted in the military coup. Given that the Subcontinent is a nuclear battleground where defense budgets are skyrocketing, and at the same time it is home to 45 percent of the world’s illiterate people, I can see few priorities for the United States higher than pressuring governments in the region to improve primary education. Otherwise the madrassas will do it. What was so frightening about Mufti Naeem was the way he used Western information-age paraphernalia in the service of pan-Islamic absolutism.
Pakistan has never been well governed. After the military fought its catastrophic war with India in 1971, hopes were placed on the new democratic leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a wealthy landlord from Sind. But Bhutto turned out to be a divisive populist who sowed fear with his security service and surrounded himself with sycophants. His 1977 re-election was marred by fraud; riots broke out and Bhutto declared martial law. Soldiers fired on people in the streets. The military wasn’t happy; the army chief of staff, Zia ul-Haq, led a coup.
It was Zia who released the fundamentalist genie: though moderate himself, he allied the military with Sunni radicals in order to win support for his new regime. After his death, in 1988 in an air crash that has yet to be explained, democracy returned with the election of Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, as Prime Minister. Though educated at Harvard, Benazir had no political or administrative experience and had made what by all accounts was a disastrous marriage to Asif Ali Zardari, who later became her Investment Minister. Zardari’s large-scale theft of public funds undermined his wife’s government. Elections next brought the Punjabi businessman Nawaz Sharif to power. Together with his brother, Shabaz, Sharif ran Pakistan as a family enterprise; the brothers’ reputation for taking huge kickbacks and other financial malfeasance outdid even that of Benazir’s cabinet. By his second term, reportedly, Sharif was amassing so much money that it was feared that he could perpetually buy off the members of the National Assembly and create a virtual dictatorship. The Sharif and Bhutto governments stand accused of stealing $2 billion in public money, part of some $30 billion smuggled out of the country during democratic rule.
When, last October, General Musharraf toppled Sharif’s government in a bloodless coup, the West saw it as a turn for the worse. However, Pakistanis saw the accession of General Musharraf as a rare positive development in a country where almost all trends are bad. The local media are (at least for now) freer under the military than they were under Sharif, whose aides frequently intimidated journalists. Musharraf has initiated no extensive personality cult. He has said more to promote human rights than have the officials of recent democratic governments, working to end such abhorrent tribal and religious practices as “honor killings” and “blasphemy laws” (though radical clerics have forced him to back down on these issues). Mehnaz Akbar, of the private Asia Foundation, in Islamabad, says, “This is the most liberal time ever in Pakistan.” Musharraf, an admirer of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is a like-minded modernizer. He shakes hands with women in full public view, and one of the first pictures taken of him after he assumed power shows him holding his two poodles, even though dogs are considered unclean by traditional Muslims. Most important, as one Pakistani journalist told me, “Musharraf speaks with conviction and people believe him, whereas Benazir, though an intellectual, was never believed.”
President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in March was not a public-relations success. Clinton, who was opposed to the military take-over, refused to shake hands with Musharraf for the television cameras. A day later Pakistanis saw Clinton, on television in Geneva, clasping the hands of the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad—whose regime, they knew, was far more repressive than that of any Pakistani military ruler since the founding of their state.
Musharraf is characterized in the West as a dictator who supports fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan and Kashmir and who is not moving fast enough to restore democracy. The truth is somewhat different. Musharraf, one of the last British-style aristocratic officers in the Pakistani army, is a man in the middle. The West demands that he stop supporting Islamic militants; his fellow generals, who carried out the coup in his name, are Islamic hardliners, capable of staging another coup if Musharraf puts too much distance between himself and the Taliban and the Muslim fighters in Kashmir. Moreover, some analysts in Islamabad worry that Musharraf might be moving too fast on too many fronts in his drive to reform Pakistan. In addition to promoting human rights, a free press, and local elections that threaten tribal mafias, he has challenged the smugglers throughout Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier. As the gun battle I saw in Quetta demonstrated, Musharraf has struck hard against various ethnic nationalists and criminal groups. Unlike previous anti-corruption drives in Pakistan’s history, Musharraf’s has indiscriminately targeted officials from all political parties and ethnic groups. And Musharraf has not relied on fundamentalist organizations like the Maududi-influenced Jama’at-I-Islami (“Islamic Society”) for support, as Zia did. He has in fact alienated many vested interests, who have the will and the means to fight back—which is why, despite his liberal instincts, Musharraf may yet declare martial law.
Even if Musharraf’s reformist plans succeed, one crucial element will remain: the military itself, which with its own factories, agribusinesses, road-construction firms, schools, hotels, and so on, constitutes a parallel state. No less than the civilian sector, the military is mired in corruption, and yet it is exempt from investigations by the courts. Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Foreign Secretary, told me that Pakistan’s only hope may be “a genuine hybrid system in which the army accepts responsibility for poverty and illiteracy in return for limited political power.” A successful hybrid system, he went on, would “democratize the army.” Rifaat Hussain, who chairs the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-Azam University, in Islamabad, agrees: “I will not rule out a formal constitution on the Turkish model in order to create a national-security council and give the army constitutional privileges. We must find a way to legally stabilize civil-military relations.”
Pakistani politics have been a circular tale of passion in which one group of people imprisons or persecutes another, only to be imprisoned or persecuted itself once political fortunes change. Consider the story of Farouk Adam Khan.
In 1973, as a thirty-three-year-old army major, Adam led a coup against the elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The coup failed when one of the officers deeply involved lost his nerve and reported the details to the Prime Minister himself. Adam spent five years in prison, including, as he puts it, “thirteen months, two days, and six hours” at Attock Fort, fifty miles west of Islamabad, overlooking the Indus River, which was built by the Moguls in 1581 to guard the Afghan frontier. Adam went on to become a lawyer in his native Peshawar, where I met him in 1987. He is now the prosecutor-general of Musharraf’s National Accountability Bureau. I saw him again in May, back at Attock Fort, where he was to arraign the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges.
After the proceedings in a whitewashed barracks hall—where fans whirred overhead and flies hovered and the unfortunate Sharif pleaded for better food—Adam pointed out the room where he had read The Federalist Papers and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in the semi-darkness of solitary confinement. “Those books confirmed my judgment that I was absolutely justified to attempt a coup,” he told me. “Every single ingredient that the authors of those books say is required for a civil society—education, a moral code, a sense of nationhood: you name it, we haven’t got it! Just look at our history. It sounds authoritarian, but we need someone who will not compromise in order to build a state. It is not a matter of democracy but of willpower.”
Adam’s interpretation of Mill and the Founding Fathers is certainly questionable. Yet fifty-three years after independence only about one percent of Pakistanis pay any taxes at all: one can empathize with his yearning for a functioning state. But I fear that Adam’s dreams may be impossible to realize, under either democracy or the semi-authoritarian conditions he recommends. Musharraf may be better respected by his countrymen than any other Pakistani leader in decades, but there is just too much poverty and ignorance, too many ethnic and sectarian rivalries, too many pan-Islamic influences, too many weapons filtering back from Afghanistan, and too many tribal and smugglers’ mafias able to challenge the military. As the Shia leader in Karachi told me, Musharraf may simply be a good man who arrived too late. Atatürk had decades to build Turkey—time Musharraf doesn’t have.
From the mottled-ocher battlements of Attock Fort, I gazed down on the Indus River, which marks the geographic divide between the Subcontinent and the marchlands of Central Asia. Mogul, Sikh, and British conquerors, and then the new state of Pakistan, had all rearranged borders, but the river still expressed a certain inexorable logic—evinced by the resentment that the Pashtoons of the North-West Frontier on one bank felt for the more settled Punjabis on the other. Here, at this broad and majestic crossing, is where India truly begins, I thought. A forty-five-minute drive east of Attock lay Taxila, where amid the enervating heat and dust are the ruins of Persian, Greek, Buddhist, and ancient Indian civilizations: a lesson in history’s transmutations, with one culture blending with and overturning another. If there is any common thread, it is that India has always been invaded from the northwest, from the direction of Afghanistan and Central Asia—by Muslim hordes like the Moguls, the builders of the Taj Mahal. And given the turbulence within Islam itself, it is hard to believe that this region has seen the last of its transformations—or that Pakistan constitutes history’s last word in this unstable zone between mountains and plains.
At the end of my visit to Pakistan, I sat with a group of journalists trying to fathom why Nawaz Sharif, when still Prime Minister, had reportedly turned down an offer of several billion dollars in aid from the United States in return for agreeing not to test nuclear weapons. A Pakistani friend supplied the simple answer: “India had tested them, so we had to. It would not have mattered who was Prime Minister or what America offered. We have never defined ourselves in our own right—only in relation to India. That is our tragedy.”
The feebler the state becomes, the more that nuclear weapons are needed to prove otherwise. At major intersections in the main cities of Pakistan are fiberglass monuments to a rock that was severed in 1998 by underground nuclear tests in the Baluchistan desert—celebrating the achievement of nuclear power. Do not expect Pakistan to pass quietly from history.