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Van Dyk Diary: Islamabad, Karachi, and Peshawar

November 20, 2006

Entering Pakistan at the Torkham crossing from Afghanistan.
Photo by mbiturbo

It is mid-November and winter is finally coming to Pakistan. It is late this year. Here too there is talk of global warming, although in every city Pakistan's famous, brightly painted buses, trucks and rickshaws spew forth vast quantities of thick black exhaust all day and night, and brick factories, where people work seven days a week making clay and straw bricks for housing construction, send black smoke into the sky, the way coal plants used to in America.

Karachi, once Pakistan's capital, is still its financial center. This steaming, vast, crowded city of 15 million on the Indian Ocean has cooled down somewhat and now the nights are balmy. But if you are in a garden near the water at sunset, mosquitoes still appear in force and fears of the deadly Dengue disease drive you inside to the cooling blasts of intermittent air conditioning.

Islamabad is the new capital, where the industry is politics. This quiet city, parts of it not unlike an American suburb, was built on farmland in 1965. It sits on a plateau in the middle of the country, 90 minutes by plane north of Karachi. Islamabad too is hot in the summer, but not steamy, not like Karachi, and as winter approaches you need a sweater or coat at night.

The rains have come to Islamabad, as they have to Peshawar, a three-hour drive to the west, and only thirty miles from Afghanistan. In Peshawar the fruit stands along the roads still have bananas for sale, but far fewer oranges and tangerines. It is no longer the season.

For Pakistan's intellectual and political classes—but not for the ruling military—there is a sense that winter of another sort has come across the land. It is winter in the very soul of the country, and there is no spring in sight.

It does not help that the U.S. State Department has a travel advisory on Pakistan, which states that "the possibility of terrorist activity directed against American citizens and interests" is a fact of life. No American or European airline flies to Pakistan. There are few foreigners around and those that are here stand out, especially the muscled American soldiers, in short hair and jeans, carrying backpacks and wearing wrap-around sunglasses. They come and go to the Marriott in Islamabad, here from Afghanistan for R and R.

Why write again about Pakistan? Lt. General John Abizaid, head of Centcom [US Central Command], said in a speech at Harvard this week, "If we don't have the guts enough to confront this ideology [Islamic militancy] today, we'll go through World War Three tomorrow." A few years ago he said that the "War on Terrorism" would not be won until we dealt with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In the last couple of weeks Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI-5, the British internal security agency, gave a rare speech, played up throughout the press, in which she noted the problems of Islamic militancy in Britain and elsewhere, especially Pakistan, which she considered the center. Neither Abizaid nor Manningham-Buller noted—perhaps they could not because of their positions—that most people here in Pakistan feel that U.S. foreign policy, and that of some of its allies, is responsible for world terrorism, not the other way around.

Pakistanis ask about the U.S. elections, which are shown prominently in newspapers and on television across the Muslim world, from Casablanca to Dubai to Islamabad. But they are not sure yet how much difference the elections will make. They want to know. They know that American voters can and do, unknowingly, influence their lives.

On November 19, a Gallup International Poll was printed on the front page of a Pakistani national newspaper, The Daily Times. It stated that of 63 countries polled, only Denmark, (famous here for its cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed), and Israel think the U.S. is playing a positive role in fighting terrorism. In Pakistan, 61%, according to Gallup, feel that the U.S. is playing a negative role.

While in Pakistan I have talked with taxi drivers, alcohol-drinking, rock-and-roll listening secularists—and there are many of these in Karachi and Lahore—businessmen, religious leaders, jihadists, and journalists among others. Judging by my own random polling in conversations in Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar, I would say that more like 90% consider the current U.S. government to be a negative force in the world. Perception is reality in politics. Pakistanis themselves, at all levels, remain remarkably gracious, polite and welcoming to foreigners. I feel awkward when they are so nice, some of them too often obsequious to foreigners, knowing how this contrasts to the way in which I feel that many Americans feel about dark-skinned Pakistanis or Muslims in general, and how they are often perceived and treated in the U.S.

Beyond the latest cricket match against England or the West Indies (a sport followed avidly here), in general the foremost on many people's minds in recent weeks, is the CIA drone attack on a madrasah in Bajour. Bajour is in the northern part of Pakistan, just across from Kunar Province in Afghanistan.

[Click here for a map of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions.]

 

On January 13, 2006, a CIA drone attacked two houses in Damadola, a village near the Afghan border. It came during the festival of Eid ul-Adha, marking the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage season to Mecca, and killed 13 people, most of whom were women and children. The press reported that it was thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri would be attending an Eid dinner that night in Damadola. He was not there. I was here then and talked with the U.S. consul, Michael Spangler, in Peshawar, after the attack. He was pained by the anti-U.S. feeling sweeping the border regions, and said he didn't think such an attack would be launched again.

One was, however, in the same region, in October. Over 80 people were killed this time, some boys as young as eight. In January, the U.S. acknowledged launching the attack, although there was no apology. This time there was no acknowledgement. Pakistani helicopters appeared in the air 20 minutes after the attack over Bajour, and the Pakistani military took the blame for it. Again, Ayman al-Ziwahiri was said to be at the madrasah. Again, he was not there. The government said a number of "miscreants," were killed. Few, if anyone, it seems, believes the government.

Journalists are barred from the region. They must be careful. In November 2004, a Pakistani intelligence officer warned Hayatullah Khan, 32, a reporter for The Nation, a national newspaper, to leave Waziristan, the region south of Bajour, along the Afghan border. Khan stayed and reported on December 4, 2005 that a U.S. (CIA) Hellfire missile had killed Hamza Rabia, an al-Qaeda leader, in Miran Shah, along the border. He had photographs that showed missile parts with U.S. markings.

The next day, Khan disappeared. His body was found June 2006, his hands still bound, the newspapers reported, with government-issued handcuffs. The government launched an investigation, but The Nation noted today that its findings have not been made public.

The Nation said that a recent report on Khan's death by the Committee to Protect Journalists, titled "Dangerous Assignments," had just been made public. The paper noted that Khan had been threatened by law enforcement figures and religious extremists, and that the U.S. military had detained him for four days in 2002 in Paktia Province, which is just across the border in Afghanistan.

"General Musharraf is under pressure from the U.S. He just returned from there where he was criticized for not doing enough to find militants and to help the U.S. in its war on terrorism," said Professor Miraj-ul-Islam, who has a post-doctorate from Oxford and is head of the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Peshawar, a beautiful tree-lined campus in the heart of the city. He talked about visiting the Amish in Pennsylvania and people who washed their bodies with mud in New Mexico, all part of a State Department program titled "Religion in America."

"The more the U.S. is here, the more our faith will grow, and the stronger we Muslims will be," said Ul-Islam. "The growth in religious political parties in this region is a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan."

I talked with Milt Bearden recently, CIA station chief in Islamabad from 1986-1989, and a frequent visitor to Pakistan. He noted that when the FBI tried to open up a small field office in Chitral this year, in the northern part of Pakistan, near the Afghan border, the whole countryside knew about it immediately. The FBI had to close the office.

The point is that foreigners cannot operate in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This is the provenance of Pakistan's national security apparatus, which works closely with, and, it is often said here, against American intelligence.

It takes time to understand this region of the world. Said Bearden, quoting Kipling, "A fool lies here, who tried to hustle the East."

Yes, it does take time. But, regardless, it behooves us to know it better, especially if one thinks that Abazaid and Manningham-Buller are right. Already, Western journalists and pundits are beginning to call this region, together with the land that lies just across the border in Afghanistan, "Jihadistan." We will explore this some more, from Afghanistan, where there is already snow in the mountains.

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