PESHAWAR—It is three days before the U.S. launched its first bombs into Afghanistan, and the workday has just ended in this Pakistani city on the Afghanistan border. A group of laborers and shopkeepers gathers, and talk turns to Osama bin Laden and the coming attacks against the Taliban. One after another, the men take turns denouncing the U.S. Some arguments are carefully reasoned; others, innuendo and rumor. Slowly the crowd’s fervor builds. Men begin to push forward, their eyes furious, veins bulging in their necks. They call Bin Laden their brother, their hero. An American decides it is time to take his leave. As he stands, a shopkeeper has one last declaration: “This is a war between you and us,” he says. “We will go on jihad, and we will win.”
The man’s readiness to die in a holy war may be an anomaly in this country of 140 million; his hostility toward the United States is not. Once the cornerstone of U.S. South Asia policy, Pakistan today must be bribed and browbeaten into going along with U.S. policy goals, and its inhabitants are deeply resentful and suspicious of the United States. In dozens of interviews around this country last week, Pakistanis across all tribal, religious, and economic backgrounds spoke about U.S.-Pakistan relations with a mixture of sadness and hostility.
For 40 years, until 1990, Pakistan prided itself on being America’s closest friend in the region; U.S. policies in the last decade have erased that trust. Among the many injustices Pakistanis feel have been visited upon them by the U.S., the most commonly heard were: U.S. backing of Israel, insufficient support in Pakistan’s long-running battles with India, and anger at U.S. sanctions imposed after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. And in the conservative North West Frontier Province bordering on Afghanistan, one heard spirited defenses of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and a veritable fury at imminent U.S. attacks on them.
There is no bustling business district in Islamabad. Low-slung concrete buildings bracket the tree-lined, dusty boulevards, giving Pakistan’s capital the air of an extended small town. Mountains are visible in the distance, and men on bikes, their salwar kameez billowing in the wind, ride through the streets, a wife or sister occasionally perched sidesaddle on the back. Bare flesh is nonexistent in this Muslim country; long sleeves are the standard, and women are veiled or their heads covered. Drinking alcohol and blaspheming the Prophet are against the law, punishable by jail.
The mood here is tense. People are bracing for the coming attacks, and the bloody riots that are sure to come. On the roof of the U.S. Embassy, Marines are sandbagging machine gun emplacements, the national airline has imposed a war tax on travel, and scores of army troops are bivouacked in open fields.
Jamat Ahle-Sunat, a bare-bones concrete mosque on a weed-choked lot, is one of hundreds scattered throughout Islamabad. Like all the city’s mosques, Jamat Ahle-Sunat functions also as a madrassa, a religious school where many of Pakistan’s youth, the poor in particular, are educated. Across the country, 10,000 madrassas offer a rigorous Islamic education as well as room and board, all free of charge. This is no small attraction in a country where the per capita income is $480 a year and illiteracy is estimated to be around 75 percent.
The madrassa system is integral to the current Afghan-Pakistan-U.S. conflict. In the 1970s, Pakistan’s then leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, radicalized the madrassas in an effort to create a cadre of devout Muslims who would strengthen Pakistan’s hand against India. His plan succeeded perhaps too well. Taliban means “student”: Afghanistan’s current Taliban regime flowed directly out of Pakistan’s madrassas. And Muslim fundamentalists now make up perhaps 40 percent of Pakistan’s armed forces, creating fears that a military coup could leave Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists.
The leader of Jamat Ahle-Sunat is a wizened, aged mullah by the name of Syed Ubad Ulah Shah. As the mosque’s 150 students studied Islam, English, and science in nearby classrooms, the mullah sat cross-legged on a prayer rug, surrounded by a half dozen of his senior students, and discussed his conflicts with America and the World Trade Center bombing, which he says is the key to current tensions. “To me, [the bombing] seems the design of the Jewish lobby. The Jewish lobby wants to pit Islam against Christianity. American Jews want to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan, because the Taliban are the true representative of Islam. They did this as an excuse. How do you explain the 5000 Jews that worked at the World Trade Center that called out sick that day?”
Asked how he knew that 5000 Jews had called out sick, the mullah responded, “It is in the newspaper. Not only in one or two—it’s in many newspapers; that is why so many believe this. They would not print this in so many papers if it were not true.”
“The Jews have great influence on all power centers in America,” he continued. “America and the Muslims would get along well, but it’s not in the Jews’ interest to have a pure Islamic government anywhere in the world. America wants to be the only superpower. Pure Islamic governments do not claim to be superpowers. Only Allah is a superpower. We will fight against infidels and establish Islamic rule across the world. This is the main fear of Jews.”
Asked if he would send his students to defend Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, he looked around at his most senior students, many of whom had been with him since they were 10-year-old boys. The mullah said simply, “I would not send them. They would go on their own.” One of the young men is beautiful and confident; the others are pimply, awkward. They have the naive look of young men a year or two out of adolescence. They’ll be the first to fight and maybe die. When the Taliban took heavy losses last year fighting the Northern Alliance, many madrassas closed; their students had volunteered in Afghanistan.
Looking out at the row upon row of young students sitting at wooden benches memorizing the Koran, a visitor asked if the students believed as the mullah did, and the mullah laughed. “Word for word,” he replied, as the students nodded. “We speak with one voice.”
While the mullah’s views may seem extreme, he is not regarded as particularly radical among Islamic leaders here. And his criticism of Israel and American Jews is echoed all over Pakistan in only slightly more reserved tones.
Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University sits on a stunning hillside outside of town. In the 1970s, the U.S. single-handedly pledged millions of dollars for its construction. Twenty percent of the buildings were complete in 1979 when students sacked the U.S. Embassy here. The 20 percent sits today on a decrepit campus. Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, the small, dapper director of American studies, is pained by what he sees as rumors and innuendo against American Jews, but he says, “If there is any one source of resentment against the U.S. in Muslim countries, it is support for Israel. It is not popular in the American media to question this support. The time has come that questions must be asked.
“If you offer the Palestinians a state, and it is only 22 percent of Palestine—in two fragments—then that means 78 percent is for Israel. And the Palestinians’ 22 percent is dotted with Jewish settlements. Arafat could never take a deal like that back to his people.
“For one year, the Palestinians are being killed like dogs and cats—these are young children with mothers. [Pakistanis] see the Israelis using U.S.-supplied F-16’s. . . . On one side you have the most lethal force; on the other you have kids with stones. So there’s this tremendous resentment. Why doesn’t the U.S. address the root cause?”
About 100 kilometers from Islamabad, along the Grand Trunk Road near where the Indus and Kabul rivers flow together, the mood begins to change. Black-clad militia and soldiers with guns begin to appear, and the women become progressively more veiled, most now covered from head to toe, with not even slits for their eyes. This is Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, a rugged, conservative place that shares a 500-mile border with Afghanistan. Peshawar is the last city in Pakistan before the Khyber Pass. The people here are primarily Pashtun, the same tribe Afghanistan’s Taliban hail from. This in no small detail in a region where tribal feuds and alliances go back centuries.
There are nearly as many horse-drawn carts as there are cars on the streets. The men drive them standing atop the wooden beds, reins in their hands. They jockey with riotously painted trucks and scooters and motorized rickshaws sporting murals of men firing AK-47s. In the crowded bazaar, the tiny stalls selling fruit, silks, and carpets empty out as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer at a mosque down the block.
Gul Khan, a local businessman, has been selling blankets from a cramped stall for 40 years. Why does he dislike America? His business is down 60 percent, he says, since U.S. sanctions were imposed following Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998. Hundreds of millions of dollars in international loans and grants were blocked by the U.S. “Our business is hurt, our lives are hurt, we are barely surviving,” he says. Like all Pakistanis, Khan points out that India, Pakistan’s archrival, started testing in 1974, with few serious repercussions. Yet the sanctions aimed at both nations in 1998 were especially crippling to Pakistan—which its people consider further proof of America’s double standard.
Night begins to fall; Afghan children are scavenging in a nearby dumpster, and men filtering out of a nearby mosque gather around Khan’s stall. They listen to Khan and add comments. All believe essentially the same thing; if there are dissenters they remain silent. “America acts like a global feudal lord, trying to impose its will on others,” says Khan. “Whatever they say, they think it becomes law. They can punish anyone anywhere in the world, just because they have the power.
“If America wanted to, it could solve the Kashmir issue today, but it sides with India instead,” he says, referring to the disputed Indo-Pakistan border region where a proxy guerrilla conflict has claimed 75,000 lives. “[The Indians] are violators of human rights: torture, rape, extermination. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. India does it in Kashmir; Israelis do it in Palestine. . . . Where was America when this was going on? Now that it happens in America, only now are they talking about it, because it happens in their own country. America should look at the causes of enmity. They should vacate the Holy Land. What happened in your country is nothing new.”
Karachi sits on the Arabian Sea, on Pakistan’s southern coast. The humidity is dense, the heat is suffocating. Men sleep on the grass near the airport under the neon glow of a nearby McDonald’s, good lodging; tens of thousands more, many of them heroin addicts, sleep lined up on concrete sidewalks and underpasses.
The mood here is relaxed; Peshawar, Islamabad, and the anticipated war are 700 miles to the north. Western dress is still rare, but far fewer women are in burkas. Liquor, it is said, is readily available with the right connection.
The city is filled with gloriously dilapidated British Victorian-era architecture and shantytowns that extend almost to the backdoors of glass and steel office towers. Sheep and camels pulling carts range the billboard-lined city streets. A huge ox lies in the middle of a traffic island, oblivious to the rushing, beeping, smoke-belching vehicles: families of four on mopeds (the woman again riding sidesaddle), a Lexus driven by a businessman in a suit, hundreds of packed buses with people hanging from the sides and sitting on the roofs.
Members of the upper classes are few—maybe a few thousand people out of 14 million—and usually it takes them just a moment to calculate the few degrees of separation: the parents who worked together, or the brothers and sisters they know from Wharton or L.S.E. They live in nice houses, have servants, drive late-model cars, reminisce about their years in London or New York.
These people, the women in particular, loathe both the Taliban and Pakistanis like Mullah Syed Ubad Ulah Shah. “I hate the fundamentalists and what they’ve done to this country—how they’ve held us hostage with their demonstrations,” says Sairah Irshad Khan, a tall, imposing woman who is senior editor at Newsline, Pakistan’s leading investigative magazine.
Yet Sairah, like most others from the upper classes, has harsh words for the U.S. as well. “People here say, ‘When is America going to get up and ask, Why is this [the WTC bombing] happening?’ They need to look at the mindless bombing of Iraq. Saddam is still there—you’re bombing women and children. To what end, I want to know?”
Of the American media, she asks, “Why are the IRA not referred to as Catholic terrorists; why is Timothy McVeigh not a Christian terrorist? Israelis are not referred to as Jewish terrorists. But if Arabs are involved, suddenly they’re Islamic terrorists. There are all kinds of Muslim countries with distinct identities. We’re not all the same. Islam does not condone terrorism.”
Sairah understands the anger about the U.S. abandonment of the region in 1990, after the Soviet withdrawal. U.S. aid to Pakistan went from hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 1980s to $6 million in 2000. Of the coming attack, she says, “I’m afraid Pakistan is going to have to pick up the pieces again. What will happen after the war, when millions of refugees funnel in and donor fatigue sets in? We’re left holding the baby and the bathwater. The drugs and the guns come flooding in again. After the last war, America pulled out. Who’s going to feed these refugees? We can barely feed ourselves.”
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed mujahideen, in an effort to raise funds, turned their country into one of the largest producers of heroin in the world. Karachi became a transshipment point, and today there are an estimated 600,000 addicts on the city streets. Raiz Mohammed Khan, Karachi’s director of customs intelligence, says, “Before the Afghan war, we didn’t know what heroin was. We’d only seen marijuana and soft drugs.”
Of much greater concern is the fallout from what is termed “Kalashnikov culture,” the thousands of automatic weapons left over from the conflict, and the hardened men who returned from Afghanistan, ready to use them. The residue was on display last week in a Karachi neighborhood called Azam Town. The mosque there stands on a windswept, dirt backstreet. A group of boys stands at the door looking in at large puddles of congealed blood turned a dusky brown. Two days earlier a pair of men arrived on a motorbike. They stepped into the doorway in the midst of maghrib (evening prayer) and opened up with a Kalashnikov and an automatic pistol. Sixty-five rounds, six dead—two men and four boys.
A man leads a reporter to the corner and shows him what looks like a black fringe tassel hanging from the 10-foot ceiling. One of the boys was hit in the head, he explains. The black fringe is his hair and a bit of his skull that stuck to the ceiling. “How old were the boys?” he is asked. Six, seven, eight, he says. The attack was probably religious in nature; Karachi’s Sunnis and Shiites, two Muslim sects, have been warring for months, settling their disputes with AK-47s, which can be purchased for about $100 U.S. in the Northwest Frontier province.
Kalashnikovs are Karachi’s weapon of choice: Across town the same afternoon, a carjacker takes a man and his young son hostage. The police give chase, open fire with their AK-47s. The result: three dead, the carjacker, the victim, his son.
A visitor argues late into the night with Sairah, voicing criticisms of anti-Semitism among the public, and the role of rumor and innuendo in the press. “People here know far more about the rest of the world than Americans,” replies Sairah. She allows that “there is some ignorance here.” But, she says, “we are 80 percent illiterate. We are the third world. You are supposed to be ‘the greatest democracy in the world.’ What is your excuse?”
Across town, Javed Jabbar, one of Pakistan’s leading intellectuals and a former minister in three governments, shares the popular indignation over what is viewed here as the hypocrisy inherent in U.S. foreign policy.
“The Iraqi people are punished for supporting Saddam Hussein,” he says. “When it suited American foreign policy, he was allowed to repress his own country. But when it threatens U.S. oil interests, he is a bad man.”
Like other Pakistanis, Jabbar is worried that U.S. attacks will bring a new flood of refugees. “It is said that Brezhnev and four other men made the decision to invade Afghanistan. Now they’re all dead, and hundreds of millions of people are left with this mess. Next to Afghanistan, we are the ones who paid the highest price for the war in Afghanistan. No other country has had to take in millions of refugees and live with guns and the drugs, the environmental devastation. It is said that a nation should have 20 percent of its land forested. We have three percent. The refugees are desperate for firewood—in Ziaret, we had juniper trees 700 years old. They’ve been cut.”
For many here, it is hard to know which is the more cynical move: Pakistan’s turning its back on the Taliban government that it created and supported, or the U.S. becoming fast friends with Pakistan, a country that, until September 11, was on the verge of being declared a rogue state.
The man at the U.S. Embassy refers to Bin Laden as OBL. He becomes upset when asked about resentment on the street. “In the last two weeks we canceled two sanctions against Pakistan and gave them $100 million. Congress is looking at giving them another $500 million.” He has the plaintive, outraged tone of a man who has given a lollipop to an ungrateful child.
Javed Jabbar is not impressed. “America talks about winning the hearts and minds of the people. You don’t win the hearts and minds by distributing a little wheat, or by paying people. You are fooling yourselves. You win the hearts and minds by respecting others’ cultures and morals and history. One hundred million does not buy hearts and minds. Pay a man and he may not say something for a bit, but he will harbor resentment.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001