A dozen men sat in a circle in a village outside Peshawar on a recent afternoon. Wearing red caps, they gossiped and drank green tea. The sun fell behind a roof, and several of the men wrapped wool blankets around themselves. All belonged to the Awami National Party, a secular political party based in the North West Frontier Province. The ANP is predicted to win big in the coming elections, mostly at the expense of the Islamist parties who’ve frightened U.S. policy-makers for the past five years. “This election is a straight fight between those who want war and those who want peace,” Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the ANP, told me. He drew a line between Islamic militants on the one hand, and his own party on the other. “It is between fundamentalism and moderation.”
In the last elections, which took place in October 2002, the Muttahida Majles Amal, a six-party Islamist coalition, defeated the ANP, the Pakistan Peoples Party, and all other contenders by a wide margin in the North West Frontier Province and went on to form the provincial government. The MMA’s critics, led by the ANP, allege that the Islamists’ rhetoric and sympathies allowed so-called “Talibanization” to spread throughout the regions bordering Afghanistan. Sitting in the circle of red-capped men, I asked if any of them had voted for the MMA last time around. One man sheepishly raised his hand. “That was a vote for paradise and the Quran,” he said, as if excusing himself. “When they shoved the Quran in my face and said ‘Vote!’ I had no other choice. But once the MMA got their bungalows in Islamabad, everything changed. They went to Islamabad, not to Islam.” The World Bank praised the MMA government for its fiscal responsibility and health programs, but local perceptions of corruption, broken promises, and excessive politicking tarnished the coalition’s image at home. “We expected them to implement Islamic law and establish a system of justice,” said Salauddin, a middle-aged civil servant from Chardsadda.
In 2002, the MMA pledged to implement sharia law and support the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, people couldn’t have cared less about fiscal restraint. Now they have turned from the MMA, not because the Islamists were too hard-core, but because they failed to fulfill their campaign promises. What did they have to show for their time in government?
“Acts of terrorism only increased under the mullahs,” Salauddin exclaimed. During 2007, 60 suicide-bomb attacks killed more than 770 people in Pakistan, according to a recent report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. Most of the incidents occurred in the North West Frontier Province. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the ANP is the desire to rehabilitate the image of Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Street-level supporters, such as the men in red caps, and party leaders cited this as their greatest concern. More than 25 million Pashtuns live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they’ve been renowned as fierce fighters for centuries. Pashtun militias have repelled British armies, Sikh armies, Soviet armies, and now American, NATO, and Pakistani ones, too. The majority of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan today are Pashtuns. “At this moment, if you talk about Pashtuns, the world thinks he is a terrorist, has a beard to his navel, hair to his shoulders, and holds a Kalashnikov,” said Khan, the ANP chief. “Islamic fundamentalism is destroying the basic fabric of Pashtun society.” But the success of the ANP’s election campaign signals a shift in the politics of the North West Frontier Province, where the rhetoric of secular nationalism is finding more appeal than that of Islamic fundamentalism. For instance, the ANP proposes changing the name of the province to Pashtunistan (“Land of the Pashtuns”) or Pakhtunkhwa (“Pashtun Nation”). (The MMA tried to change the name to Dar-ul-Islam, or “Domain of Islam.”) Khan said that all the other provinces of Pakistan shared “frontiers” with Iran, Afghanistan, or India. “But if they—Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan—can have their own names, why can’t we? This is a matter of our identity.” According to Khan and the ANP, Pashtuns are not naturally brash, militant people—an impression that’s been created by the Taliban. If anyone can reform the Pashtuns’ image, Khan’s family history suggests that he’s the man for the job. His grandfather Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan earned the nickname “Frontier Gandhi” for his role in leading the Pashtuns in a nonviolent resistance movement against the British Raj during the 1930s and ’40s. His organization became known as the “Red Shirts,” which is why the ANP’s flag is red and its supporters wear red caps. Ghaffar Khan opposed the Muslim League, the main outfit lobbying for the creation of Pakistan, and supported Gandhi’s Congress Party. Ghaffar Khan argued that religious identity shouldn’t determine the country where a person should live—and thus denied the rationale for the creation of Pakistan. Instead, Ghaffar Khan contended that ethnic identity was more important, and he called for the creation of an independent Pashtunistan. A year before the birth of Pakistan, fellow Muslims physically attacked him for being, in their minds, anti-Muslim, illustrating the tension that’s long existed between Pashtun nationalists and Islamists. To find out how the Islamists felt about their fall from power, I went to Mardan to meet Ata-ur-Rahman. Rahman is a senior leader of Jamaat-i-Islami and a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. Jamaat-i-Islami is one of the main component parties in the MMA. In December, Jamaat-i-Islami opted to boycott the coming elections in protest against President Pervez Musharraf’s regime and what they believe are destined to be rigged elections on Feb. 18. I had met Rahman several times in the past, but when I arrived at his madrasah in late December, he appeared pensive and distracted. He didn’t agree with the party’s decision to boycott the elections and had argued that doing so would leave the field wide open for the ANP. He lost the argument, and now Jamaat-i-Islami expected him to convince local people of the merits of a boycott. But what worried him most was the legacy that the Islamists had left behind. “The worst result of our rule was the rise in militancy throughout the region,” he said. Rahman is a moderate, with a Ph.D. from the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as comfortable speaking English or Malay as he is speaking Urdu or Pashto. He is one of the only Islamists I’ve heard admit that so-called “Talibanization” was a product of the Islamists being in government. We discussed the pro-Taliban uprising in the nearby Swat Valley, where a radical cleric determined to implement sharia is waging an insurgency against the state. I asked Rahman if he believes that people’s disappointment with the MMA’s failure to implement sharia had led some to turn to the Pakistani Taliban, believing they were the only ones capable of doing so. He nodded his head slowly and stared out the window. “If the MMA had been able to bring sharia to Swat, that would have definitely weakened the militants,” he said. With those alternatives, does anyone wonder why U.S. policy-makers are paralyzed when it comes to Pakistan?
QUETTA—Naiz Mohammad, an illiterate man who doesn’t know his age but guesses he’s around 50, squatted on a rocky hillside just outside Quetta and told me how he teaches his children. More than a dozen kids, caked head to toe in dust, crowded around, their bellies swollen with worms, greenish snot yo-yoing from their noses. A range of treeless mountains rose behind us, and Quetta’s parched cityscape spread in front. Hundreds of rectangular mud huts, all of them inhabited by Naiz’s fellow tribesmen, stood scattered along the pitched slope. Spindly desert twigs snagged shreds of plastic shopping bags, which flapped in the biting wind. New Kahan, Naiz’s village, has neither phone service nor electricity or running water. There is a government school nearby, but few kids actually attend. “We have a natural cycle of educating our people,” said Naiz, who wore a black turban and camouflage jacket. “For instance, you people came today in a big jeep. When you leave, my boys will ask me, ‘Why we don’t have a jeep like that?’ I’ll tell them, and then they’ll understand the deprivation that the Baluchis suffer.”
Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, the largest—and poorest—of Pakistan’s four provinces. The majority of Baluchistan’s 10 million inhabitants are Baluchis, though Pashtun tribes form a significant minority in the northern part of the province, and there are Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking “settlers” living in Quetta. Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, a percolating Baluchi nationalist movement has resulted in five insurgencies against the Pakistani army, most intensely 1973-77 and from 2005 to today. The nationalists argue that Pakistan illegally occupied the independent Baluchi state in 1948 and has been treating the Baluchis like colonial subjects ever since. When prospectors discovered natural gas in the remote mountains near Naiz’s ancestral village in 1953, it only added to the Baluchis’ sense of perceived injustice; they were the last in the country to enjoy gas stovetops and furnaces. Naiz’s tribe, the Marri, is the most militant and nationalist of the Baluchi tribes. During the 1970s rebellion against the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father), Naiz enlisted alongside guerrillas in an insurgency that left nearly 10,000 rebels and soldiers dead. “Then and now, we are only fighting for our rights, for an independent Baluchistan, where we are masters of our own land,” he said. According to Naiz, the Pakistani government has punished the Baluchis by refusing to develop the province. But running water and electricity are not his top priorities. “We just want the government to stop bombing us.” Naiz is originally from Kahan, a town in the gas-rich district of Kohlu. In the late 1980s, after a stint living in Afghanistan, Naiz and thousands of fellow tribesmen moved to Quetta and established New Kahan, partly to escape the constant fighting and bombardment in their native lands and partly because they wanted to be near their tribal chief. The tribal system revolves around obedience to the chief, or sardar. President Pervez Musharraf blames a few sardars, including the one from the Marri tribe, for the violence and instability engulfing Baluchistan. Since 2005, a guerrilla outfit known as the Baluchistan Liberation Army has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks on army convoys, oil installations, and railroads. The Marris comprise the top leadership of the BLA, which Musharraf declared a banned terrorist organization in April 2006. Yet the BLA aren’t alone; politicians, writers, and university students use their own methods to argue for an independent Baluchistan. And while they stress the nonviolent nature of their own tactics, their sympathies are unmistakable. “I pray for the BLA that God will help them remove the Punjabi forces from Baluchistan,” said Mohiuddin Baluch, the chairman of the Baluchistan Students Organization. I arrived in Quetta in early December, just as the election campaign was beginning, to find army and paramilitary forces deployed in the streets. An armored personnel carrier sat just outside the entrance to my hotel, machine-gun barrels poked out of sandbag bunkers at major intersections, and heavily armed convoys patrolled the roads every evening after sundown. Two weeks earlier, a top BLA commander (and son of the chief of the Marri tribe) was killed, setting off a wave of riots and guerrilla attacks on security forces that left dozens dead. I asked Naiz if he considered the dead BLA commander a fallen hero. “We don’t live in circumstances where we have time to dream of heroes,” he answered. “Independent Baluchistan is our hero. And sometimes we are obliged to carry out attacks on Pakistani forces to achieve this.”
On my first night in Quetta, a soldier, standing behind a stack of sandbags near the center of town, took a bullet in the face and died. The intelligence agencies, police, and paramilitaries responded with house-to-house raids in BLA strongholds from Kohlu to Quetta. They cordoned off New Kahan and arrested 12 of Naiz’s fellow tribesmen. In many cases over the last two years, young Baluchi men have simply “disappeared,” kidnapped by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Others have been arrested and charged with treason. (In the autumn of 2006, I spent several weeks reporting in Baluchistan; by the time my story was published a few months later, nearly every featured character had been arrested or exiled.) A politician in Quetta told me that 6,000 Baluchi men were missing. Another man described how his cousin had been kidnapped by Anti-Terror Force troops in front of his four nephews in a city park. I asked how the four kids, aged between 4 and 8, knew the identity of the kidnappers. “In America, your children play with toys. That’s what they know,” he explained. “Our children know about the intelligence agencies and the army. This is what they grow up on.” Nonetheless, not all the Baluchi tribes are fighting against the government. In fact, Musharraf’s own party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is stacked with compliant sardars and tribal chieftains. “Though many of these tribes, since the inception of Pakistan, have been bearing anti-state feelings, some of them got on the bandwagon, and they’ve been ruling this province ever since,” said Anwar ul-Haq, a first-time candidate for the parliamentary seat from Quetta, running on the PML (Q) ticket. “For these people, being part of the establishment presents a huge opportunity for personal aggrandizement.” Later that day, I attended a PML (Q) rally with Haq in the same part of town where Western intelligence sources have alleged that Mullah Omar and other top Taliban leaders enjoy safe haven; in other words, a neighborhood where Musharraf and his cohorts are none too popular. Bodyguards assigned to protect the PML (Q) candidates stood on nearby rooftops, surrounded the stage, and mingled in the crowd. At one point, a rock hurled over the wall landed in the crowd of spectators. With a half-nervous smirk, my friend said, “At least it wasn’t a grenade.” When it was his turn to speak, Haq leaned on the podium with both hands and promoted a candidate for the provincial assembly because he wasn’t a sardar and therefore “understands your problems.” He added, “We will provide education, not Kalashnikovs, for your children. Now is the time for your decision. Give us your vote, and we will deliver.” I asked Haq, a middle-class divorcee in his late 30s with no tribal roots and no obvious constituency, if he planned to campaign in New Kahan. Earlier that day, Naiz told me that no candidate had visited New Kahan in years, although there were roughly 4,000 voters there. “Ideally, no party should ignore any area,” Haq answered. “But would the people in the Marri areas even allow me to go there? I doubt it. They only respond to certain social norms, those filtered through the tribe.” Back in New Kahan, I crouched beside Naiz, our jeep, and a horde of children, and shielded my eyes as a dust cloud blew across the exposed hillside. Naiz admitted that any decision about whether or not to vote, and for whom, would be decided by the tribal chiefs. Naiz hadn’t participated in an election since 1995. I asked him which way he was leaning this time around. “Why should I vote in a Pakistani election?” he said. “I don’t even recognize Pakistan.”
Nicholas Schmidle is a Pakistan-based writer and fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.