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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

The tribal mindset in Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Recently two unrelated events rocked this frontier town in the foothills of the Khyber Pass.

One was the fierce battle fought between India and Pakistan. For a change, and a pleasant one at that, this battle was fought on the cricket ground. India and Pakistan, the two top cricket nations in the world, had not played each other in the subcontinent for over 14 years.

So it was a treat to see thousands of Indian fans cross the border to enjoy the game and partake of the local hospitality.

The other story is the military action against the tribes in South Waziristan about 200 miles southwest of here. The government contends that the tribes are sheltering al-Qaeda remnants and possibly Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawhari. To understand why the tribes would rather invite annihilation than give up al-Qaeda remnants needs some explanation.

The semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan constitute about a 400-mile long strip of mountainous area stretching from the northern Hindu Kush Mountains and running south along the border with Afghanistan. Though under Pakistani control, albeit a nominal one, these remote and inaccessible areas have always governed themselves according to their own ancient tribal laws and customs. Just as in the days of British India, Pakistan has left these tribes to their own designs. Any attempt to bring these areas under the control of Islamabad has been fiercely opposed.

Two principles dictate the conduct of the people living in tribal areas. One is to protect their honor at any cost. That includes sanctity of their homes, their women, and their land. The other is unconditional hospitality toward strangers.

These principles are strengthened by their adherence to a fundamental version of Islam and also their firm belief in the illusionary concept of a worldwide community of Muslims. So when Chechens or Arab fighters took refuge in their areas, it became a religious and tribal obligation to protect them against all enemies, including the United States. Ask any tribal elder and he would narrate a litany of grievances against America that range from invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to its unwillingness to help solve the simmering problems in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Palestine.

This tribal mindset and identification of America and the West as enemies of the Muslims was the reason Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, had refused to expel bin Laden from Afghanistan. During my visit to Afghanistan in the winter of 2000, I had heard the same refrain from the Taliban leadership in Kabul. By supporting U.S. policy Pakistan has also become an enemy.

The fighting near Wana in South Wazirstan started about a month ago when, in an unprecedented move, the Pakistani army entered the area to round up al-Qaeda members. They were met with fierce resistance and in the ensuing battle a number of Pakistani troops were killed.

President Pervez Musharraf is aware of the sensitivities of Pakistanis to such an operation and would like to round up the foreigners without further bloodshed. Two weeks ago he met with a group of tribal chiefs and elders in Peshawar and asked them to help achieve that goal. How much influence this jirga, or assembly of elders, would have is hard to tell. As if to send a clear message to the jirga, there have been rocket attacks on the towns and cities away from the area of conflict. Peshawar was hit with three rockets a few days ago. The war against terrorism is rather ill-defined in these parts of the world. In a delicate interplay of religious, ethnic, and tribal loyalties, the enormity of terrorism on a civil society has become clouded.

The fact remains that al-Qaeda has to be eliminated from these parts and President Musharraf is doing his bit with determination.



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