Pakistan's Tribal Belt: The Land of an Eye for an Eye

The Land of an Eye for an Eye
The dangers of going after the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan
By Aamir Latif: US News and World Report: August 20, 2007

MIR ALI, PAKISTAN—The rugged Pashtun tribesmen who live in the mountainous region straddling the Pakistani-Afghan border talk of badal, their ages-old tradition of revenge. "We can't sit idle when our brothers are being killed and our houses are bombed," says Gulrez Khan, a young, clean-shaven man living in this town in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. "Do you expect flowers in return for bullets?"

The anger here provokes more than just talk of badal. Residents say that scores of young men have offered themselves to the Taliban as suicide bombers following the Pakistani Army's assault last month against militants in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, in which more than 100 people were killed. "Most of the deceased were Pashtun," says Khan. "Now it is essential for their brothers, cousins, and other relatives to take the revenge. Otherwise, they can't survive in our society."

Safe haven. Pashtun wrath is directed both at what is seen as the hostile military regime of President Pervez Musharraf, which is dominated by the Punjabi ethnic majority from eastern Pakistan, and at American forces in Afghanistan for attacks against the Taliban and their Pashtun kinfolk in Afghanistan. The badal tradition explains, in part, why Musharraf is wary of giving the Bush administration what it wants: major military action to end the "safe haven" for the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies in the Pashtun tribal region. Military action could fuel further terrorism and tear apart Pakistan's ethnically mixed military. So far, though, Musharraf's efforts at solving the problem through negotiations with Pashtun tribal leaders have failed to yield results.

A visit to this town in northern Waziristan shows that Washington's view of the problem as one of rising Islamic radicalism—to be crushed by military force—conflates two related, but separate, factors: Taliban-style Islamic militancy and Pashtun nationalism. The dilemma for Musharraf—and for Washington—is that while the Taliban operates in the Waziristan region with growing brazenness, a full-scale military offensive could end up strengthening the Taliban by encouraging badal.

The Taliban wields influence here not just by imposing its harsh, austere form of Islam but also by tapping into tribal loyalties and Pashtun traditions. The Pashtun moral code, called Pashtunwalli, values customs such as hospitality (hence, the shelter given al Qaeda figures), courage, and revenge for a wrongdoing against a family member. "Whenever a village or house is bombed in tribal areas, it creates more suicide bombers," says Mushtaq Minhas, chief news correspondent with Pakistan's Aaj ("Today") television network. "It's not just because they have been lured by a cleric with a promise of heaven, but it's also because of the Pashtun badal tradition."

Almost half the suicide bombings in Pakistan in the past two years were by Pashtun tribesmen who hadn't attended a madrasah (religious school), according to a Pakistani intelligence official. After 80 suspected militants at a madrasah in Waziristan's Bajaur area were killed by a missile attack last October, some 20,000 Pashtun tribesmen demonstrated against the Pakistani government and the suspected U.S. involvement. Some 300 youths reportedly volunteered as future suicide bombers, and the suicide bombers who subsequently rocked an Army training center in the northern Kohat district and later a five-star hotel in Islamabad came from southern Waziristan, according to intelligence sources.

Most of the students killed last month in the Red Mosque operation in the Pakistani capital came from tribal areas where there has been a surge in pro-Taliban activities during the past year. Pashtuns are "being killed everywhere, whether it is Afghanistan or Pakistan," says Ajaib Khan, who runs a small bazaar shop in the town of Miram Shah. "They all were not Taliban, but a majority of them were common citizens. Their only sin was that they were Pashtuns, and America and its allies consider every Pashtun Taliban."

These deaths are pushing young men toward the Taliban, he says. "They have to avenge [the killing of relatives], and they can do that only with the help of Taliban, who can train and arm them."

This story appears in the August 27, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.

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