- A security guard outside the McDonald’s in Islamabad. (Copyright Hassan Sulehri)
Islamabad, January–February 2010
The Western diplomat cuts two lines of cocaine on his iPhone and snorts them with a 100 rupee bill.
“Pure Colombian,” he says. “Don’t be shy.”
I shake my head.
“A bit of jet lag I expect?” he says glancing about my room and inquiring about my fourteen-hour flight from the States.
“Some, yes,” I say.
We first met in Afghanistan in 2003. He was a source. We got to know each other and became friends in the way I become friends with people I use for information; constant contact bred familiarity. We remained in touch after he was assigned to Islamabad. I e-mailed him as I prepared for this trip and he agreed to meet me in my guesthouse.
“Tell me, how many bomb attacks in the last year?“ he says tapping the butt of a cigarette against the arm of his chair. “Basically every day somewhere here, somewhere there, two a day at least. They are well trained, they know where to hit. It’s different than Iraq but just as tragic.”
He licks the coke off his iPhone and drops it in his coat pocket.
“Bush was prepared to fight forever and send military in perpetuity. Symbolically, Obama wants this to end by 2012. The civilized world looks at its watches. These guys don’t have watches but they have a hell of a lot of time. Fighting is in their blood. They use a sweet name, Islam, to give their fighting a purpose and to portray the feelings of a society.”
Since I was last here, he explains, the people have become very cautious. Not so long ago they would walk to a park and enjoy a day outside with their children. In the evening, houses filled with visiting family. Now, empty streets reveal a city on edge. Fear prevails. Afghan refugees have become targets of harassment for bringing “their” war to Pakistan. Overcrowded jails make ideal recruiting grounds as fundamentalist inmates mingle with common criminals.
They discuss radical Islam, a former inmate of Chudaray Shabir Prison in Rawalpindi told me earlier in the day. They have representatives in each section and they only approach young, educated men who can understand the reasoning behind their beliefs. If you join, you get clean clothes and better food. They pay off the guards. They reveal the name of their organization only to those who join. They approached my informant once, he said, and offered to get money to his family. We’ll help you if you do things for us, they told him. But other inmates warned him off. Don’t do it, they said. They will use you and kill you.
Outside prison walls, targeted killings have become as common as indiscriminate bombings. A man drives a motorcycle and starts shooting. People don’t run but lie down and wait for the bullets to pass overhead.
Pakistan has settled into an anxious dichotomy with a civilian government attracted to Western money and power while its people increasingly feel like pawns in a corrupting chess game they never chose to play.
“This government is very weak,” the diplomat says. “Most democratic governments expect to complete their term. Here, we don’t know how long democracy will last. So they use their time in office to get money for themselves. Fraud is part of surviving.”
Corruption has opened the door to further violence. The current extremist campaign in Pakistan started in summer 2007, after the military stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, a radical stronghold, and killed some one hundred people holed up inside. Al Qaeda seized upon public outrage and called for an Islamist rebellion in the country. That insurrection led to the formation of a Pakistani Taliban movement, an umbrella group that linked new militants with older, established ones to fight not in Afghanistan but at home.
The movement seems to have grown quickly, in ability and ambition. There were eighty-seven suicide bombings amid 2,586 terrorist strikes in 2009—a 45 percent increase over the previous year. Its leaders have threatened to attack the United States, and intelligence officials believe they have already reached American shores: evidence suggests the Pakistani Taliban was behind the failed car bombing of Times Square in May. The State Department is in the process of adding the group to the official US list of terrorist organizations.
Last spring, the Pakistani military began an offensive designed to uproot the Taliban in the Swat Valley after the militants gained control of nearly the entire area, destroying some two hundred girls’ schools, decapitating politicians, and terrorizing the population.
After three months, Pakistan declared the effort a success and said more than eighteen hundred militants had been killed. But even the US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, questioned the results. His comments at the time suggested a growing worry that, rather than crushing the Taliban, the offensive may have simply pushed them underground.
Security forces acknowledge the danger of the Taliban melting away into the civilian population and staging guerrilla attacks. Military experts say it is difficult to identify who is a Taliban and what their strategic goals may be. The Pakistani Army has been reluctant to take on all of its factions in all parts of the country because it fears a popular backlash.
“The Taliban does not necessarily want to seize territory but simply to keep the government, the military, and common people surrounded by fear,” the diplomat tells me. “Their agenda is going to be to keep on reminding us they are a powerful force.”
“Can I visit Swat?”
“Yes, but wear a kameez and shalwar and topi. Keep your head down, don’t talk, blend in. You won’t pass as Pakistani. You‘re going to have to decide to say where you’re from when you get there,” the diplomat says. “Everyone wants Americans out. They hate you. They feel you’ve pushed the Afghan war into Pakistan. They feel they are fighting a mercenary war for America. What do they get in return? Bomb blasts. Here people think your government is making fools of its citizens.”
I straighten my room, stuffing dirty clothes in a chest of drawers, shoving my boots beneath a chair, stacking papers on a desk. After the confusion of layovers and flights and time changes, I seek order. I try to assert myself on my surroundings and take command of the imbalance I feel. The downside is that I leave no evidence of myself. The room feels empty. It is as if I am not here but suspended in a plane, still in mid-flight.
Outside, cats yowl, and I hear gates clang shut, sealing off sprawling residential compounds from the street. I had wanted to lodge at the same guesthouse I used in 2006, but my fixer, Tahir, warned against it. It was too close to a police station, a potential terrorist target.
“Whatever you do, don’t say you’re from America. Don’t say you’re from Denmark because of the cartoon controversy. Don’t say you’re French because they want to outlaw the burqa. Don‘t say you‘re Swiss because Switzerland has banned the building of mosques. Say you’re from Spain. Do you have a fixer?”
“Yes. A man I worked with last time.”
“How do you know he hasn’t turned?”
“He asked me to bring him trail mix.”
* * *
Now the country breeds its own militants.
At the diplomat’s suggestion, I go to see his friend, Afzal Ali Shigri, a retired inspector general of police. Shigri became a police officer in 1969 and spent his first years in the semiautonomous tribal region that borders the Swat Valley. In those days he confronted Communists who opposed property owners. It was their land, they claimed. He sighs. Pakistan has always dealt with terrorists of one kind or another.
In 2004, the Pakistani army began scouring the region for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. It bombed, burned, and bulldozed the homes of those deemed collaborators, or merely uncooperative. The campaign enraged many Pakistanis. Hostility toward the government and the US only grew as the Americans intensified drone attacks in the region. The combined actions may have killed militants and boosted US confidence in its wobbly ally, but they also undoubtedly bred a rage that the Pakistani Taliban would later exploit.
It is unlikely, however, that the army can win through force. No matter how hard it assaults the tribal areas, tradition forbids local people from turning over a guest to an enemy.
“Listen,” Shigri says, one time a man sought refuge, and a woman gave it to him. Another man came to her home and demanded to see the stranger.
Where is he?
She said, I don’t know.
He killed your son, the man said.
It doesn’t matter, she said. He came to me for help. He is my guest.
“As you are mine,” Shigri says offering me tea. “Will you be in Islamabad long?”
“I leave for Swat Valley in the morning.”
“Swat used to be a peaceful place. The middle class would take their honeymoons there until three years ago when the Taliban moved in. Now the government has thrown them out and is urging people to come back, but I don’t want to go there.”
Years ago, Shigri says, he was assigned to the frontier city of Mardan. One day, the son of an inspector killed himself. Shigri drove to the house to express his condolences. The father thanked him. He said, I’m lucky my son died in my house. If he had been outside in my field and died publicly, I would have to find those who drove him to suicide and take revenge. Shigri thought it was very strange for a father to lose a son and being thankful to God he had died inside.
“These are the types of people we are dealing with,” he says.
* * *
The government is scared like the devil that, God forbid, the public sees there is cooperation with CIA drone attacks. It’s an open secret. Without American money this country can’t exist. The entire army is paid with dollars. So the US expects . . . You know what I mean? They pay them and they do it.
At dawn the next morning, my fixer, Tahir, and I leave Islamabad for the Swat Valley.
We drive through dense fog where bicyclists and feral dogs appear and vanish in our passing. Men kneel on prayer shawls at the roadsides and pray in the mist. I wrap myself in a blanket in the cold. The sun drags itself into the sky, pulling shops into view as it goes. Police stand beside small fires, and beggars stand a few feet behind them, like shadows. We weave through checkpoints made of yellow- and black-striped concrete blocks stamped with police insignias and motor oil emblems. We are not stopped, no one asks who I am. As a foreigner I need an internal visa to visit Swat. But like other such security laws, it goes unenforced.
Five hours later, we descend a twisting mountain pass into the plain of the Swat Valley. The morning sky spreads clear and blue above us, revealing a barren landscape parched from lack of rain. Dust replaces the morning fog, and we wind scarves around our faces against it.
We creep toward Mingora, the largest town in the valley, through rambunctious bazaars where cars compete with donkey- and horse-drawn carts laden with wood. Vendor stalls blend into one long ramshackle block, forcing shoppers into the narrow roads, clogging them. The ceaseless car horns release vexation and create more in the stalled traffic.
We stop in Kota Nova Kali, a village near Mingora. Buildings gutted during the army offensive stand as testimonies to a previous life. A blocks-long line of men stands outside a burlap tent that serves as a United Nations World Food Program warehouse. Men wearing WFP vests distribute flour, tea, sugar, and beans daily to about two hundred thousand people, the manager tells me.
“These people were all affected,” he says. “They lost businesses, shops, farms. Everything was destroyed.”
I walk through the warehouse, spilled flour spouts into clouds around my boots. Men fill wheelbarrows with sacks of food and wobble toward the exit. I am impressed by the order, the calm in which people wait in line. It is similar, I am told, to the manner in which they left the valley when the military began its offensive.
Quietly and mostly on foot. Men, women, children, the elderly. They brought little with them and filled the roads with a quiet resignation, accepting the fighting as though it were a drought, part of a natural cycle.
We move on. Mingora spreads before us in a cluttered mass of slouching buildings. Streets trace the hills like streams filled with winter runoff, unfurling without a clear destination. Tahir and I drive one street and return along on another, turning endless circles and backing out of dead ends until we reach our destination: the Inter Service Public Relation, an arm of the military.
I want to ask its commander where he thinks the offensive against the Taliban now stands. We show a guard our Ministry of Information and External Affairs permit to visit the Swat Valley. He calls a Major Mushtaq who meets us at the door. Soon we realize the government’s bureaucracy has failed us: our names were not passed on to the major. He considers our authorization invalid.
Major Mushtaq ushers us into a large room and motions for us to sit on a couch. He contacts his superior and reports that he has an American journalist who has illegally entered the Swat Valley. He recommends arresting me but worries it could cause an international incident. Not likely—but I keep this thought to myself. Fortunately, his superior does not see a problem. Let them stay, Tahir overhears him tell the major. If they were not stopped at the checkpoints, what is the problem?
Red-faced, Major Mushtaq steps into the hall and begins shouting. “We have regulations!” he bellows. “They must be followed, or what is the point?”
Our presence insults his ego. His sense of himself lies in the power he feels enforcing rules, issuing orders, wearing a uniform. Enlarged egos are viruses that infect bureaucrats everywhere. An army that serves US interests in a country dependent on US aid is going to have more Major Mushtaqs than most. If Tahir and I are allowed to stay, his rules, his uniform, and his life become meaningless.
Gradually, Major Mushtaq lowers his voice. Tahir can no longer make out what he says. I wonder what sort of resolution he and his superior are reaching and what it means for Tahir and me. Footsteps approach the door. Major Mushtaq enters without looking at us, his face tinged pink. A man walks in behind him with a silver tray of tea and finger sandwiches.
“Please,” the major says, pointing to a tray.
We don’t move. He sits down beside Tahir, smooths the creases in his uniform. He hands me a cup of tea, a sandwich, and a napkin. He leans back and rests his head against the wall. After a moment, he turns to me.
“You will be allowed twenty-four hours in Mingora,” he says. “Not a second more. Understand?”
I nod. He asks for my business card. I pat my pockets. I left them in the car.
“Funny how the simplest of things becomes complicated,” Major Mushtaq says.
* * *
We are confronting people who do not think in the twenty-first century but sixteenth century.
Everyone I speak to in Mingora remembers the arrival of the Taliban.
Sheerzaman Khan, a barber, first noticed them in 2007. They came on horseback and in Jeeps. They had long beards, heavy jackets. They carried pistols and Kalashnikov rifles. Every area had a Taliban leader. They said they were Muslims and occupied the best houses. Khan liked them for their strict interpretation of Islam. But then they started killing other Muslims. Every day he saw dead bodies. Sometimes they had no heads or legs. The Taliban told Khan to stop shaving his customers. To protect himself, he put up a sign, Please don’t ask us for a shave, dear customer.
Cinema owner Fazal Ghan also welcomed the Taliban at first because he felt they represented good Islamic principles. Then they shut him down, saying movies were immoral. That was not part of the faith as he understood it. But people went along. They lived.
Taliban leaders told the administrators at Saidu Shrief Maskan Girls’ Orphan House to stop teaching and ordered the girls to cover themselves. A teacher called the girls into a meeting. Don’t worry, she told them. Be brave. But the girls were very scared. They believed deep in their hearts that they would die horrible deaths. Some of the Taliban were not much older than the girls. Eighteen, fifteen, even thirteen-year-olds. The Taliban paid its fighters six dollars a day. Not bad for a Mingora boy.
Near the orphanage lives the family of police officer Arshad Ali. They show me a photograph of Ali sitting beside a garden. Red and yellow roses rise behind him. He wears tan slacks, a blue sweater with police lapels on each shoulder. Sunglasses perch on his forehead, his short dark hair shines. His clasped hands rest on his knees and he squints against the light, a look of concentration creasing his angular face.
He was kidnapped walking to the police training center in nearby Hungo. His family first heard about it when a neighbor saw him on television. The Taliban had sent a video of Ali to the station. He was sitting on the carpeted floor of a small room. “If they can kidnap me, they can kidnap you,” he said into the camera. His face expressionless, voice flat, uniform rumpled.
A few days later a second video was released. Ali appeared to be sitting in the same room. He said nothing. He looked like a sad old man staring into the camera. Six days later he was found dumped on the road, his throat slit.
But like the barber and cinema owner, Ali’s family had no objection to the Taliban at first. They believed in an Islamic government and considered the Taliban a good step toward that end.
* * *
Once the army began its Swat Valley offensive, many Mingora families fled to Peshawar and the homes of relatives. Unfortunately for them, Peshawar was anything but peaceful in 2009.
Some of the deadliest terrorist attacks began in the fall. In October, at least ninety-five people were killed and over two hundred injured when a powerful car bomb ripped through a packed Peshawar market. A November bomb blast killed 190 police officers. In a statement, authorities said the officers had embraced martyrdom. Bombs continued to rip through the city in December, killing more than a dozen people and injuring at least fifty. Later, in the spring, Taliban militant attacked the US embassy in Peshawar. It became a front line in their war against the Pakistani state and the West.
Abbas Ali is a twenty-eight year old doctor in Pehsawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. When Tahir and I arrive to meet him, we see patients outside in their beds, covered in blankets and rigged to IVs, while janitors scrub the wards.
We pass patients wearing the same blood-stained clothes they had on when they were injured weeks earlier. Inside, water drips down the grimed white walls and collects in puddles on a concrete floor. Exposed wires appear in the ceiling and bulbs flicker in the hallways. More water collects in doorframes and rains down as I enter Dr. Ali’s office, which contains only a couch, a desk, and a scale.
“January has been quiet, thanks be to God,” Dr. Ali says in a soft, flat voice. He explains the injuries he treats. Burns, fractures, shrapnel cuts, head injuries. Most people leave the hospital in four weeks. However, if someone suffers from a “gut” wound, they spend more time. Sometimes up to six months.
He appears very calm. When I mention it, he shakes his head, crosses his legs and folds his hands, as if to hold himself together.
“We are in great grief,” he says in the same flat voice.
Dr. Ali has seen five to ten people die from a single family, some of them children. When he wakes up each morning, he does not know if he will live through the day. He has heard the noise of many bombings, some of them close to his home and the hospital. He has watched the black smoke darken the sky. At those times, he and other doctors rush to the casualty department and ready for the onslaught. One hundred and sixty patients can arrive within forty minutes.
The hospital does not have enough beds for all the screaming, weeping patients. Men and women cover the floor, wrapped in blankets and bandages. Policemen and relatives of the injured crowd the operating room. Dr. Ali often does not know who all these people are. Is one of them a suicide bomber? Will a car arrive pretending to bring a patient and then explode?
After surgery, he sleeps. He feels so exhausted it does not matter to him where he collapses. The next day, he feels sorrow. Then he can’t sleep. The cycle seems endless. He recalls a fourteen-year-old girl crying on the operating table. She could have been his own daughter. He still hears her cries.
“It is not fair that someone does these things,” he says with a shake of his head, a hint of anger breaking the lifeless tone of his voice. They are misguided to interpret Islam in this way. He blames the United States for destabilizing the region. Everyone has a stake here, he complains, except for Pakistan. It is too busy doing the bidding of Western nations to care.
* * *
In Peshawar a man approaches me and begins talking in Pashto. He wears a gray turban and has a thick dark beard. I look for Tahir. He stands across the street, back to me, buying cigarettes. Why is this man talking to me? Do I pass as a Pakistani wearing the shameez I borrowed from Tahir? If I speak, I’ll give myself away.
I stare at Tahir, hoping to catch his attention. Two other men walk over. They know the first man. They begin talking to me as well. I point to my mouth and ears and make guttural noises as if I’m a deaf mute. Another deceit. Another reason to suspect me if I’m found out. I look again for Tahir. He is crossing the street now. He joins me and speaks to the men. It turns out that the first man is from Islamabad and was asking for directions. He and his companions are trying to find a wedding. Tahir tells them I’m a Spanish journalist. They laugh and offer to buy me a cup of tea. I decline. They want to know how I can be a journalist if I have trouble speaking. Tahir doesn’t know what to say. He asks me why the men think I can’t speak. Now we must explain my subterfuge. More lies. More reason to suspect this Westerner among them.
* * *
The terrorists are dispersed everywhere. They come and go as they please. Sometimes they don’t have the public behind them and they stay out of view. Then it changes, and the public is behind them, and they come out publicly.
In the morning, Tahir and I return to Islamabad. On the long drive, he fills my head with talk of the “the coming time,” similar to the end times in the Christian faith. However, the coming time is not about Christ’s return, but an anticipated calamity when Pakistan falls into chaos because of advances made by Islamist extremists, increased government corruption, or both.
Tahir earned his paranoia in 2008 when he was nearly killed in a suicide bombing. He was in a section of Islamabad called Melodee Chowk drinking tea at a small shop beneath a canvas tent. Round white plastic tables stood unevenly on the rocky ground. A man served his tea in a small cracked cup and was in such a rush it splashed onto the saucer. Tahir poured the tea back in his cup and let it cool. The warm day made him wish he had ordered a Pepsi.
At one of the tables, among the men eating rice and chicken off tin plates, sat a suicide bomber. Perhaps he too was eating. Perhaps he sat alone as if waiting for a friend.
Policeman stood at a roundabout in the mid-afternoon heat curtained by dust and exhaust. A friend called Tahir on his mobile phone and asked to meet him across the street. Tahir ducked out of the tent, crossed the street, and walked about a hundred yeards, when an explosion raised him in the air. He ran forward to keep his balance and to escape the roar in his ears.
When he regained his footing, he turned around. He saw body parts seemingly suspended in air. He ran toward fleeing police officers. He saw their horses on the ground, their exposed teeth and shrill screams, and he began weeping. Why are you weeping for horses? an enraged policeman in a torn uniform screamed. Why are you not weeping for the police?
I am crying for the police, Tahir said, but the horses have done nothing.
“I never want to see that scene again,” Tahir says, “but I always do.”
* * *
Back in Islamabad, weary from the drive, Tahir and I call it a day.
Late afternoon turns to night. I am restless but stay put. Tahir has warned me about kidnappers. The rise in kidnappings comes as a floundering economy leads more people into crime. It’s also a result of the overall erosion of security as Pakistan faces spreading Islamist militancy. Criminals are suspected in most kidnappings, but the Taliban and other militant groups are thought to earn a slice of the ransom money—possibly millions of dollars.
I try to read a book but can’t concentrate. I try to sleep but toss and turn. Finally, I kick off the sheets and decide, to the hell with it, I have to get out.
Not far from the guesthouse, the noise of a bazaar carries into the evening. I walk toward it. Butchers, cobblers, and tailors stand in the glow of bare bulbs. A university student stops me and asks where I am from. Spain, I tell him. He asks about Madrid. I have never been, so I tell him what little I know. We stop by some vendors. The student offers to translate and perhaps, I suspect, receive a tip in the process.
I feign interest in a pair of sandals and at the same time ask in the most casual voice I can summon how the vendors around me feel about the situation in Pakistan. Their voices fuse together in their eagerness to vent. They catch me and the student off guard. We step back and they step forward. My head fills with the noise of their frustration. The student can barely keep up as he translates.
“It is not good, a very bad time we have here. The main reason behind this is terrorist attacks.”
“We had two bombs here and are scared all the time. You can not tell by the expressions on our faces what we are feeling.”
“Slowly, slowly our lives have been poisoned and things have come to this state.”
Soon their complaints form an anti-American chorus.
“America makes nice military action and imposes it on us.”
“They want us to get involved so they can get out.”
“Our government gets the Americans’ money, and we get the bombs.”
The barrage of voices overwhelms the student, and he waves his hands and stops translating. I buy the sandals to divert attention before my Spanish bona fides become suspect amid all this hatred for America. I thank the student for his help, give him 200 rupees, and hurry off before he asks more questions.
* * *
War brings out the religious zealots. That’s what we have here.
Tahir and I sit in a large, spare room with three students of Jamia Muhammadia, an Islamabad madrassa. Red carpets cover the concrete floor but don’t keep out the cold. Cracks on the walls converge near a glossy photograph of a mosque. I hear boys in the next room reading from the Koran, and their voices mix with the shouts of other students playing soccer in dusty field.
“We are like missionaries,“ says their teacher Abdul Koadoos Mohammadi. “We offer free education. We are not breeding grounds for militants.”
He complains that the US fosters this misperception as an excuse to attack Muslims.
“We don’t want to kill, but the other side keeps killing us. The US would be more successful if it said, ‘We want your oil and gas. If someone feels they can stop us do it.’ They’ll never say that, but pragmatically speaking it makes more sense if they would.”
Furthermore, he says, September 11th was “an inside job” preplanned by the American government so it could invade Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Nonsense, I tell him.
He responds with a flurry of questions. How do I define terrorism? How would I feel if a Muslim country attacked America? Why did US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently visit Pakistan‘s arch rival India before flying to Islamabad?
Every answer I offer results in another series of disassociated questions, the purpose of which fails me. The students laugh at my frustration. I end the discussion, mutter thanks for his time. He offers us lunch. I decline.
Jawed, one of the students, follows us out and suggests to Tahir that we meet at a nearby McDonald‘s. Had he suggested a local teashop, I would have refused. I was in no mood for another assault of accusatory questions accompanied by endless cups of green tea.
But meet at a McDonald’s?
The whole idea reminds me of a meeting I had recently in Lahore with Hafiz Khalid, deputy leader of the banned organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the son of one of its founders, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. The name Lashkar-e-Taiba—literally Army of the Righteous or Army of the Pure—is one of the largest and most active Islamist militant organizations in South Asia, and it shares ideology with the most extreme Wahhabi Islamists, including al Qaeda—anti-Western, anti-Indian, anti-Jewish.
The group was created and funded by Pakistan’s intelligence services, and historically its violence focused on Pakistan’s archenemy, India. Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only surviving attacker from the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks told police that the gunmen had trained for months in Lashkar-e-Taiba camps in Pakistan. But security experts now believe Lashkar has evolved, growing beyond that older struggle and reaching into Afghanistan, where it has linked up with other militant groups. As it helped forge the anger that created the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan War provided fresh motivation, and a fresh battlefield for Lashkar.
I met Hafiz Khalid at a Holiday Inn. He strode in with another man, an engineer. Both wore a shameez and a black waistcoat. They never travel alone, Tahir whispered to me. They like to show they have followers. Al Qaeda is successful because it gets engineers and doctors. Educated people. They can buy whoever they want.
We shook hands and embraced in traditional greeting. Khalid asked about my trip and if I had everything I needed. He nodded at my answers, a half smile creasing his calm, open face.
“They give a friendly posture but won’t mind beheading you,” Tahir said smiling back at Khalid and pretending to translate for me. “They are great at it.”
We sat near a gated restaurant where armed security guards stood beside a flat screen television airing a cricket match.
Khalid dismissed the Pakistani government’s ban on Lashkar-e-Taiba as a gimmick to appease foreign governments, especially the US and India. Indeed, the group plays humanitarian and political roles within the country and some believe it maintains close ties with Pakistani intelligence agencies. It would be difficult to shut down. One branch of the group, called Jamat-ud-Dawa, is involved with helping to run schools and hospitals.
Lashkar provided relief operations when Pakistan was devastated by a major earthquake in 2005. It also established an earthquake relief fund for Haiti just days before our meeting. Could this be an organization that killed? Khalid asked me. He sounded hurt at the suggestion.
I told him that dozens of terrorist attacks have been attributed to the group by people within and without Pakistan. Can they all be wrong?
“There are people in the government who want to crush us,” he said. “They are under the influence of India and America.”
I found it hard to confront a defense that offers no introspection but instead plays the victim. Anything negative attributed to the group was part of a coordinated India-US strategy. It’s a foolproof fallback position that can be applied to every question. And, because I am American, my questions can be dismissed as another part of the conspiracy. This strategy is not for my consumption as much for those Lashkar-e-Taiba hopes to recruit.
More excuses: the Pakistan Taliban are not Taliban at all but proxies for the US who provide an excuse to attack Pakistan; the US invasion of Afghanistan started a holy war and therefore fighting there against Western armies is justified; nobody knows who committed the September 11th attacks and therefore the invasion of Afghanistan was not justified.
“The international community applies pressure to Pakistan and Pakistan applies pressure to us,” Khan said. “But we won’t be pressured. The members of Lashkar-e-Taiba come from simple families. They live in the streets, shop at the bazaars. We have influence with these voters. The government knows this.”
He looked at his watch and then excused himself to attend another meeting. He stood and paid for our tea despite my offer to do so. I was a guest, he said. We shook hands and embraced again. He walked through the metal detector at the front door then paused and looked back at me, the half smile still on his face.
“It was a pleasant surprise for us, not you of course but us, that Western governments are talking about talking to the Afghanistan Taliban,” he said. “It’s what we all want. Talk to the Taliban, give them their share in the government. This development is a sign of failure for America. It will have to take its troops out of the country. Success will come to the Taliban. Muslims believe you live your life for God. When you die your life has been for God. That is why Muslims are a hopeful people.”
* * *
At the McDonald’s, Tahir and I sit with three madrassa students, including Jawed who arranged the meeting. Crowds of university students stream past a Ronald McDonald statue. There is a metal detector, and a heavy police presence, yet the tables are crowded with Pakistanis eating the most Western of foods: the Big Mac. The madrassa students drink milkshakes and discuss jihad and American heavy metal bands. Jawed insists that I play an instrument but am too modest to admit it. My ponytail, he says, tells him I’m a musician.
At twenty-four, he is the most assertive of the three students and perhaps the most devout. The purpose of life is to receive blessings from Allah, he says. That is only possible by studying Islam and acting on its principles. When he was not living a religious life, the world was too much for him. Something had been missing. His heart was empty. He won’t elaborate.
Asad, also twenty-four, studied at a university to earn a degree and find a job. But, he says, he was always tense and worried about making money. The day he joined the madrassa, he felt calm. The school provided for him and eventually Allah blessed him with the means to open his snack shop.
Sham, twenty-one, has been a madrassa student since he was a boy. At eighteen, he attended a university, earned a science degree and then returned to the madrassa to complete his religious education. When he finishes, he wants to enroll again at a university and study fine arts.
There are different interpretations of Islam, the students tell me. They concede that the people who set off bombs may be misguided. However, if a person willingly sacrifices his life, it means he is ready to die for his religion and therefore is not a terrorist.
Some groups misuse jihad, Jawed says. He won’t name them. He does not want to give the impression to an outsider that Muslims are divided.
“Muslims oppose these groups?” I ask.
“Yes,“ Jawed says, “but even they do not hate the people, only their government.”
* * *
Politicians play a game. They play with public sentiment.
The diplomat knocks, enters my room and withdraws two cans of beer from his coat pocket.
I tell him about my afternoon talk with the madrassa students and my failure to make even the smallest point.
“They were right, you know,” he says. “You were a guest. At least in that setting. In another circumstance, you’d be a target or collateral damage. And they’d be martyrs. Nobody gives a shit to die here.”
On a positive note, he says, people are pleased with news from the recent London conference on the future of Afghanistan, where the US, the Afghans and their allies agreed to reach out to some elements of the Taliban. It’s what people want. Talk to the Taliban, get US troops out. Stability returns. The end.
The diplomat shakes his head dismissively as if he has heard it all before.
I tell him Lashkar-e-Taiba has a different spin on the talks. They see them as part of an eventual Taliban victory. “What else would they say?” the diplomat asks. “Listen. Look at the players involved. The real success of any diplomatic overture depends on Pakistan.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “the Pakistan government has other objectives. It’s blackmailing the world. If you don’t help us we could become the most dangerous country in the world if our nukes fall into the wrong hands. So you have to help us. And they get the help. US dollars. It serves American interests, the government’s interests and in terms of recruits, the terrorist’s interests.”
He stands, finishes his beer, and tosses the can in the trash. He pinches his nose and sneezes. I offer him a Kleenex. He might take a holiday in Dubai, he says. This time of year, the weather would be perfect. Not too hot, right? He’d like to see that new building. The tallest one in the world, isn’t it?
He suggests dinner. Kabob? He waits while I get my jacket. He won’t predict how all this war on terror business will end. The civilian government is weak and may not finish its term. The US would rather do business with the military anyway. Less messy. Then the diplomat echoes something I’d heard before, from my fixer, Tahir.
“Not soon,” he says as I reach for my keys. “The real conflict is yet to come.”