Tribal Area dance

Getting into Pakistan's autonomous region isn't so easy, but once you're there you can't go far without stumbling on the jihadis.

By Phillip Robertson

Published September 5, 2002 10:54PM (EDT)

In the van on the way to Peshawar from Islamabad, along the long trunk road that joins Jalalabad to Lahore, we see something we don't understand: Suspended in the air in front of us is a bundle of rags shaped like a man.

Around us are motor rickshaws, private cars and enormous painted buses decorated with hanging chains and evil eyes, all honking, passing in the wrong lane, weaving back and forth. The traffic is moving fast, and country people are trying to cross the road, since the highway has no traffic lights, no stop signs. From time to time a young man will make a break for it, but we aren't paying attention. This means that we don't see a man wearing a sand-colored shalwar get his nerve up 50 yards into our future and run out into an empty space between cars, where his next move is to cross in front of a giant evil-eyed bus, a burulen, and continue across the road.

The four passengers -- Marcella Gaviria, Scott Anger, Martin Smith and I -- are telling jokes about strange places when I look over and see this man suspended, turned sideways in a river of smoking cars, with his legs drawn up to his chest as if he was taking a nap. He'd miscalculated, or the other driver had miscalculated, and the bus had hit him at 50 miles an hour, transmitting his soul into the rain and dust.

An hour later, we cross the bridge over the Indus River. It is Monday, Aug. 26. On Tuesday, the New York Times will print a front-page story that says Osama bin Laden is believed by the U.S. military to be moving around in a 250-mile area of rugged terrain that stretches along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report goes on to state that American forces are operating near the village of Asadabad, in Kunar province. We plan to go up to the Tribal Areas and have a look.

By the time we roll into Peshawar, it's late. My friend and translator Aman Khan arrives at the Pearl Continental hotel and leads me out to a battered Toyota, where his brother-in-law Arif is waiting, and we drive to the ragged outskirts of town. After 20 minutes we park at the edge of a dry aqueduct, and Aman tells me to bring my bag and run down the sides of the concrete canal -- and to please hurry up.

Once on the other side, Aman says that we are now in part of the Tribal Areas adjacent to the city of Peshawar, a place strictly off limits to foreigners, and that we should keep away from the police as we approach the boundary. Once on the other side of the canal, we are out of reach of the Pakistani authorities, and we enter a maze of walled Afghan-style buildings separated by narrow alleys. A ribbon of dirty water runs down the center of the street, and we are suddenly in a village that could have been lifted from Afghanistan, having made a transition from the Third World to a feudal clan society. The neighborhood reminds me of the garrison town of Khwaja Baoudin in the days before the Taliban government had collapsed -- a stark and broken place. After a short walk down the street, Aman and Arif stop at a massive steel door constructed from the end of a shipping container, the kind seen on ocean-going freighters. It's time to meet the family.

Most Pashtun Afghans practice strict purdah: Women remain within the interior of the house, well out of the sight of strangers. When a guest is present, the small children usually bring food and drinks prepared by the owner's wife and daughters. A man who can afford it will make sure there are two doors, one for guests and one for the immediate family, which lead to separate chambers of the house.

Afghan clans are large and intertwined. It is a matter of tradition that two men who are close friends will marry off their sons to the other's daughters. In this particular family, Aman's father, Dadul Khan, is very close to Hajji Syed Badshah, so he married his daughter to Arif, Mr. Badshah's son; and so it goes.

After watching Arif in conversation, it's clear to me that he doesn't have what it takes to exist here -- the barely restrained violence and quick temper; he prefers instead to tell jokes and experiment with language. Arif, trapped in this dead space demarcated by 14-foot mud walls, has been cursed with an artist's sensibility and in any other culture might have ended up as a writer.

The main steel door opens into a garden courtyard, and across this courtyard is a room with a mud floor and a roof that extends past the line of the building, forming a spacious verandah. Under the roof are three charpai, or rope beds. We take our places, and Hajji Syed Badshah comes out to say hello, explaining that I am going to stay here, on a charpai in his guest house. Hajji Syed Badshah speaks remarkably good English, and being an Afghan patriarch, he is obeyed not only by his son but also by everyone else. Within the delicate and brutal scheme of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun honor code, it would be unwise for me to ask the name of my host's wife, since this is known only to the close family. Arif brings water and we settle down on the charpais. Listening to the crack of small-arms fire, the men camp in the open air, cooled by fans powered with stolen electricity. There are no stars out, and the sky is bright.

Aman and I spend the next day making the rounds of the government agencies that grant permission to enter the Tribal Areas. First, we make the pilgrimage to the dreaded Press Information Department, where we must prove for the hundredth time that I'm a working journalist. These are the sleepy desk men, descendants of the British civil servants of the raj, who make the applicants wait for hours while they chat, take tea and preside over a mountain of moldering files, tied with shoelaces and strips of cardboard that resemble bark. Ishfaq, behind the desk, explains, without opening his eyes, that foreigners are banned from traveling to the Tribal Areas, and there are no exceptions. I ask him why the Pakistani government bothered to grant media visas if we weren't allowed to travel. Feeling insulted, Ishfaq shows me the order handed down from the military press office that says we should be kept out to avoid an "untoward situation," or something equally absurd. At the Home Office and Tribal Areas Department, they refer us back to the Press Information Department. The day is lost to the Pakistani bureaucracy, a journalistic tomb.

Since we aren't able to travel within Pakistan, our new strategy is to cross the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, an hour outside Peshawar, and drive toward the mountainous border with Pakistan from the other side. Afghanistan, despite its well-known problems, has no restrictions on the press, and I believe that it will be easier to work there. But as it happens, there's a major problem with plan B. I don't know it yet, but the Khyber Pass has been closed by angry Pashtun tribesmen, and we are stranded in Peshawar for another day. Depressed and uncertain that we will be able to continue the assignment, we head back to the air-conditioned room in the University Town area. On the way through the door of the guest house, I pick up a newspaper in the faint hope that there will be something we can follow, the shred of a story.

The Pakistani English-language daily, the News, has a front-page piece about a police raid on the offices of Harkat-al-Mujahedin, a jihadi group known for its activities in Kashmir. The arrest took place in a Peshawar neighborhood called Danishabad, but the house number wasn't reported, leaving us confused about where the Harkat-al-Mujahedin office is located. The raid had taken place a few days before, and the Agence France Press had also picked up the story, which suggested that it might be at least partially true. The headline asserted that 12 al-Qaida supporters had been arrested in Peshawar on Tuesday, Aug. 27. The story went on to say that the men had been captured in the basement of the house and had offered no resistance to the police. But there were several burning questions about the arrest: If members of the extremist group were in the middle of plotting new attacks, as the report stated, why would they remain in the offices and not go underground? Why wasn't there a shootout?

The next day, Aman is out on a Danishabad street talking to a nervous 16-year-old boy, who doesn't know if he should be seen with us so close to the Harkat-al-Mujahedin offices. We are parked right in front of the gates, where we have seen him walking. The boy has the beginnings of a beard and wears a white cap and a white summer shalwar. Aman wants him to get in our car so we can ask him about the Harkat-al-Mujahedin members, but the boy says no thanks and suggests instead that we go to his guest house around the corner, where we can talk in private. Our car is running and I'm sitting in the back, generally trying to stay out of the sight of Danishabad residents and to keep from scaring the kid even more. We agree to go with him.

Rahimullah (not his real name) lives at the end of a quiet street in a dense neighborhood of Pashtuns, not far from the Harkat-al-Mujahedin offices. Aman made a point of telling the driver before we walked through the gates of the boy's house that if we weren't out in half an hour, he should get the police. The driver, who did not sign up for this amount of grief when he took the job, nodded and headed back to turn the car around in case we needed to leave in a hurry. We wouldn't have much time with the student, at most 20 minutes; staying any longer would not have been terribly wise, and we were lucky that the boy agreed to speak with us at all, since the HaM militants enjoy solid support in the area. They'd been financially supported by the Pakistani government in its campaign to infiltrate militants into Indian-controlled Kashmir, and had been in this neighborhood for at least six years. They are known here as good Muslims. Considerable evidence suggests that the group has recently changed the focus of its activities from Kashmir toward jihad against the United States and the West.

The first question for Rahimullah is whether he saw the arrest take place.

"Yes, I was there when the police came and entered their house, and at that time, they were busy with afternoon prayers."

Had he seen them before?

"Yes, I met with them many times in the mosque because I also pray there."

How many of the men lived in the house?

"Before, there were very many, but after Sept. 11, there were fewer and after that I saw maybe only 20 or 25."

Why weren't they hiding?

"I don't know why, but before every day the police came here but didn't say anything to them. This is the first time the police entered the house."

Rahimullah seemed puzzled as to why the police hadn't picked them up earlier -- why they would repeatedly come to the house but do nothing.

Did the police arrest them all?

"On that day, they caught six people. Ten minutes ago, when I went into a shop, I saw three of them; then they went across the street."

When you met them, what did they talk about?

"They talked about Islam and told us which is the right way to pray, how to do ablutions and the proper way to stand for prayer."

Did you see weapons?

"No, I didn't see any weapons, but they carried heavy bags into their house. I could see that their bags were very heavy."

We had to go.

Just we are leaving through the gate of the student's house, the driver comes toward us with an anxious look and tells us that someone has come by the car, asking what we are doing in the neighborhood and demanding to know the name of the person we are visiting. The driver had taken this as a sign that we should leave in a hurry. After a few three-point turns, we are headed out of Danishabad toward University Town, a more cosmopolitan district by Peshawar standards.

A splinter group of Harkat-al-Mujahedin was responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Consulate in Karachi on June 14, which killed 12 Pakistani bystanders. This attack was staged only after a plot to kill Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, failed because the explosive-packed Suzuki parked near his motorcade didn't detonate. Conserving their resources, the militants used the same vehicle in the U.S. Consulate attack. On May 8, HaM staged a bloody attack against a bus of French engineers near the Sheraton, killing 14. This series of attacks caused speculation that a wave of al-Qaida-financed terror was being unleashed as a response to the destruction of the Taliban and the banning of religious parties in Pakistan. It is also true that large car bombs are an al-Qaida trademark.

The HaM group has had its share of famous members. Omar Sheikh, one of the men suspected of planning the abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in January, joined the organization shortly after dropping out of the London School of Economics and probably never quite left it. When Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Musharraf, remarked that al-Qaida may have developed links with some Pakistani groups, it is Harkat-al-Mujahedin he's talking about, and the terror connections are certainly not breaking news. Pakistani journalists taken to a news conference given by Osama bin Laden at Khost in 1997 have said that their hosts were members of Harkat-al-Mujahedin.

The Khost news conference was the special event at which Osama bin Laden announced the creation of the World Islamic Front and explained that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill Americans and Jews, his rhetorical flourish that preceded the carefully timed African embassy bombings. Another incident may explain why Harkat-al-Mujahedin underwent a change of focus in recent years. When cruise missiles slammed into the training camps in Afghanistan after President Bill Clinton retaliated for the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks, the missiles missed bin Laden by several hours but killed a significant number of Harkat-al-Mujahedin members. These jihadis are, for the most part, not Arabs but rather Urdu-speaking Pakistanis.

In the photograph we've taken of the house in Danishabad, there are faint letters visible on a wall just beneath a layer of haphazardly applied paint. The letters are Arabic and they spell out the words "Harkat-al-Mujahedin," a reminder of a time when the organization was able to openly promote jihad on the street. If the student is correct, there are a number of militants still living in Danishabad, not far from the old offices.

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Islam Pakistan Religion