<i>Editors Note: This is the second of a three-part series concluding tomorrow by Waj Syed, a senior at the University and Daily columnist who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this month. Syed was born in Pakistan and lived there until 1997.</i>
This dusty town of around 200,000 is on the Afghan border in southwestern Pakistan. It has a fierce history because of the local tribal populace, who are primarily of Pushtun origin and share ties with tribes across the border.
Warring is a tradition here. Men walk around with firearms, but there are no licensed gun shops in the city.
In the last 20 years, the social fabric of border towns like Chaman has been torn by the exodus of around 3 million Afghan refugees into Pakistan. Added to the already violent tribal culture was the guns and drug trade that sustained the anti-Soviet, U.S-backed Mujahideen, as well as the use of madrassahs, (typically boarding schools meant to sustain an education of the sciences and arts as well as religious studies) but were used instead as recruiting centers for the Mujahideen. Chaman”s claim to infamy is that one of its madrassahs was where Mullah Mohammad Omar, the missing leader of the Taliban, started his movement.
While living with a contingent of the Pakistan Frontier Corps, I interviewed the officer in charge, Col. Sarwar, who was responsible for regional security and border traffic, mechanical and human. Under his watch have been many arrests of Taliban and al-Qaida personnel trying to cross into Pakistan, breakups of numerous smuggling rackets, and a peaceful negotiation over a land dispute with the new warlords now in power across the border in Spinboldek, Afghanistan.
Sarwar, a mild-mannered Command and Staff college graduate (Pakistan Army”s officer school), could be the quintessential example of the myriad complications espoused by recent global security affairs. Almost proudly, Col. Sarwar described how he had been working with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, as well as the American CIA to engage and capture Taliban and al-Qaida members. But, when I asked him what he thought about the old Taliban regime, he smiled. “Not bad. In terms of law and order, there was nothing closer to perfect than the Taliban.”
Col. Sarwar backed up his views as a security specialist by stressing that under the Taliban, smuggling was down and there had been just four murders in the border city of Spinboldek in the last two years, a big deal for a violent smuggling town filled with armed tribals. He didn”t comment when I pushed further, that maybe the reason for such a small number of murders was that the Taliban were executing offenders of all sorts anyways, so the official numbers might be skewed. He smiled again and said I sounded like an American.
That”s when the face-off started. I asked him what he meant, and he had an answer. “Take the example of the recent media coverage of this area. My units have been criticized for letting the Taliban just walk across the border like it”s a joke. It”s not true. Every day, 7,000 people cross the border to Afghanistan from Chaman.
“Also, every day 4,000 Afghans come to this side to work for the day.”
So, I asked, of what significance was that? “It is linked to the tribal culture, to tribal economics. For thousands of these people, borders are nothing. Families, shopkeepers, cross it every day. Just because the American media comes here and sees thousands of people with turbans crossing the border, they think that the Taliban are being allowed. Not everyone with a turban is an Afghan, or a Talib. He could be Pakistani. A Pathan, like you.
“We have our own methods, and they work well.”
But what about the question of murder and execution? About how the low figures for murders in Spinboldek may be skewed because the Taliban were reported to execute many, sometimes without trial? “I have heard about the strictness of the Taliban,” he said. “I cannot comment on the science of numbers. I can say this. When it came to stopping civilian-crime, tribal warfare, et cetera, they (Taliban) were a law and order body other people should learn from.”
OK, so the colonel, as a military man, was open to the idea of strict military/police control over a violent civilian constituency there is ample research and news analysis that civilian crime under the Taliban was at an all-time low during their regime in controlled parts of Afghanistan, probably due to harsh enforcement mechanisms. But what about Pakistan?
Could he see those rules being applied there? Would he not send his daughters to school? Not allow his sons to listen to music? “Of course not,” he responded, point blank. “You should pick good things, not bad.”
I could see where the colonel was going with this. Pick the Taliban”s law and order ideal, not their oppressive social policies. Help the Americans by making fair arrests for them, but don”t trust their media because it screws up on understanding the intricacies of the region”s complicated tribal culture and economy. Best of both worlds. Pick and choose. No absolutes.
Maybe that”s why the colonel is doing well. But so are other people. Last weekend, I saw Sebastian Junger at a local bookstore, doing a reading and discussion on his latest work. Junger is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, author of “The Perfect Storm” and modern media”s most probable answer to Marco Polo. He”s an award-winning journalist, but after his talk the other day about his trip last year to Afghanistan, he might as well be a young Rush Limbaugh.
To stick to the proverbial information guns, Junger was lambasting Pakistan, now a front-line state in the ongoing global campaign against terrorism, for the high crime of waging a proxy war in Afghanistan by employing the Taliban against the northern alliance. The Taliban and their Pakistani backers were bad, Junger said. The N.A, that rag-tag army, that proud motley crew, was good. Good had finally prevailed in the form of a U.S.-led invasion of the country. G.I. Joe had beaten Cobra, and Cobra Commander had lost his turban.
Now, he proposed, all was well on the moralistic, military, and philosophical Afghani front. All America needed to do now was “hang out” in the region.
It was beautiful. Junger spoke and a hundred Ann Arborites lay breathless in the impressionable sands of his sexy new book, aptly titled “Fire,” readily available for everyone (to feel like Marco Polo) for $24.99.
Yes, Pakistan had waged a proxy war. Yes, it had used the Taliban, or Cobra, for its purposes against the northern alliance. But the N.A. was no G.I. Joe. The truth of the matter is, and shall remain, that the information missed out (or not relayed) by Junger is more complicated, more fluid, and more bitter than most would like it to be:
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan probably the ultimate goal of the U.S. strategy there in the 1980s lead to Afghanistan being left out of the U.S. “national interest” paradigm.
For the lethally armed and battle-hardened Mujahideen, the decade-long military, intelligence and finance based relationship with the United States now seemed like a one-night stand, with the U.S. walking away almost as soon as its goals in the region were satisfied. The political vacuum in the country was imminent, and so it came. The fall of the USSR in late 1991 gave another impetus to this group, who were now trying to come to terms with power-sharing basically fighting for the political crumbs over the table the Soviets had left.
Inevitably, violence ensued. Battle lines were drawn between groups, mostly split along religious lines. All armed up with no one to fight but themselves, the former Mujahideen found Afghanistan in a civil war, drought, a refugee exodus, and the overthrow of the quasi-government which was a de-facto successor after the Soviets followed. By 1996, the Taliban, mostly student-warriors from seminaries in Pakistan (the same seminaries which had been the hot-bed for recruiting the Mujahideen for the anti-Soviet struggle led by the U.S. in the “80s), as well as mercenaries who had been called in for Jihad, Inc. by figures like Reagan and Zia-ul-Haq from all over the Muslim world, were ruling over the capital, Kabul.
The same ferocious-looking, bearded individuals President Reagan had met at the White House in 1985 and introduced as “the moral equivalent of America”s founding fathers” were now raping Afghanistan, causing thousands more to flee across the border. Pakistan”s intelligence service, a praetorian state-within-a-state, started calling the shots, trying to control the chaos in the region, but only created more problems because of lack of democratic oversight in a country which had too many of its own problems.
That”s where the problem lies. In the avoidance of small, truthful detail. I”ve heard the term “Jihad” thrown about on Fox, in Poli Sci 460, in Muslim Student Association forums, in Friday sermons at mosques. I”ve seen it painted on the walls of the Pashtun enclaves in Quetta and Arab neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I”ve heard rants about the Taliban and their terror, Osama and his plots, Pakistan and its connivances. Yet the reality of the tragedy of ignorance and misinterpretation has not made a difference. Not at book-readings in Ann Arbor or refugee camps in Chaman.
Allow me to engage you in a multi-dimensional, cultural-political, socio-ethical quiz show called Psychos and Sycophants.
The rules are simple. You are required to adhere to the quaint catchism of “thinking outside the box.”
Are you thinking? Good. Here we go.
Q) Who is Pervez Musharraf?
A) President of Pakistan, he”s one of the most praised statesmen of current times: America”s new ally, apprehender of mullahs and militants.
Wrong. Musharraf is actually the gentleman who was being shunned by the international community before Sept. 11. He was called a usurper, a hawkish junta general, a philanderer of democracy. On a visit to Pakistan, Bill Clinton was apprehensive about shaking hands with him for the cameras. George W. Bush could not remember his name in a pre-election Newsweek interview. Even though he had been marginalizing relations with the Taliban and Islamic militants in his own country and approaching peace with India before September 11th, he was still a “dictator.” In “Western eyes,” Musharraf”s proud uniform was, till recently, his biggest failing.
Q) Who is Osama bin Laden?
A) Oh, I know him. He”s the bearded/psycho/militant/mullah/jihadi/sadist/terrorist mastermind guy. Leader of al-Qaida, Enemy of Democracy, Dr. Evil of the Islamic World, conniving apocalypse from the Jihad Cave with his sidekick, Mullah Omar.
Wrong again: Osama is a former Mujahid of the Afghan War of the 1980s, where the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan were the primary donors and facilitators of an international jihad against the Soviets. He has issues, sure, but so would anyone who recruits and trains jihadis for the CIA. He”s not ticked off at McWorld, so to say. After all, he wears American camouflage jackets and a Timex. He”s got some crazy ideas, but so would many here if 20,000 bearded and turbaned mullahs decided to park ten squadrons of F-15s in Detroit to scare away the weak Canadians, sort of like Americans are doing in Saudi Arabia to fend off the Iraqis.
This quiz was brought to you by Common Sense: Our world has to change with political realities, not idealistic parables. Men in uniform don”t exclusively indicate the end of egalitarianism. Generals aren”t necessarily demons of democracy. And chickens, particularly rich and crazy ones, always come home to roost, especially when you teach them guerrilla warfare strategy and tactics and pretend it never happened once you”ve used and abused them.
Remember: Psychos and Sycophants: They”re the same thing. Avoid mediocrity and chaos by breaching the wall of homogenous identities and rigid histories. There is a thin red line between political reality and jingoistic myth. Cross over to the real side. Think of societies in terms of resources and access, instead of of good and evil. Filling larger than life realities into socio-political jam bottles does not make them sweet, only stale.
Waj Syed can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.