Life and Letters

The Final Frontier

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If 30 years of foreign policy could be rewound, Pakistan’s ‘jihad factory’ would not exist, says Alice Albinia

The North West Frontier Province was the scene of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the US for many years. The CIA trained people from this region to be ‘jihadi’ fighters. With the help of their friends in the Gulf, the Pakistan army and some politicians, they helped create a system for recruiting and training future generations of ‘jihadi fighters’ ad infinitum. Had they spent all that money setting up excellent schools and universities across the NWFP, maybe they would have unleashed scores of excellent doctors and engineers on the world. Unfortunately, they didn’t do that.

These are complicated issues, but roughly speaking I would say that anybody could have predicted that if you keep an area and a people in a prolonged state of proxy warfare, with added issues of weaponry and refugees and lack of education and resources, you are bound to run into some trouble. If you then also bomb it and kill civilians, you should not be surprised if some of those people react in a way that is detrimental to those dropping the bombs. You may lament this fact, but you should not be surprised.

In 1947, this Pashtun area was actually known for its non-violent freedom struggle against the British, the Khudai Khitmatgar movement, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the ‘Frontier Gandhi’. This was a huge, popular satyagraha, and there is an excellent book on it called The Pathan Unarmed by Mukulika Banerjee. She points out that Pashtunwali and Islamic teaching were both channelled into this reform movement with very successful results (just as later, the Taliban would channel Islamic teaching and Pashtunwali into ‘jihad’ with very successful results).

The Khudai Khitmagar movement, however, wasn’t useful for the Pakistan state, which saw it as a threat and banned it. But this current in Pashtun society did not simply disappear. The secular Awami National Party, which is now in power in the NWFP, inherited aspects of this tradition. Unfortunately, since 1947, everything that I have described above has made this area very volatile and it has proved extremely difficult for those non-Taliban politicians to do their job. Even if the majority of the Pashtun people are peace-loving—as is suggested by their voting for the Awami National Party—should a minority with a different worldview choose to propagate their mission with guns, then the majority are held hostage. That is what terrorism is about.

As far as male domination goes, yes there are many retrograde tendencies in the NWFP. Events over the past 30 years certainly haven’t helped. Compare the situation in the valley of Hunza, in far northern Pakistan, with, say, the Kurram river valley in north-western Pakistan (Waziristan and Bannu, on the border with Afghanistan). Both river valleys are inhabited by Muslims. Both are rugged and remote. Both have had money poured into them over the past three decades. But in Hunza, the Aga Khan Foundation spent money and resources not on guns and ‘jihad’, but on health and education. Despite the fact that it is a remote mountain valley far from the major metropolises, cut off during the winter with a difficult terrain and environment, Hunza now has the highest literacy rate in the whole of Pakistan for both women and men. As a result, women in Hunza lead very different lives from those in Bannu.

Culture is about consensus. I noticed that women who lived in the Kurram river valley, in Bannu, wore burkhas in their villages. When they went to visit their cousins in Peshawar, they wore a salwar kameez, covering their hair but exposing their faces. When they visited their school friends in Islamabad, the dupatta came off their heads entirely. So it was possible to assume that these women would have preferred not to cover their heads at all, but feared expressing their wish when they were in the village. It is a brave woman, a brave family, who would encourage their womenfolk not to follow the purdah in Bannu. It is a suicidal family who would encourage their womenfolk not to follow the purdah in Waziristan. How do you move from one stage (where women’s choice is inhibited) to the other (where women do as they please)?

If you want people to prosper, to encourage the education and emancipation of their women, to concentrate on things other than the holy war, you stop bombing their homes, give them proper schools, dedicated teachers and exacting curriculums. Ideally, you also rewind foreign policy in this region for 30 years.

As told to Saaz Aggarwal