The Lawless Frontier

The tribal lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border reveal the future of conflict in the Subcontinent, along with the dark side of globalization
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.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus