Anger in the bazaars of Peshawar

The Taliban has strong support in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. If there is civil war, it will start here.


Sean Kenny
September 22, 2001 9:34PM (UTC)

Chowk Yadgar, in the heart of Peshawar's Old City, is usually a thriving arcade of moneychangers trading everything from U.S. dollars to Iraqi dinars. Boys dart among the crowds fetching the moneymen cups of sweet green tea, beggars hobble from shop to shop and the air is full of fumes and noise from the constant stream of auto-rickshaws.

But the bazaar was virtually deserted Friday as a general strike gripped this Pakistani city and Islamic groups staged virulently anti-American rallies.

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"Come to Islam, support Osama bin Laden and sacrifice yourselves. If America fights the Taliban then we will make graveyards full of Americans," shouted Mulanna Mohammad Umar of the Jamiaat-e-Ulema-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic extremist party.

"General Musharraf is shameful, stupid and against Islam," he said.

Peshawar, 180 miles from Kabul, is the heart of fundamentalist Muslim opposition to the Musharraf government, and its willingness to let the U.S. use Pakistani airspace and intelligence for an attack on Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. In Friday's uprising, protesters chanted "Long live the Taliban" and "America is a dog" and burned a crude effigy of President Bush. One man shouted: "I will sacrifice my wife, my children and myself for Osama bin Laden." Across the city men declared their willingness to die in a jihad if America attacks Afghanistan.

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There were similar but smaller protests on Saturday but the demonstrations seemed to have lost momentum and by Sunday it was business as usual in the bazaar. But the stability of this tribal region will be key in determining whether Musharraf's support for the U.S. effort to get bin Laden will unravel his government. If there is civil war in Pakistan, it will start here.

Virtually everyone in Peshawar's bazaars follows the same line, regardless of political affiliation. Peshawar is the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which borders Afghanistan. This staunchly conservative and pro-Taliban region is mainly populated by Pathans, the world's largest tribal group, also called Pushtuns. The British-drawn Durrand Line splits the Pathan lands in two, with 10 million Pathans in Pakistan and 8 million in Afghanistan, where they make up 40 percent of the population.

"First we are Pathan, then we are Muslim, finally we are either Pakistani or Afghan," runs a popular saying. The Taliban are almost all Pathans and American threats against them have enraged public opinion in this unruly province.

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Gen. Musharraf's problem is that his government has no control over much of the NWFP. The "tribal areas" are self-administering zones where modern Pakistani law is replaced by the ancient and rigid tribal traditions of "Pakhtunwali" -- the way of the Pathans.

An important element of Pakhtunwali is "badal" or revenge. Blood feuds over "zar, zan, zamin" -- gold, women, land -- can last for generations. Every edition of the Khyber Mail includes a short report on a "death due to old enmity." Families live in high-walled compounds complete with turrets and gun emplacements.

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Women may be the cause of many feuds, but they are rarely seen outside the house. The Taliban's insistence on the burqa is not an Islamic injunction but a tribal one. The absence of female faces in Kabul would be shocking if one arrived direct from the West. After a few days in Peshawar it comes as no surprise.

Having dinner with a Pathan friend, I asked to use the restroom. A boy was sent out first to shoo the women out of sight and ensure that the family's honour was not compromised by an outsider seeing their womenfolk. Later we watched a wedding video in which the bride was never seen.

Since Pakhtunwali sanctions murder when honor is insulted, men carry a weapon with them at all times. Many of their guns come from the small town of Darra Adam Khel 40 miles south of Peshawar. Darra's main street is lined with shops selling submachine guns, pump action shotguns, handguns and bullets. A Kalashnikov AK-47 sells for around $85. These guns aren't originals but copies made by local craftsmen in hundreds of tiny factories, a cottage industry responsible for 1,000 weapons a week.

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The Afghan war introduced heavier armaments into the tribal areas. Many rich tribesmen own artillery pieces, anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-surface missiles and rocket launchers. Some powerful leaders are said to own Soviet tanks. Attempts to de-arm the tribal areas have usually resulted in standoffs between the tribals and the army in which the government has always backed down, acutely aware that the threatened tribesmen could put aside their differences and fight together.

Much of the money for these private armies comes from smuggling. Peshawar's Karkhani Bazaar is the place for cheap, duty-free televisions, washing machines, perfumes and other luxury goods. Under international agreements customs duties are not paid on goods shipped from Karachi through to landlocked Afghanistan. Instead of going to the bazaars of Kabul and Kandahar most of these imports end up back in Pakistan, giving Pakistanis access to cheap consumer goods but crippling their government's revenue base.

The NWFP is also a major route for drug smugglers. Shops openly sell heroin and hashish on the "tribal" side of Karkhani Bazaar, only 10 feet from the line that marks the limit of Pakistan's draconian anti-drugs laws. Smugglers have even built houses that straddle the Pakistan-Afghan border to facilitate trade.

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Many of the Taliban grew up in refugee camps around the NWFP and studied in local madrassas (Islamic schools). These madrassas gave impoverished Afghans and Pakistani students not just free education, food and shelter, but also membership of a Muslim brotherhood that offered purpose and certainty.

The Pakistani and Afghan students schooled together and they have fought together. Pakistani madrassa students have made up to 30 percent of the Taliban's army. When the Taliban were defeated in the northern city of Mazaar-i-Sharif in 1997 the Haqqania madrassa, one of Pakistan's largest, closed down for a month and sent 8,000 students to Afghanistan as reinforcements.

Throughout the 1990s, pro-Taliban groups staged uprisings across Pakistan's Pathan belt in a bid to emulate the success of their Afghan comrades. They have performed public executions, banned TV and music, burned down cinemas and forced women from the streets.

"Pathan tribes are slipping towards fundamentalism," according to Olivier Roy, author of "Afghanistan, from Holy War to Civil War."

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"Already small fundamentalist tribal emirates are appearing on Pakistani soil. The triumph of the Taliban has virtually eliminated the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan."

The political agents and intelligence operatives monitoring the tribal areas say that since the World Trade Center attacks and the uncompromising American response, religious fervor has gripped the tribesmen, and the mullahs have urged people to raise arms in support of the Taliban. The tribesmen have dug trenches and deployed their arsenals throughout their arid mountains.

Zorab, a tribesman from the Khyber Pass, told me: "We are ready. We have all kinds of weapons. Even our small children have Kalashnikovs."

In his television address on Thursday, Gen. Musharraf estimated that only 15 percent of Pakistanis supported the extreme religious parties. But many of the other 85 percent agree with the extremists' view that bin Laden could not possibly be behind the attacks.

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"What these people [the extremists] say is immaterial. They have very little support," said Dr. Hafani, an urbane, English-educated businessman. "But we should look at who might gain from this terrorist action. Russia and China would both like to poke America in the eye. India and Israel would gain by starting a war between the West and the Muslim world, and Israel has the resources to undertake such an attack. Osama has no such resources."


Sean Kenny

Sean Kenny is a British freelance writer.

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