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25 October 2007

Tribal troubles

Rageh Omaar reports from the wild borderlands of Waziristan

By Rageh Omaar

A Pakistani journalist in Islamabad had some advice for me about going to Waziristan, part of the long stretch of mountainous and starkly beautiful land bordering Afghanistan, also known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “You know,” he said, “the people in Waziristan believe that as Pathans they are the true inhabitants of this land, with their own history going back centuries – that the rest of us are immigrants who came over from Punjab at partition, and that Pakistan was created for us, not for them.” I’ve tried this quote out on many Pakistanis during my recent trips to the country and it has drawn amusement, annoyance and grudging agreement; but never has anyone disagreed with the premise.

It is extremely difficult for westerners to enter Waziristan without being accompanied by the military, who are finding it increasingly difficult to protect themselves in the area, let alone foreigners. About half an hour’s drive from Peshawar, the gateway to the Khyber Pass, you reach what is even officially described as “the border” into the tribal areas. At the checkpoint, the Pakistani military presence has the feel of an army in a hostile, foreign land. The people speak a different language, Pashto, as opposed to Urdu, and their allegiances are to the ultra-conservative, rigid tribal system that is the real government here. I was invited to attend a local jirga, a gathering of tribal leaders from North and South Waziristan. Some seven chiefs came with their bodyguards, mobile phones dangling from their wrists as they cradled their Kalashnikovs.

Many Waziri chiefs who have allied themselves with the Pakistani government have been assassinated by Taliban forces. The war on terror has not only failed to deliver any developmental benefits for the vast majority of people in the tribal areas, but has actually increased levels of conflict and violence. US and Pakistani bombardments of villages may have been aimed at al-Qaeda figures but have, inevitably, killed civilians, creating an opportunity for Taliban and al-Qaeda forces to exploit a growing sense of alienation and disaffection.

The aim of militant groups is to put across the message that they are being persecuted by a Pakistani government more interested in doing America’s and Britain’s dirty work than in supporting their own people. So successful has this message been, that the fate of most tribal leaders rests on maintaining an increasingly difficult balance between having some sort of relationship with the government and not being seen as “collaborators” by the militants. For many, it is a circle that can no longer be squared.

Malik Marjan, a tribal leader from North Waziristan, is a huge bear of a man with a deep, booming voice. He came to the jirga wearing the traditional dress of a Pathan tribal chief; long shirt and pantaloons, overlaid by a jet-black waistcoat and a magnificent turban with the cloth tied so it stood up at the crown. He began the meeting with a speech on behalf of the others. “Peace cannot be brought to this region by force. That is clear,” he said. “If it could, the Americans would have done that in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, for that matter.”

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All the men felt strongly that Britain and America had to stop imposing their political and ideological beliefs on Pakistan. “The war against the Taliban is lost. They are a reality and they are not going to disappear,” Malik Marjan said as the others nodded in agreement. He pointed to the fact that President Karzai’s government had invited Taliban representatives to talks in Kabul in September. “How can the ally of the US and Britain be willing to talk to the Taliban, but the British and American governments are not? We have to do this. Otherwise the fire in the tribal areas will get worse.”

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