December 8, 2008

A Visit to Pakistan

It was a cool, clear sunny morning, the day before Eid ul-Azha, the holy festival of sacrifice, and the second most holy day in Islam. It marks the end of Haj, the pilgrimage that millions of Muslims make every year to Mecca.

It was a cool, clear sunny morning, the day before Eid ul-Azha, the holy festival of sacrifice, and the second most holy day in Islam. It marks the end of Haj, the pilgrimage that millions of Muslims make every year to Mecca.


Jere Van Dyk

A Visit to Pakistan

It was a cool, clear sunny morning, the day before Eid ul-Azha, the holy festival of sacrifice, and the second most holy day in Islam. It marks the end of Haj, the pilgrimage that millions of Muslims make every year to Mecca. I sat in a small room of a Pakistani newspaper office in Peshawar, an ancient, now crowded city of cars, packed buses, narrow streets and old bazaars, near the Afghan border, watching the end of Haj on television.
A mass of people moved slowly, shoulder to shoulder, around the Ka’ba, the center of the Grand Mosque, Al-Lah’s house, the house of God, in Mecca. Al-Lah means God in Arabic, the same word that Arab Christians use when they pray to the father of Jesus. The power of Islam and its message of equality and universal brotherhood were clear as I looked at the faces from so many different lands. It was the same message as in Christianity.
Later, a muezzin’s call to prayer came wafting through my window. There is a small mosque across the alleyway. There are mosques throughout the old city. Nearby, men pray on straw mats in the street because there is not enough room in other mosques. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, as Sunday is to Christians in the West, hundreds of men pray in the street outside this mosque, as cars drive slowly by.
On October 5, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks of 9/11. Young men who attended mosques in this city and elsewhere throughout the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), one of Pakistan’s four provinces, the capital of which is Peshawar, a city of three million now, went across the border, many by foot following the hundreds of paths that lead up into the mountains, some by car up a narrow two-lane paved road through the Khyber Pass – all to wage jihad, holy war, against the foreign, infidel invaders.
The evening came and with it another call to prayer and a light rain, helping to clean the air, but still the rickshaws, taxis and old buses spewed out fumes. The bazaars were open and men talked in the streets, but people were not happy. The U.S. in its war on terrorism had launched another attack against al-Qaeda a few hours drive north of here, in this case against Ayman al-Zawahiri. The attack, the second one in two weeks, hit at 3:15 in the morning. It was launched from a Predator drone and it killed about 18 people, many of whom were women and children. The White House refused to apologize for the deaths it caused, further angering people
The news was confusing. It was hard to know the truth. Foreign reporters were not allowed into this area. Even Pakistani journalists had a hard time gaining access to the tribal areas, the hard, hilly terrain along the Afghan border. It was clear, however, that once again innocent people were killed and once again Ayman al-Zawahiri was not where the “intelligence” said he was supposed to be. The last time the world was treated to this spectacle was in March 2004, when the Pakistani army launched a major military operation in Wana, Waziristan, 100 kilometers southwest of here. As the world waited, General Pervez Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, said that the military might have surrounded an “HVT,” a high value target, in this case Ayman al-Zawahiri. It turned out that the man said to be the intellectual head of al-Qaeda, the number two man in the organization, was not there, just as he was not at Damadola, the village attacked. A few weeks later, his next tape appeared on Al-Jazeera, mocking President Bush. “I am hiding among the Muslim people,” he said. Al-Qaeda is not the enemy to most people in Waziristan. They are good Muslims, waging war against the infidel invaders.
Pakistan, a country of 160 million people, which has been ruled by the military for over half the time since it separated from India and became independent in August 1947, is a difficult place to understand for many people in the West. Is it a friend or a foe of the West? Shortly after 9/11, President Bush said to the world, “You are either with us or against us.” He threw down the gauntlet. One who heard him clearly was General Musharraf, who in 1998 mounted a coup against the corrupt, but democratically-elected leader, Nawaz Sharif, and has ruled Pakistan ever since.
Once it was the British who ruled this region and twice invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to keep Russia at bay in the 19th century; then came the Soviets from the north, who sometimes bombed this part of Pakistan during their war against the mujahideen in the 1980s; and now came the Americans. The majority of people in this region, most of whom are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and in the NWFP, do not pay attention to the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is called the Durand Line, drawn by a British official, Sir Mortimer Durand, in 1893, and which attempts to divide them.
Most Pashtuns in Afghanistan do not accept the border either. They feel that Afghanistan should extend at least 100 kilometers further into Pakistan and that Peshawar, among other Pashtun cities, should be part of Afghanistan or, as many Pashtuns think, be part of a greater Pashtunistan. Pakistan is a new country, the provinces of which are often at odds with one another, because there are different peoples and languages in every province. The goal is to keep the country from falling apart. Religion, not nationalism is the glue that holds it together and has done so ever since it was founded on August 15, 1947, as the first Islamic state, which was carved out of India.
In Peshawar, following the American invasion, conservative religious political parties banded together and formed the Muttahida Majlis-Amel (MMA), the United Action Council, which participated as one party in Pakistan’s general elections in 2002. The MMA, seizing on the anti-American sentiment that swept through Pakistan, won a majority in the NWFP and in Baluchistan. The latter is the largest and most sparsely populated province in Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the south.
Today, the MMA that wants to introduce Sharia or Islamic law in Pakistan controls the provincial assemblies in both provinces. Sharia, which Islamists or conservative Muslims feel comes from God and is therefore right, frightens the West because of the way in which it is sometimes applied – for example, cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning for adultery. These punishments have not been applied in the NWFP. Most local people who are very welcoming to the few foreigners who come here would, one thinks, oppose its harsher elements.
Baluchistan, a rugged land where Alexander the Great lost many of his soldiers in the desert heat on his way back to Macedonia from India, borders the Arabian Sea. It is filled with mineral resources, possibly large deposits of oil and natural gas. There is also an anti-government insurgency raging in Baluchistan and the Pakistani army is attempting to fight it. The army is also fighting insurgents in the NWFP, in Kashmir and along the eastern border with India.
The Chinese are building a port at Gwador in Baluchistan on the Arabian Sea to get closer to the oilfields of the Middle East and possibly to create a terminus for a pipeline that someday would bring oil and natural gas down from Central Asia. There is talk of a pipeline from Iran stretching across Baluchistan to Pakistan and then to India. All of these countries are growing, their economies are expanding and they need energy to fuel this growth. Baluchistan, which is an ancient, feudal and tribal province, is caught in the middle. There are small secret American bases here, near the Iranian border.
Furthermore, and this is a crucial point for understanding the politics in Pakistan, the MMA is aligned with Pakistan’s military government against the two main secular political parties: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both parties have been accused by Pakistanis and Westerners for causing rampant corruption in Pakistan, which spends very little on education and health care, but is keen on purchasing military hardware from the U.S. and from its other principal ally, China.
The military-religious alliance, which has survived in various forms since the foundation of Pakistan as the world’s first Islamic state, exists because both sides – the military and the religious groups – are adamantly opposed to an accommodation with “Hindu” India, particularly in the war over Kashmir. Kashmir is a former princely Indian state with a Muslim majority, which both countries claim is theirs and which is divided between the two of them. The people of Kashmir have never had an opportunity to vote for what they wanted. UN peace keepers have been in Kashmir since 1951, but sometimes to no avail. India and Pakistan have fought more than once over Kashmir.
The MMA recruits many young, ardent men, who are then trained secretly by the Pakistani military to wage jihad as guerrilla fighters against Hindu India in what Pakistan calls Indian-occupied Kashmir. The Indian army, like the Indian economy, is much larger than Pakistan’s, and the military feels it has no alternative but to wage guerrilla war against its larger and most important enemy in this beautiful, once quiet land with clean air and lush valleys, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Most, but not all women in Peshawar wear a hijab scarf, which fully covers a woman’s head, but not her face and which signifies that she is a good, proper Muslim. There are women shopping and walking with their children in the streets who do not cover their heads. In Peshawar, there are even women who live alone, like women in Western countries. There is a movie theatre, which shows cheap action movies. There is a university, there are bookstores, and there are Pakistani fast-food restaurants, but men and women eat in separate rooms in them.
In Peshawar, you do not find, however, American fast food restaurants, like McDonalds, that you do find in Karachi, a city of 15 million on the Arabian Sea, and in Islamabad, the nation’s capital. Anti-Western Islamic militants bomb these restaurants periodically, especially in Karachi. At night, Peshawar is quiet. Everyone is indoors. In Pakistan, alcohol is made by non-Muslim companies and while it is now banned in Peshawar, it is available on the black market. Pakistani journalists and some local UN workers whom I know get together without their wives to eat and drink.
Between Peshawar and Afghanistan lies Waziristan, the now famous tribal area where today the Pakistani army has 80,000 soldiers, it says, patrolling the Afghan-Pakistani border and fighting the “war on terrorism.”
The tribal areas were a buffer zone between the old British Raj and Afghanistan. British troops garrisoned Waziristan (both Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – were stationed here), but largely let the tribes alone. When Pakistan was formed, it also left Waziristan alone. Pakistan never fully established its writ here. Afghanistan was also not comfortable with this border, which was drawn by colonists, like most borders in the Middle East. The tribes governed themselves, as they always have throughout their 5,000-year-long history, following their ancient rules collectively called Pashtunwali, the code of the Pashtuns.
The central rule of Pashtunwali is Pa’nah, which means that a person, even an enemy, who seeks refuge in your home, must be protected to the death. One of the reasons cited by the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, a Pashtun, for not giving up Osama bin Laden to the U.S. was Pa’nah. One of the reasons, therefore, why tribesmen in Waziristan would now not give up bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, if they are in Waziristan – and they may well be – is Pa’nah. On the other hand, some Pakistani military officials, journalists and even U.S. officials have noted that all the al-Qaeda leaders have been captured in major Pakistani cities.
The situation here is complicated. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani army moved into Waziristan for the first time in Pakistan’s history. I traveled through Waziristan as a young reporter for The New York Times in the 1980s, going up to and back from Afghanistan, where I lived with the mujahideen, the fathers of the Taliban, who were then fighting the Soviet Union. There were no Pakistani soldiers visible in the villages of Waziristan then. Most probably, there were spies as there are today, but when you entered Waziristan, you entered – for all practical purposes – Afghanistan. The situation is the same today in a great many ways.
From 1979 to 1989, the U.S. and its allies poured arms worth billions of dollars into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. All of these arms went through Pakistan. They were delivered by truck or camel or mule caravan across Waziristan to the Afghan border or directly into Afghanistan. The tribes in Waziristan took millions of dollars in arms for themselves. Today Waziristan, like Afghanistan, is awash with arms and filled with thousands of men who know how to use them.
The Pakistani army has lost, according to General Musharraf, 400 soldiers in its ongoing “war on terrorism” in Waziristan. The army killed nearly 100 people in Waziristan during the time of President Bush’s trip to Islamabad. Since the U.S. bombed the al-Qaeda redoubt of Tora Bora and foreign militants fled across the border into Pakistan, the Pakistani army has captured or killed over 500 members of al-Qaeda in all of the NWFP, of which Waziristan is only a part.
Yet in recent months Pakistan has ceded control of much of Waziristan to the Taliban, the members of which have forced the closure of all music and video shops and Internet cafes. The Taliban has set up its own courts and jails. This is, as one prominent Pakistani journalist reported, the “Taliban Raj.”
Major General Shaukut Sultan, the chief army spokesman, told me in January that the army mounts an attack in any area where, according to its intelligence, foreign “terrorists” are hiding. It is widely reported that the army is putting pressure on the people who are harboring foreign terrorists, but it does not usually touch the Taliban, the members of which are, after all, Pashtuns. The Taliban is growing stronger and its members have killed more than 100 local tribal leaders who, they say, had been working with the Pakistani government.
It is not exactly clear what the Pakistani army is doing in Waziristan, but it is clear that it has run into difficulties as the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies are growing stronger. Yet Pakistan needs the Taliban to control Afghanistan, where it is afraid it will be surrounded by India, which has in recent years established consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar on the Afghan-Pakistani border and which Pakistan accuses of sending spies and commandoes across the border into Waziristan and Baluchistan.
Members of the Taliban, for their part, are gaining more power in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. They have arms, they know how to fight and apparently they have money, which they get either by selling drugs produced in Afghanistan and/or from al-Qaeda and its backers in other Muslim (primarily Arab) countries. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency of the U.S. Army testified before the U.S. Congress recently to say that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is growing.
The Taliban, as the world knows, is now using roadside bombs and suicide bombers – forms of warfare that it never used before, which it has learned from Iraq. Just as the Viet Cong used Cambodia and Laos as bases to hide from the U.S. and to launch attacks into Vietnam in the 1970s, so do the Taliban members, who today use Waziristan and Baluchistan as places from which they can mount attacks against the Afghans. Yet there are precious few roads going into Afghanistan and fewer still in the country. Members of the Taliban could not survive if villagers did not protect them, give them a place to sleep and food to eat.
Many Pashtuns feel that the Pakistani army is at war with the Pashtuns, because 85% of the army is comprised of Punjabis, who come from Punjab, the wealthiest province in Pakistan, bordering India. There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. There are more Pashtuns in Karachi – over three million – than there are in Kandahar. Furthermore, many Pashtuns say that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the famous Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), is a Punjabi organization. Most of its soldiers are from Punjab province, which means that they are not Pashtuns. Pakistan is waging war in Waziristan and in Baluchistan against its own people. This is why General Musharraf is called General Busharaff, as he acts, many feel, on behalf of the U.S., not Pakistan.
In Islamabad, a quiet, artificially-planned capital, like Brasilia, Canberra or Washington, D.C., the streets are wide and many of the houses are large. The city can often look and feel like a boring American suburb. There are white grandiose stone buildings for the President, the Parliament and the Supreme Court, but there never appears to be anyone around these buildings, except for armed guards. The power in Pakistan lies in Rawalpindi, a large, teeming city 15 kilometers away, which is the headquarters of the Pakistani military. This is where General Musharraf lives and works, although when President Bush visited Pakistan, he was feted in the Presidential mansion in Islamabad.
A day’s drive north of Islamabad is the earthquake zone, where 70,000 people died in October 2005. The earthquake struck just after 9 a.m., when children were in school and people at their workplaces. It leveled cities, towns and villages, killing people from Afghanistan to India. The center of the earthquake was in Ballikot, the NWFP, just west of Kashmir. It is estimated that 30,000 people were killed in that place, which used to be a city. When I was in the earthquake zone, there was snow in the mountains, there were piles of rubble, rocks, wood and concrete everywhere and fires were burning by the road, where people huddled to keep warm.
Yet people were shopping in makeshift markets, wielding sledgehammers and saws, rebuilding their lives. Alongside a narrow paved road leading into Ballikot, there were miles and miles of tent villages with supplies provided by foreign governments and organizations. Helicopters from Russia, Pakistan, the U.S. and elsewhere were flying overhead, bringing in supplies that had been flown in from all around the world to Islamabad.
I talked with a serious, bearded young lawyer, a member of Jamaat Islami (Islamic Society), one of the political parties that belongs to the MMA. Jamaat was among the first organizations to arrive and to begin providing humanitarian assistance and medical help. In a sign of how the world could be, numerous religious parties, even jihadi groups and the Iranians, worked side by side with humanitarian organizations from Europe and North America. U.S. helicopters brought in goods that were distributed by jihadi groups. Vice President Dick Cheney flew in and asked General Musharraf to have the jihadi groups removed, but Musharraf declined his request.
On an afternoon before Eid in January, I drove with a Pakistani journalist to his village of walled compounds and baked mud homes. His village was not far from where on that night the U.S. fired two missiles at two houses in Damadola, using an unmanned predator aircraft. Damadola is a village in Bajour, a tribal area in northern Pakistan, near Kunar Province, Afghanistan. The goal was to try to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man and intellectual head of al-Qaeda. Drawing on bad intelligence that could have been supplied by the ISI with which it has an ambiguous relationship, the U.S. missed its target, because al-Zawahiri just wasn’t there.
Instead the U.S. killed numerous women and children along with, as it turned out, a few men who may have well been anti-American militants. U.S. officials refused to apologize for killing the innocent women and children. General Musharraf said that al-Zawahiri might have been there, further angering most of the uneducated rural Pakistanis, especially those living along the Afghan-Pakistan border, as they grew increasingly convinced that the U.S. and its ally General Musharraf were at war with the long-suffering poor Pakistani people.
That night, young men, members of my host’s clan, stayed up late in a communal house, where only men gathered, watching Indian movies on television. They served dinner to the adults. “The butchery begins after morning prayers,” said a young man of 21, who had just returned from Canada with his parents. “We will stay up all night talking and playing music. It’s like Christmas. We are happy.”
The young man was referring to the ritual slaughtering of animals that would take place to celebrate Eid, the story in the Koran of Ibrahim and Ismail. Ibrahim or Abraham, following the will of Al-Lah, took his son Ismail and went up into the mountains, where he was to sacrifice his son, as God had ordered him to do. Ismail asked his father to cover his own eyes, so he wouldn’t see that he was killing his son. Ibrahim did this, but then opened his eyes later and saw that he was killing not his son, but a sheep instead. Al-lah, knowing that Ibrahim was doing his will, intervened at the last minute and saved Ismail. The story in the Bible is that of Abraham and Isaac.
The next morning, as mist rose from a stream and sun came up over the mountains, the valley was filled with calls to prayer in different villages. Then came the sermons, as mullahs (village priests) shouted over loudspeakers in order to be heard over each other.
Everyone from the village went to the mosque for Eid prayers. I listened, sitting by myself in the village, as the mullah preached, telling the story of Ibrahim and Ismail. I thought of going to church as a boy in America and being part of a large extended family, like families here. Almost everyone in the village was at the mosque.
Like most people in Pakistan, everyone in the village says “Insh’al’lah” or “God willing” all the time. Pakistan is a deeply religious Muslim country, especially in villages. In Peshawar and even in Islamabad and in other cities, men pray on prayer rugs in shops and offices, when the call comes to prayer, as it does, five times a day.
A few weeks later in Karachi, where the weather was hot and the streets were filled with carbon dioxide, I went to a madrasah, a Muslim school. I went into a room where young bare-footed boys sat on the floor, rocking back and forth and memorizing the Koran. They had their Korans placed on small wooden stands in front of them. Their teachers were sitting nearby, men with kindly faces, guiding and helping them to memorize what to Muslims is the complete, true and final word of God.
I interviewed two young brothers from the U.S., whose father, one boy said, was upset that the Korans in their rooms at home had dust on them. He sent them to Pakistan to become good Muslims. They prayed before dawn, studied all day, went to prayers and studied until late at night. The food, they said, “sucked.” They asked if I could get them Big Macs, the popular hamburger from McDonalds, for lunch. It was pleasure they wanted, and home. I smiled.
I felt sorry for them as they recited to me all that they were learning. I knew that when they were grown up, they would always be outsiders in secular America. There were other boys there from other countries, sent by their parents to get a religious education. Room and board are free, as they are in all madrasahs. The first madrasah was a Shiite school, built in Baghdad in 1045. It had 5,000 books on astronomy, architecture and mathematics. The one I visited did not have a library.
I later walked through the madrasah, watching serious young men carrying their Korans, like young men carrying books on a college campus. It reminded me of Catholic or Protestant seminaries in the West. There were no girls around. They were in a separate building, hidden from view. Girls took your mind off God and your studies.
The call came for late afternoon prayers and hundreds of boys walked and ran to the mosque, where they prayed together in the courtyard. A few looked at me, curious about the unbeliever who was watching them. Afterwards, many of them came over and we laughed, as they tried to teach me cricket, which, I am convinced, is the real religion of Pakistan. Similar in a way to American baseball, this English game, which was passed on to the Pakistanis and to other former British subjects around the world, is shown on television almost every day in Pakistan, beamed from places all around the world. A Pakistani army officer in Rawalpindi told me that if its people did not learn to play cricket, America would never be a true global power. Boys play cricket, like boys in Europe, Africa and South America, no matter how rough the field or how rudimentary the implements. They are always happy playing, as children should be.
Before I left the madrasah, the headmaster introduced me to his white-bearded father and his son, who was about 21. His father had founded the madrasah. I wondered what the young man really felt or if he was just being a dutiful son. The next day I met with some street boys in Karachi. There are 26,000 boys either working or living on the streets. Many are orphans.
As I sat at night with them in this hot and crowded city, I saw one bare-footed boy sleeping under a jacket. He rolled off a concrete step, woke up and cried, but he collected himself quickly. He had to be tough. Another boy put his hand on his shoulder, as the older boy did to his brother in the madrasah.
These boys were alone in life. Shelter the orphans, says the Koran. The Prophet, Mohammad, was an orphan and the Koran is filled with references to orphans. How, I wonder, can Pakistan, which takes pride in its Islamic heritage, consider itself a Muslim country, when it treats its children this way? The boys in the village, where I went for Eid, served the adult males before they ate themselves. They, like the boys in the madrasah, were doing what their fathers wanted. At least they had fathers.
The military considers itself, in so many ways, the father or guardian of the country. It soaks up the foreign aid and much of the wealth of the country for its own needs. The politicians, however, have a history of being remarkably corrupt, stealing for themselves the wealth of the country. Muslim fundamentalists feel there is only one way out. “Islam is the answer,” the young lawyer from Jamaat Islami told me up in the earthquake zone.
A Westernized stockbroker in Karachi told me that Citibank, the giant American multi-national bank, has recently opened an Islamic banking section, because “there is a demand.” Most Pakistanis, like most people, want to live in peace, they want to lead healthy and prosperous lives and they want their children to grow up to have good lives. If only their leaders would serve them better.
Is Islam the answer? For millions of people, perhaps the answer is yes. But as I left the madrasah that evening, the young American boys waved goodbye, standing outside their room, and there was no joy in their eyes.

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