On the front line in Pakistan

Foreign correspondent Adnan Khan on stability in Pakistan, Western misconceptions, and the challenges of covering a civil war

On the front line in How long have you been in Pakistan?
Adnan Khan: This time around, four months. But I started my journalism career in Pakistan in April 2002. Since then, I’ve been coming here regularly, focusing primarily on the ethnic-Pashtun region of the country—the Tribal Areas, Peshawar, Swat.

Q: Where are you based and why?
A: Peshawar has been my regular home base. Most of my local contacts live here. But also for some of the intangibles like cultural understanding. What a lot of people in the West don’t fully understand is the strong ethnic component of the war in Pakistan and, by corollary, the war in Afghanistan. These are wars pitting Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Pashtuns against, well, just about everyone else. The Taliban’s religious beliefs are a mixture of Islam and Pashtun tribal customs. So being in Peshawar puts me in Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland, close to the people I’m covering.

Q: What does the Taliban want from Pakistan—a safe haven, an Islamic government, something else entirely?
The Pakistani Taliban, as well as other militant groups who have joined the Taliban mission, want to define Pakistan in their terms, i.e. an Islamic nation ruled by their interpretation of the Koran and Sunna (the sayings of the prophet Muhammad). The safe haven element is also there, in the sense that the Taliban, which had previously been a nationalist movement in Afghanistan, has expanded its ideology, largely under al Qaeda influence, to include global issues important to Muslims, like Palestine, Iraq, U.S. strategic involvement in the Middle East. Their goals now don’t end with controlling Afghanistan and Pakistan. They want to spread the Islamic revolution from there.

What’s often missed in the analysis of the Taliban’s evolution from a nationalist movement to the global jihadist entity it has become is the role globalization has played. Pashtun society has been brutally thrust into the 21st century over the past decade or so. The Taliban’s aversion to music, their banning of DVD shops, these are reactions to the information tsunami that has flooded what had been an extremely insulated society. Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a satellite dish in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now the rabbit ears are everywhere. The wide availability of cheap digital technology like DVD players and computers, and access to the Internet—Pakistan is surprisingly well-wired—have all contributed to the feeling among conservative Pashtuns that their culture is being contaminated.

Q: Is the Taliban in Pakistan made up of Pakistanis, or are the fighters coming from outside the country’s borders?
A: The Pakistani Taliban are largely made up of Pakistani Pashtuns from the rural parts of the Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. There are outside elements—Arabs and Chechens mostly—but in small numbers. Pakistani authorities tend to overplay the role outsiders are playing to suit their own narrative. They often, for example, include Afghans as outsiders which is a little disingenuous considering the Afghans are also Pashtuns, often from the same tribe as their Pakistani counterparts and occasionally with direct family relations. They are only outsiders in the sense that they happen to come from the other side of the British-imposed Durrand Line that makes up Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Most Pashtuns don’t recognize that line anyway.

Q: Has the population sided with anyone?
A: That depends on which population you happen to be talking about. Most Punjabis, for example, don’t support the Taliban. Similarly the Sindhis are not particularly attracted to the Taliban style of Islam; the Sindhis are adherents of Sufism, the spiritual strain of Islam. As for the Pashtuns, loyalty is a complicated matter. Most Pashtuns will tell you that they agree with the Taliban’s religious message. Deobandi Islam, the ultra-orthodox sect that guides Taliban religious doctrine, is widely accepted by Pashtuns. But they don’t necessarily buy into the Taliban’s self-proclaimed revolution.

Speaking to Swat’s displaced at the refugee camps in northern Pakistan, I was struck by a common theme—many people told me that they were already practicing the kind of Islam the Taliban say they want to see Pakistanis adopt. “We were already practicing purdah,” one women told me, referring to the practice of strictly separating men and women. “We all prayed five times a day. The Taliban didn’t need to come into our homes with guns and tell us to do this.” I wish I could give a simple answer to the question. But loyalty is never simple.

Q: Your latest story deals with bombings in Swat. How isolated or integrated is Swat, both geographically and politically speaking?
A: Geographically, Swat is quite literally separated from the rest of Pakistan by mountain ranges. Historically, it’s been a princely state, with the geography providing a natural border. In fact, Swat didn’t officially join Pakistan until 1969, 22 years after Pakistan was created. Politically, Swat has never completely accepted the legal and constitutional norms that took effect after 1969. That has been one of the prime motivators of the Sharia movement in the region. The legal system, particularly, was never embraced by the people in Swat. Most of them had been quite content with the mixture of moderate (relatively speaking, in Pashtun terms) Sharia and local arbitration councils that were running in Swat under the rule of the Wali (the monarch). The Pakistani system failed them—it was too expensive, too slow, and too corrupt to serve their needs. Similarly, the often self-serving and nepotistic nature of Pakistani politics has frustrated the people, whereas almost to a person they will tell you that the Wali was a just and incorruptible ruler. What’s important to remember here is that many people in Swat still remember life under the Wali. This is very recent history, not just some nostalgic pining for a lost era.

Internally, there are also some interesting dynamics. It’s been widely reported in the western press that Swat used to be the pearl of Pakistan’s tourism industry, a place where foreigners could go safely and where even alcohol was widely available. This is all true, but only partly. The main valley in Swat, the one that runs through Mingora, up through Madyan and Bahrain and on to the picturesque Kalam, is what is being referred to when people talk about Swat in its touristic guise. But that is not all of Swat, and certainly not all of the Malakand Division which the Taliban took over. There are hundreds of towns and villages in this region, many of them in what’s known as the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). These areas are very similar to their federal versions in that they are largely self-governed and extremely under-developed. The Swat Taliban come from these areas and this is also where their support base is. The people along that tourist strip, who are more educated and well off financially, tend not to support the Taliban. So Swat itself is not by any stretch of the imagination a monolithic entity.

Q: How stable are Pakistan’s institutions right now? Is Pakistan is on the brink of collapse?
A: I don’t believe the world needs to start worrying just yet about a collapse. Pakistan’s institutions are weak, but an independent judiciary is developing and recent events have brought political parties closer together. There is still widespread corruption which needs to be dealt with, but I believe the recently re-instated Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhry, is smart enough to realize that this is not the time to start cleaning up Pakistani politics. That will have to come once some measure of peace is achieved. With that said, it would be fair to say that Pakistan’s institutions are undergoing an extremely fragile process of reform. If that process collapses, then it would push Pakistan to the brink.

Q: Can you give me a sense of the challenges of covering of a civil war like this one?
A: Access, access, access, that scourge of all journalists. Just travelling 50 km out of Peshawar these days requires extensive planning. There is so much distrust among the people now that unless you have a local contact in the place you want to go who is willing to vouch for your authenticity as a journalist, you stand a very good chance of ending up in one unpleasant circumstance or another. Reaching anything even remotely resembling a front line independently (not, in other words, as part of a military tour) is next to impossible. Gone are the days a journalist could plaster his or her car with PRESS and drive into the warzone. In Pakistan, I have to make do with getting to the aftermath as quickly as possible after the fighting ends.

There is also the cultural element. Respecting the local Pashtun culture while still being able to work means walking a very fine line. Getting access to the Taliban, for example, means speaking to the right person in the hierarchy and winning him over through repeated meetings.

Then there are the uncontrollable elements, like bombings and suicide attacks. The best a journalist can do is try not to be in places that would be potential targets—around police or soldiers, near government buildings—and hope for the best. But these days in Peshawar, even civilian areas like bazaars have become targets, so you just have to put those types of things out of your mind and take comfort in the fact that the odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are slim. Still, my heart flutters at least half a dozen times a day when I’m out on the streets.

Q: Are there areas or subjects you won’t cover?
A: Not subjects that I won’t cover but subjects that I can’t cover—women’s issues, for example. I could do it but the barriers to access would be too large for me to pull out a meaningful story. Pakistan needs more women journalists to cover these types of stories.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception your readers in the West have of the situation there?
A: I’ve been away from Canada for so long now that I really don’t have a clear picture of what Canadians are thinking. What frustrates me most about the western media’s coverage of Pakistan is the tendency to lump the entire nation together into a single, Islamofascist entity. This is not the case. Pakistan is a wildly diverse nation containing the entire spectrum of Islamic practice. Even in Peshawar, which is probably the city with the closest resemblance to the militant caricature the West has of Pakistan, there are moderates and extremists, Sufis and secularists.

Q: How do the Pakistani people react to you? Do they want their stories told?
A: Once they get past the suspicion, they are eager to tell their story. Unfortunately, no foreign press is reaching this part of Pakistan, so when they hear that there is a Canadian journalist among them, they want to talk. They want the world to know about what they have suffered. They want the world to understand who they are.

Q: Is there an end to the fighting in sight?
A: Frankly, I’m pessimistic. The Taliban have perfected their guerrilla techniques: they push the patience of the Pakistani authorities to the limits, engage in battle, retreat into the mountains or mix into the local population and then reappear months later. That has happened in many parts of Pakistan over the past few years, most recently in Bajaur, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I fear the same will happen in Swat. At the risk of sounding cliché, there is no way to defeat the Taliban militarily. But if there is hope, it is in the Pashtun culture itself. Understanding that culture and respecting it, not trying to forcibly change it, is what will make the Taliban irrelevant.


Living like a refugee — For those displaced by Pakistan’s fighting, the camps are a cauldron of despair, corruption, and extremist recruiting

Winning over Pakistan — The ‘peace deal’ was just Step One in a broad Taliban agenda. What’s next?

New Delhi’s endgame? — Pakistan says India’s spies are working to destabilize the country

The rise of ‘Talqaeda’ — How the Taliban is winning in Pakistan and why that’s disastrous for the West

Inside a war zone — Adnan Khan carried his camera into Pakistan’s dangerous Swat Valley. Check out the results.

More than a game — Sri Lanka’s cricketers weren’t the only shooting casualties

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