BY SUROOSH ALVI, PHOTOS BY A.M. GORAYA
Members of Taliban splinter group Tehreek-e-Taliban praying at a Mamoon Zai village in Orakzai.
The Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, was bombed six months prior to my arrival. As we drove up in early December, the place reminded me of Gulf War 2-era Baghdad: armed security, blast walls erected everywhere, bomb-sniffing dogs, more armed security. And that was just to roll onto the hotel’s driveway, before another two additional security checks to pass through the front door. When we stayed here in 2006, it was totally different—it used to be one of the few places in Peshawar that was actually fun, where they served booze to foreigners and hosted parties and weddings. The Pearl was, by Pakistani standards, “swinging.”
But the hotel is a ghost town now. I was one of maybe ten people staying there, and the staff was overjoyed to see me, or perhaps to have any guests at all. There was one large, rich Pakistani family, two rotund and mysterious long-haired guys with fair skin speaking some Central Asian language, and me. The fat guys’ room was adjacent to mine, and I could hear them getting drunk and talking all night long. I decided they were either arms dealers or heroin traffickers—or both.
Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Since that last trip, the region has become more violent, and in that time the country has seen an increase in suicide bombings, an incredibly disconcerting phenomenon that was once a rare occurrence in Pakistan. As a result of this deterioration the trip took more than six months to materialize. My friend and host, Naeem Afridi, is the director of protocol in the provincial government, and he had advised against a visit altogether. “The situation with the Taliban is bad. Don’t come—at least not for a few months,” he said. So I waited. Then I waited some more.
When I talked to him next, his tone had become noticeably bleak. Undeterred, I told him I wanted to meet with someone from the Taliban and asked if he could arrange it. He explained that things in Pakistan, and in Peshawar specifically, had spiraled downward into a toilet bowl of militancy and fundamentalism, resulting in an uptick in strategic kidnappings, suicide bombings, and beheadings by the Taliban. “You will not meet with the Taliban. They are dogs. I will not arrange it,” he said, uncharacteristically bullish.
Then, in July 2010, the floods came. In a matter of months, more than 20 million people got fucked by a deluge of biblical proportions. It was nuts. The water cut a swath through all of Pakistan, from the very top to the bottom. The damage to the nation’s infrastructure set the country back 20 years. Reports are that it’ll cost upward of a billion dollars in aid to do much good, but to date only an estimated $100 million has made it into the country. President Asif Ali Zardari—a notorious ex-con known also as “Mr. 10 Percent” who some believe is responsible for the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto, who also happened to be his wife—has notoriously sticky fingers, and it can safely be assumed that a big chunk of that got stuck in Islamabad, the country’s capital. Once the water started to recede I called Naeem again, and after wiring him some cash to repair the flood damages to his home, he agreed it was time for me to come. I got on the plane.
The author returns to the edge of the decimated Darra gun markets, now under Taliban control.
Naeem is native to the region, and he was our guide for
VBS.TV’s 2006 report on the illegal gun markets of Darra Adamkhel
, in the tribal areas sandwiched between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a fun story about a serious place, and Naeem was upbeat and happy the entire time. He’s a natural and eager storyteller, riffing constantly as he toured us through the primitive mall of handmade knockoff artillery. But today he is serious, dour even.
It’s an important distinction. When I’d arrived that first time, along with Eddy Moretti, Vice’s creative director, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s training camps had been temporarily knocked out of Afghanistan thanks to America’s let’s-bomb-the-fuck-out-of-the-Afghanis campaign following 9/11. Many of the remaining Taliban soldiers and Al-Qaeda types had scrambled like roaches over the porous border into Pakistan, in the southern part of the hilly tribal areas. It’s here that the Taliban started to plot their comeback, while simultaneously beating up the Pakistan Army, which was desperately trying to contain and eliminate this dark new presence in Pakistan. Despite cautionary media reports, the battle was well to the south of where we were, so it felt dangerous but not to the point where we were shitting our pants.
Plus Naeem had arranged for our own tribal militia escort, which always helps. We ended up shooting machine guns and eating lamb with the locals, in an area that no Western journalist had visited in a very, very long time. Basically, it was fun.
This is what life has been like after the 2010 floods in the Camp Kuroona area of Pakistan.
Today, the Taliban has pressed its way north all the way to the top of the tribal areas that bleed right to the city perimeter of Peshawar and into the urban centers. And the gun markets of Darra Adamkhel have become one of their strongholds. It’s creepy now, vastly different from 2006. The enemy look exactly like the locals, so it’s impossible for anyone to figure out who is who and what is what. “Trust no one” is the vibe.
After settling in to my empty hotel, I arranged to meet with the bureau chief of the Daily Times in Peshawar, Iqbal Khattak, to get the lay of the land. He said that government aid isn’t reaching flood victims, and explained how lawmakers’ inability to settle disputes has created a power vacuum. There is, he said, a new opportunity for the Taliban to step in and win over the people by helping them rebuild and rule on land disputes where floods have washed away the mud walls that used to demarcate property lines.
It’s a classic gangster move, one that criminal organizations have used around the world for centuries. One day the Taliban, with its 30-plus splinter militant groups, creates chaos and brings a wrath of hellfire everywhere from Karachi to Lahore to Peshawar, and the next it reaches out to help out the downtrodden and disaffected. Fear, murder, hugs, money, fear, murder, hugs, money, and around it goes.
When I asked Khattak if the Taliban in Pakistan were as ruthless as their Afghani predecessors, he recounted a bloody stretch in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. “They were beheading people,” he said. “Everyone, including dancers, singers, and women. They’d dig up the graves, take out the bodies, and disgrace the corpses. Humiliation comes next, after all these things.”
Taliban members protest and shout anti-American slogans at the site of a US drone attack on a madrassa in a Damadola village.
In 2008 Khattak met with Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who explained, in part, the effects of the American drone attacks. “I can campaign for three months to win hearts and minds of the local population—I may get 50 or 60 people to my side,” Mehsud told Khattak. “But a single drone attack brings the whole village to my side.”
When the US started using Predator drone planes to bomb the militants inside Pakistan, it pissed off not only the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but everyone, from civilians to the government. It was a blatant violation of the nation’s sovereignty. Not to mention the countless times drones have been known to miss targets and obliterate innocent people at wedding parties instead of extremists.
Ironically, Baitullah Mehsud was eventually killed by a drone attack, so they do sometimes hit their targets. But Khattak’s analysis is that it is America who is radicalizing the area. “You are attacked, you are targeted, so let’s join them,” he explained. “The drone attacks in Pakistan may be providing the Americans with short-term gains, but the long-term losses are far, far bigger. This drone technology is totally counterproductive, and the more quickly we do away with this the more we will be able to secure our future. Otherwise we are sinking the whole population in this crisis.”
A man, on orders of the local leader of Taliban splinter group Lashker-e-Islam, executes two “criminals” in Spinqamer, Pakistan.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the last people to interview Osama bin Laden and one of Pakistan’s most respected journalists, broke down the Taliban for me. He described how it is nearly indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and how members still follow the lead of Afghani Taliban. But what I really wanted to learn more about were the “suiciders,” as my filmer Inam likes to call them.
Taliban helpers clean up after the execution.
“The Taliban are in their 20s and 30s, even the top commanders,” Yusufzai told me. “They have an endless supply of suicide bombers. They can afford to send bombers to insignificant targets—they can send a wave of suicide bombers to attack one particular target… 10, even 20 people to raid one place. They are all willing to die.” When I asked about their methods of persuasion, he added, “The way they brainwash people is very effective. I received a call from [the Taliban’s] master of the suicide bombers. He said, ‘I can turn a young man into a suicide bomber in half an hour, even 20 minutes. It is very easy. There is so much anger among our people, among Muslims, against America.’”
America’s war on terror has turned into a complete clusterfuck. The battle in Afghanistan sends a constant flood of guns, refugees, militants, and heroin flowing into Pakistan. Heroin is now actually cheaper than hashish in cities like Lahore, and the Kalashnikov culture, the foundation of which was laid 30 years ago when the CIA financed the mujahideen (please refer to “A Ding-Dong’s Guide” on pp. 108-109), is all-consuming. It’s taken a devastating toll on Pakistan and created the next generation of militants at the same time. Well done.
“There is so much anger against the allies of the Western countries, like the Pakistani state, the Pakistan Army,” Yusufzai said. “People have suffered and they are willing to take revenge. All villages have been attacked, women and children have been killed. So the Taliban can very easily motivate these families to supply suicide bombers.” Yusufzai added another thing he’d learned meeting with the head suicide-bomber recruiter: “He said, ‘You are an old man, but if you sit with me for half an hour I can turn you into a suicide bomber.’ He is very confident in what he is doing.”
Members of Tehreek-e-Taliban relax with a game of volleyball in Mamoon Zai village.
It boils down to reactivity, retaliation, and revenge. The more I spoke to people in the region, the more I heard it. “In Pashtun society, taking revenge is very important,” Yusufzai continued. “You know, there is a saying in Pashto: ‘Even if you take revenge after 100 years, it’s not too late.’ And most of these I believe are retaliation attacks. Suicide bombings and the use of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are the two most effective means of weaponry that the militants can use in this part of the world.”
In the Taliban strongholds, on the edge of the tribal areas, I found police stations blown to smithereens by the suiciders. The soldiers rebuilding the stations are Taliban hunters—they were nice and had funny bazooka-like guns made in the Soviet Union in the mid-80s. They hate the Taliban. They work for no money with primitive artillery in insanely dangerous environments because they want peace restored. “My view is that they consider us both enemy and infidel,” one soldier said. “We have lost many men in our fight against them.” I asked him what would help the situation. “We are here waiting and dying for the country earning minimum wage—it would be nice if the government helped us,” he answered.
Another explained, “We have to shoot [Taliban] because they are our enemy. Al-Qaeda and Taliban are working together and ruining our country. They are outsiders from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Arabs.”
The more people I interviewed the clearer it became: The Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan have abandoned the holier pursuit of imposing strict Islamic law on the region—that’s just bullshit sloganeering at this point. That is, at least until the current multifront battle ends, which won’t be for a long time yet. For now they are simply young, pissed off, and vengeful beyond belief.
They are reacting to decades of interventionist not-so-covert flip-flopping foreign policy dating back to the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations. It’s a funny footnote that the American Stinger missiles given to the mujahideen to help defeat the Soviets in the 80s are reportedly still in use by the Taliban today. It wasn’t so long ago that Reagan held them to a different ideal: “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers,” he said. God, I love that quote.
Peshawar is the birthplace of Al-Qaeda, where Osama bin Laden put together its initial framework before going on to become the most wanted man in the world. The Jamaat-i-Islami is a multimillion-member Islamic movement widely considered in Pakistan to be “Al-Qaeda friendly.” Before leaving, I tracked down the provincial secretary of Jamaat-i-Islami, Shabir Ahmed Khan.
Hakeem Ullah Mehsud, the maybe-dead leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, smiling at a press conference, shortly before maybe being killed by an American drone attack.
As soon as we sat down, I could tell he was pissed. “I do have a message to give,” he said. “The problems surrounding us here are not caused by Taliban or Al-Qaeda. It’s the Western policies. If Westerners are going to kill and murder us then we will have to fight back. Until they start treating us with respect and begin respecting our religion and customs, I don’t think the issues will be resolved.”
He continued, uninterrupted: “There’s a saying: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ America is playing the role of an enemy and Al-Qaeda is the reaction to it. People need to realize this. No one has the right to dictate over a free country. They force their political and social policies on us, which they have no right to.” It was hard to disagree.
“They have the right to be friends with us,” he exclaimed. “We have fought for our rights. America has shed blood in Afghanistan for nine years and hasn’t accomplished anything by it. We will fight. Not 10, not 20, we will fight for 50 years if we have to. We want to show the cruel side of America. They are committing a big crime. They are killing us. They have made our children orphans or have even killed our kids. So we aren’t the criminals. They are.”
Back at the Pearl Continental, I packed my bags, grabbed some food, and prepared to split town. One of my final missions was to find some Al-Qaeda and Taliban training videos to include in the filmic companion to this piece for VBS.TV, but when we went to the underground market all I could find was Bollywood and pornography. Inam put out some feelers and received a call back. He said, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”
When he returned he handed me a flash drive. “Videos,” he said. I inserted it into my computer and was startled to find hardcore execution and suicide-bombing videos. The kind that make you go pale and vomit. When I asked who delivered them, he gestured to suggest a man with a big beard and said it was compliments of one of the militant splinter groups I’d been hearing so much about. “They just want it published,” he said.
It occurred to me that the militants now knew where I was staying. Images of severed heads in my brain, I hopped into my car, drove to Islamabad, and went to the safe, plush confines of the Marriott to kill time before flying stateside. A group of girls were there celebrating a birthday and some diplomats were eating sushi. Yes, sushi. In Pakistan. I canceled my flight home, got a room, and slept for 14 hours instead.
Watch Suroosh navigate Taliban strongholds and take aim with some Russian-made artillery on VBS.TV later this month.