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

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.

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.

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