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THE PASHTUN CODE
How a long-ungovernable tribe may determine the future of Afghanistan.
by ISABEL HILTON
Issue of 2001-12-03
Posted 2001-12-03

I arrived in Pakistan on a warm afternoon in October, and several days later I set out by car, heading northwest, from the capital, Islamabad, toward the borderlands with Afghanistan and the land of the Pashtun. The American bombing raids had begun a few days before, and from Afghanistan came murky television images, along with messages of fear and despair from civilians and of defiance from the leaders of the Taliban, who were, unbeknownst to most of us at the time, entering a violent endgame. Here, along the border, another drama was being played out, in the passions and politics of the Pashtun people, men and women whose tortured loyalties reflected a mystical attachment to a land that they believed was theirs. Not every Pashtun is an Afghani—a citizen of Afghanistan—but every Pashtun considers himself an Afghan, and the Pashtun have always regarded themselves as the country's natural rulers. Not only were they prepared to die in support of their claim but many were prepared to do so in the name of a brutal and repressive regime, that of the Taliban.

About sixty miles from Islamabad, I found myself on a bridge, on the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar. Downstream was the Attock Fort, a spectacular structure with crenellated ochre walls, built in 1581 by the Moghuls, India's Muslim dynasty, to fortify the Afghan frontier. Upstream was a confluence of two great rivers: the Kabul, which had travelled some two hundred and fifty miles from its source, in the mountains west of the Afghan capital; and the Indus, one of the legendary rivers of Asia, which begins high in the Tibetan Himalayas. The two rivers grudgingly accommodated each other. The Kabul was a sludgy burnt-sugar color, the Indus a brilliant blue-green, like a child's painting of a mountain stream. Below the confluence, the two colors remained clearly visible, one river with two distinct streams, as though geography as well as history wished to make a point about this place and the boundary that it marks—between the land of the Pashtun and the Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan.

The Pashtun have never taken kindly to boundaries, and even less to boundaries imposed by others. Today, there are thought to be at least twenty million Pashtun, and their territory straddles the borders that the British drew, in the eighteen-nineties, through some of the wildest and least governable terrain on earth. For the British, this area—sometimes referred to as Pashtunistan—represented the extreme edge of the Raj, their greatest colonial territory. Beyond was the kingdom of Afghanistan, a mosaic of ethnic groups which, since 1747, had been ruled by Pashtun kings. As the British expanded their empire into northwest India, they clashed with, but never subjugated, the tribal Pashtun. Twice, they invaded Afghanistan, in 1839 and 1878. Both excursions ended in defeat. By 1893, the British had finally come to see that although they would never conquer the region, it could be made to serve as a convenient buffer between the Raj and the Russian empire.

The job of delineating a border was entrusted to Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the colonial government of India. Durand wrestled with the difficulties of marshalling the unconquerable and disorderly Pashtun on an orderly imperial map. His solution was to cut through their territories, dividing them between the Raj and the kingdom of Afghanistan, in the hope that the Pashtun on his side of the line would go along with the division and allow themselves to be absorbed into the Raj. They did not. In 1901, several uprisings later, the British again admitted defeat.

Their next solution was to treat the Pashtun lands as a second, inner frontier. If they could not be conquered, they could at least be a prickly hedge against intruders. The British sliced off a new province from the settled plains of the Punjab—which they named the North-West Frontier Province—and left the Pashtun tribal belt largely unaccounted for, a loosely administered territory where, all sides acknowledged, the colonial rulers would not attempt to impose their law. The tribal belt exists to this day and remains an ungoverned land. Formally part of Pakistan, in reality it is a spongy no-go area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a land of fierce and complicated tribal loyalties and equally ferocious tribal feuds, of gunrunning, drug dealing, and smuggling, where a nighttime traveller must move in armed convoy and where the only law that prevails is Pashtunwali—the code of the Pashtun. Although history, and outsiders, have tried to divide the Pashtun, they have failed to break the emotional, cultural, and social ties that bind Pashtun communities across this troubled frontier. Roughly half in Pakistan, half in Afghanistan, the Pashtun are as troublesome today to anyone in search of a neat political order as they were when the British contended with this last unsubdued corner of the empire. Their loyalties have never been more in doubt or more important. Are the Pashtun loyal to the Taliban? (The majority of the Taliban are Pashtun.) Are they loyal to Pakistan? Or are they loyal only to themselves? As the battle for Afghanistan makes its way into Pashtun territories, the Pashtun have begun to demand what they see as their historic role—the right to rule Afghanistan. How that demand is answered will help to determine not just the future of the country but the stability of the entire region.


Peshawar, until 1893 the winter capital of Afghanistan, is now a frontier outpost in Pakistan. No longer the small town that served for centuries as a gateway between Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, today it is a noisy, choking, overcrowded city of more than a million people. In its public face, it's a city of men, heavily bearded and dressed in the loose overshirt and baggy trousers of the traditional shalwar kameez. Variations in color—pale blue, pale green, white, and occasionally light brown—do nothing to dispel the sense of uniformity. Men throng the potholed streets and lounge in doorways while boys hurry alongside the traffic, delivering glasses of green tea on brass trays. Bicycles and donkeys compete for space with tightly packed minibuses, whose last-minute passengers spill onto the roof or hang recklessly off the back. Women are anonymous to the point of invisibility—blue-robed ghosts, threading their way through the bazaar or crouched by the roadside, their children in their laps.

The Pashtun tribal lands around Peshawar are now out of bounds to foreigners. Getting into them has always required a permit, and none are being issued. "It is not safe," a courteous but implacable Peshawar official told me. "And if we catch you trying to get in," he added with a friendly smile, "you will be arrested." The ban had been imposed in the name of security, when the bombing began: tribal emotions were running high, and a foreigner might be attacked on sight. But the controls to the south of Peshawar, I had heard, were not too effective, and I wanted to visit the village of Darra Adam Khel, which is notorious for the small workshops where, since the eighties, tribal gunsmiths have been turning out perfect copies of anything from an M16 to a rocket launcher.

Getting there was going to require a little subterfuge. I bought a woman's version of the shalwar kameez and wound the wide scarf that comes with it around my head and shoulders, hiding my hair and the lower part of my face. The effect was to render me as anonymous as the women I passed on the street.

With a driver and a guide, I set off south. A few miles out of town, some trucks were stopped at a police post. "Keep your head covered," the guide said, "and don't look out of the window." The police waved us through. We drove along a wide, barren valley, through a landscape dotted with square windowless forts—brick structures with defensive walls more than twenty feet high. They looked medieval, like ancient military towers, but they were family homes—a contemporary architecture of tribal violence. There were slogans painted on the walls. "Jihad is an obligation, like prayer," one read. "Victory or martyrdom," another said. "Telephone now for military training." A number was provided.

At first sight, Darra Adam Khel seemed an unremarkable village—a string of ramshackle single-story houses and one-room shops on a main street. We drove along slowly, not stopping, for fear of my being detected. I scanned the shopwindows, and my guide pointed to small plastic bags containing a blackish substance. "Opium paste," he said. Crammed into other storefronts was an astonishing range of military hardware—automatic weapons, rifles, shotguns, land mines, even a few rocket launchers. I counted thirty gun shops before my guide warned that I was attracting attention.

We pulled up beside an imposing fortified house—a watchtower was built in one corner—where we saw a young man sitting under a tree, chatting with an elder. My guide exchanged a few words with the man. I kept my face covered. Pashtun hospitality prevailed. He smiled and nodded and approached the car. Like many Pashtun, he had blue eyes and light-brown hair. His name was Wazir Afridi—a name that identified him as a member of the Afridi, one of the most powerful of the Pashtun tribes. He said he was "about thirty." He was happy to talk about the skills of the local gunsmiths.

"In the bazaar, you can get copies of the most sophisticated weapons," he said. "You can get copies of a Kalashnikov here—a gun that costs eighty thousand rupees—for twenty thousand," or a little more than three hundred dollars. But the gunsmiths had stopped making really heavy weapons, he told me. "Five years ago, we decided not to make any more rocket launchers. Now there's a five-hundred-thousand-rupee fine if anyone disobeys."

Even before the present crisis, Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, had been trying to rid the country of one of the dangerous legacies of the last Afghan war: the staggering quantities of military hardware left over in the tribal belt. The arrival of modern weaponry in the nineteen-eighties, when there was an abundance of American support for the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had had an alarming effect on traditional Pashtun tribal feuds. Instead of attacking their local rivals with clubs or flintlock rifles, the Pashtun fought one another with automatic weapons. Carrying automatic weapons was now banned in Peshawar (although I saw dozens, mostly slung over the shoulders of bodyguards), and a strict practice of licensing had been implemented to discourage the manufacture of new ones. As a result, the gun trade in Darra Adam Khel was depressed.

"This is our business," Wazir Afridi said. "No government has had any say here since 1901. This is a tribal area. We have our own traditions and laws. The business was flourishing until Musharraf imposed his ban."

Wasn't it dangerous, I asked, to have so many weapons? Wazir Afridi shook his head. "We have the lowest rate of gun-related deaths here. Now we negotiate disputes in the jirga"—the ad-hoc Pashtun tribal council that operates on every social level, from the village to the nation.

In Peshawar, I had met a Pashtun tribal leader named Lateef Afridi, who told me that his father, two of his brothers, and two of his cousins had been killed in tribal disputes. "When the Pashtun have a family feud, they now blast each other with land mines," Lateef Afridi said. (After his father died, Afridi discovered that he'd inherited some missiles—"Apparently, my father had bought them, but I've never bothered to pick them up.") These disputes are part of Pashtun life, but they disappear in the face of an external threat. The Pashtun have a saying: "Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousins, we and our cousins against the enemy." It was a common enemy, I was told repeatedly, that accounted, in part, for the Pashtun support of the Taliban. The Pashtun had fought the Soviet Union when it occupied Afghanistan. They had fought for control among themselves and with warlords of other ethnic groups after the Soviet troops left. When the Taliban came to power, in the mid-nineties, the Pashtun acknowledged them as tribal brothers. And, now that the United States had attacked them, the Pashtun were rallying to their defense. I saw evidence of this everywhere in Peshawar: there were Pashtun roadside stalls for collecting money and blood for the Taliban, and I was regularly harangued in the street by Pashtun men who proclaimed themselves ready to join the jihad against the United States. According to Wazir Afridi, fifty thousand men from his district had said they were willing to fight. The whole area, he told me, is backing the Taliban, "their Pashtun and Muslim brothers."

At the time—the bombing was in its seventh day—no one I spoke to in Peshawar could imagine that the Taliban would lose. The United States was seen as just another foreign aggressor, and, like the Soviet Union, it, too, would be chased off. Now, with the Taliban in collapse, tribal interests are again paramount. The Pashtun are determined to reëstablish their rule—in whatever form it may take.


Violence in Pashtun society, the American anthropologist Cherry Lindholm has argued, is learned in infancy. Lindholm spent nine months living in the female quarters of a Pashtun household in Swat, in northern Pakistan. Hers is a rare study of life behind a family compound's walls, and her descriptions of the domestic culture, published in the collection "Frontier Perspectives," are hair-raising. Pashtun family members, she writes, are engaged in a permanent and often violent struggle for power in which only two human types are recognized—the weak and the strong. "The strong survive, take power, and gain prestige," Lindholm writes, because they learn from their earliest years the value of "aggression, egotism, pride, and fearlessness," and must be "adept at the art of manipulation and intrigue, and above all trust no one." Domestic violence is regarded as the main entertainment of village life, and women routinely display bruises and scars they have received at the hands of their husbands. (The term for a husband who does not beat his wife is "a man with no penis.")

Adam Nayyar, a fifty-two-year-old former nuclear chemical engineer, who abandoned his career when Pakistan began trying to build the bomb, in the mid-seventies, is now an ethnomusicologist and an expert on Pashtun culture. I spoke with him at his apartment in Islamabad. "Pashto is the only language I know in which the word for 'cousin' is the same as the word for 'enemy,' " he said. I had asked him to explain Pashtunwali—the code that has regulated Pashtun society for centuries and which, I had been told, was one of the components of the Taliban philosophy.

Pashtunwali, Nayyar said, is based on the absolute obligations of hospitality, sanctuary, and revenge. The Pashtun draw their identity from Islam—they believe they are direct descendants of Qais, a companion of Muhammad— but their interpretation of Islamic law arises out of their own tribal code. "Under Muslim law, for instance, girls can inherit," Nayyar said. "But women never get anything from the Pashtun." In tribal Pashtun society, he told me, three things are essential. "They all begin with 'z' in Pashto: zan, zar, and zamin—women, gold, and land. Possessing them is essential to Pashtunness—to doing Pashtun as opposed to being Pashtun. And if you lose them—if you lose your land, or your women are dishonored—you're out. There is no caste system, so there is no reëntry further down the social scale. You are just out. You end up as a night watchman in Karachi or something."

Nayyar recalled witnessing a marital dispute being settled by a local jirga in the early seventies. A soldier had discovered that his wife was having an affair with a tailor and had called for a tribal council to impose punishment for the injury to his honor. The jirga ordered that the tailor and the errant wife be tied to a tree and shot. Everyone went to watch. "I remarked afterward to a Pashtun friend that it had been horrible," Nayyar recalled. "He agreed. It was a shame for the tree, he said."

The Taliban took Pashtunwali to extremes far beyond the tribal norm. Culturally, they were Pashtun, but their ideology was more fundamentalist: they were uncompromising in their aim to return society to the purity of the seventh century, the era of Muhammad. Their approach to women was fanatically severe. Purdah was the traditional Pashtun practice, but the Taliban policy of publicly beating women who were deemed to walk too noisily was not.


Islam is, of course, fundamental to Pakistan's identity. The Muslim faith was the reason that Pakistan came into being as a country, separate from India, with its Hindu majority, when the British left in 1947. Partition—the painful separation from India of its former province of Sind, along with the Muslim districts of Punjab and Bengal, the North-West Frontier Province, and Baluchistan—precipitated savage communal violence on both sides of what was to become the border; millions of Muslims poured into Pakistan as Hindus fled in the other direction. It was a chaotic and unpromising beginning for a state that was already riven with social and ethnic divisions. Pakistan was not a state that most of the Pashtun wanted to join. Like the Baluchis and the Sindhis, they were fearful of losing their identity in this new country dominated by the Punjabis, who made up more than half the population. The Pashtun resisted, as they had resisted the British. The story of that resistance is one that successive Pakistani governments have tried to erase, but which, I discovered, has lived on in the Pashtun nationalism of the region.

Badsha Khan was a Pashtun leader in the twenties who promoted Pashtun nationalism. He doesn't feature in many history books. I learned of him from photographs I saw in offices and homes around Peshawar. He founded a political movement, the Khudai Khidmatgars, to fight for independence from the British. The movement's popular name—the Red Shirts—came from the members' uniforms, which were dyed with red brick dust. Like Mahatma Gandhi, Badsha Khan believed that nonviolence was the most effective weapon against colonial rule, and although he was a devout Muslim, he mistrusted the political influence of the maulanas, or Islamic scholars. The reforms he promoted—education, sanitation, road building—were secular.

Despite the Pashtun propensity for violence, Badsha Khan's message took hold. Thousands of followers joined his nonviolent movement, campaigning to get rid of the British and win autonomy for Pashtunistan within the Indian state. But, when the British left, an independent Pashtunistan was not on offer. In 1947, a referendum proposed a choice only between India and Pakistan. Badsha Khan called for a boycott, and just seven per cent of the population of the North-West Frontier Province voted. Nevertheless, the Pakistan option was deemed to have been approved. The Red Shirts were branded traitors, the movement was banned, and their long fight against the colonizers was all but eradicated from the public record.

One evening, I went to uncover the traces of the Red Shirts' movement. In a mansion two hours' drive from Peshawar, I sat on a deep veranda, as servants offered tea and cakes, and chatted with Begum Nasim Wali Khan, Badsha Khan's daughter-in-law.

Badsha Khan and his son, Abdul Wali Khan, she told me, had paid a price for their resistance: they had spent many years in prison. But this did little to persuade them to abandon their Pashtun identity. As Wali Khan once put it, "I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five." When Badsha Khan died, in 1988, hostilities between the Soviets and the mujahideen in southern Afghanistan ceased for a day so that his funeral cortège could travel safely to Jalalabad. In the mid-eighties, Wali Khan had founded a political party, the Awami National Party, which campaigned for a secular democracy. Now he was an old man, too sick on the evening I called to meet with visitors. He was not too sick, though, to have enraged local religious leaders and their Pashtun warrior faithful by declaring his support for the United States' war against the Taliban.

The people of the tribal belt, his wife told me, were sympathetic to their fellow-Afghans—their Pashtun brothers. But that did not necessarily mean that they supported the Taliban. There was, not surprisingly, a division within the Pashtun. There were those who, stirred by a small group of religious parties that were promoting hard-line Islamism, wished to fight alongside the Taliban and had denounced her husband as a traitor. And there were those who, like Wali Kahn, argued for the separation of politics and religion. It had been the same in the eighties, she said, when the Awami National Party had criticized the holy war against the Russians. The Party followers had seen it as a war between superpowers—between the Soviets and the Americans—and not as an Islamic cause. "We were called kafirs," she said. "Nonbelievers. Indian agents, Russian agents." She shrugged. "But this is the way we think."


The military has ruled Pakistan for twenty-six of its fifty-four years, alternating power with a series of corrupt and inept civilian governments. It ruled the country during the war against the Soviets, in the rather sinister person of General Zia ul-Haq. And it rules the country now, in the person of General Musharraf. On a mundane level, Pakistan does not look like a militarized society: except when demonstrations are anticipated, you do not see soldiers on every corner. Nevertheless, the country is shaped and dominated by military concerns.

Chief among these concerns is a preoccupation with Kashmir. Pakistanis believe that Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, should have become part of their country at Partition. Pakistan and India have fought two inconclusive wars over Kashmir since then, and in the last decade, Pakistan claims, seventy thousand Kashmiris have died in rebellion against what they describe as an Indian occupation. It is an open secret that Pakistan's powerful military intelligence wing—the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.)—has sponsored armed groups in Kashmir to support the long-running popular resistance. It is also well established that the I.S.I. was a backer of the holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. For Musharraf—who, after September 11th, aligned himself with the United States against the Taliban—the unwanted repercussions of the I.S.I.'s involvement in both regions derive directly from policies pursued by General Zia ul-Haq.

General Zia seized power in 1977 and soon thereafter the man he had overthrown, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged. In April, 1979, during the Carter Presidency, the United States suspended economic and military aid to Pakistan and introduced a number of sanctions. Eight months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in an attempt to save its tottering Communist regime. Zia now saw enemies on all sides: to the west, a militant Shiite revolution in Iran; to the south and east, India; and now, next door, in Afghanistan, India's ally the Soviet Union. Pakistan needed to have a friendly government in Afghanistan, Zia decided. Islam was the flag he raised to rally resistance against the Soviets.

Suddenly, Zia's fortunes were transformed. Ronald Reagan was now in office, and the sanctions fell away. The Reagan Administration provided $3.2 billion in cash and arms, despite Zia's nuclear program and human-rights abuses, and Peshawar became the hub of the anti-Soviet jihad, awash with money, spies, refugees, and arms.

In the recruiting grounds for the jihad—the Afghan refugee camps, which were rapidly spreading around Peshawar—young men whose tribal links had been ruptured became ready targets for a fundamentalist message. In that decade of easy money, hundreds of madrasahs—the all-male religious schools that teach a particularly severe and absolutist version of Islam—were set up in the North-West Frontier Province, offering Afghan refugees and Pakistani militants free education, food, and military training. The jihad also attracted thousands of international recruits—including young Saudi fighters such as Osama bin Laden—who moved to Peshawar and brought with them more men, more money, and an even more militant form of Islam, Wahabbism.


Asfundiyar Khan, the grandson of the Pashtun leader Badsha Khan, whom I met in Islamabad ten days after the United States began bombing, described to me what the time of the anti-Soviet jihad was like. Asfundiyar, who is fifty, is the president of the Awami National Party. He was first arrested at a political meeting when he was thirteen, and has been in and out of prison ever since.

"The Afghans have never accepted foreign domination," Asfundiyar told me. "But their resistance had always been in the cause of nationalism. Zia changed that. Backed by the United States and its millions of dollars and its Stinger missiles, Zia based a war against Soviet intervention on religion." There had been, until then, an acknowledged division between mosque and state, between the maulanas and political power. Civilian politicians paid homage to religious ideas, but there were so many versions of Islam that any attempt to elevate a single dogma to a prime political position led to conflict with rival followers of the Prophet. Politicians had learned to tread carefully. But, when Zia seized power, that changed. "Every Afghan refugee fleeing the war had to go to one of the fundamentalist groups for tents, food, weapons," Asfundiyar said. "People were pushed into the arms of the fundamentalists." The Awami National Party, he pointed out, is secular, liberal, and democratic. "You can't imagine what we went through, trying to keep it going, as the United States was funding the jihad. I remember sitting with a cousin in a bank when a man came in to cash a check for twelve and a half million dollars. This was the kind of man you would never have shaken hands with. How could I fight that kind of money?"

He recalled how marginal figures were changed overnight into powerful politicians. "Like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," he said. Hekmatyar was a radical Afghan Islamist who was picked by Zia's I.S.I. agents, and the C.I.A., to help lead the new holy war. "When Hekmatyar was made a leader, he had scarcely one bicycle and one bedroom to his name," Asfundiyar said. He mentioned Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, another mujahideen patronized by the I.S.I. "Sayyaf used to sell socks out of a basket in the bazaar. Suddenly, he and all these other leaders had Land Cruisers and Pajeros. None of them had a political organization inside Afghanistan. They had private armies, built in Peshawar with American dollars."

Asfundiyar's recollections reminded me of a question posed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser. "What was more important in the world view of history?" he asked. "The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

"We used to be a moderate Muslim society," Sarfraz Khan, a Pashtun professor of Central Asian history, whom I met at the University of Peshawar, told me. "In 1978, when there were moves in Afghanistan toward land reform, literacy campaigns, the emancipation of women, some of the Pashtun here in Peshawar, in the intelligentsia, thought it a good thing. But others—who mattered—were afraid it might happen here, too." He recalled a time when Afghani girls went to school, when women were seen without the veil, when television was a normal part of life. "Then the fundamentalists were promoted in every sphere. There was persecution—careers were blighted, businesses ruined, people were killed." Many liberal Afghan exiles who opposed the jihad were murdered in Peshawar. He grimaced. "I was pushed out of my job in 1984," he said. "People like me—who criticized the jihad, hundreds, thousands of us—were persecuted. You had to go into hiding. Our state was doing it, and you, the West, were pumping money in."

Zia had hoped that his holy war would lead to a government in Afghanistan that was friendly to Pakistan. But he never saw the outcome: he died in a mysterious plane crash, on August 17, 1988. Six months later, the Russians conceded defeat and withdrew, and the Americans lost interest. The money stopped. And, with the Russian enemy gone, the mujahideen fought among themselves. By the following year, twenty-five thousand Afghanis had died, and the country sank into a civil war that lasted six years.

The Taliban movement came to prominence in the southern city of Kandahar, in 1994, when its members—former madrasah students—gained control of an important trade route that had been subject to interference from local bandits, warlords, and fighting tribes. A grateful Benazir Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, abandoned the former mujahideen and rewarded the Taliban with her support. The Taliban went on to conquer most of the country. Only in the north did the resistance prevail, under the leadership of a Tajik commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. By 1996, most of the warlords were in exile. By then, Pakistan, too, was harboring its own radical Islamic movement—one that had flowered in the hothouse of the Afghan war.


Lieutenant General Hamid Gul was the most influential figure in the I.S.I. in the eighties, and for a time its director. He was responsible for the military doctrine that reinforced Zia's policy toward Afghanistan. Called "strategic depth," the theory was that, in the event of an invasion by India, Pakistan would need Afghanistan as a military hinterland, a place of retreat and continued resistance. This doctrine may have been, as a former colleague of Gul's put it, "hoax and humbug," but that didn't much matter: for Gul, it was enough to justify a decade's worth of meddling and military intervention.

I met General Gul, who is now retired, in his house in a military district of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, where he lives in spacious comfort. I was shown into a reception room, and I sat on a sofa waiting for the General to appear. Beside me, on a low table, a piece of the Berlin Wall was on display—a gift, it seemed, from the West German foreign-intelligence service. The engraving read, "With deepest respect to Lt. General Hamid Gul who helped deliver the first blow."

General Gul, I'd been told, believed that he had set in motion the events that destroyed the Soviet Union. He was, it appeared, not entirely alone in that view. He was a key proponent of the policy of fighting the Soviet invasion as a holy war, rather than as a national struggle. He had boasted of how he recruited radicals from all over the Muslim world—an Islamic international brigade, as he saw it—and had financed and encouraged the powerful Islamic militants who were now on the streets crying for Musharraf's downfall.

The General bustled into the room. He is a small man with a neat gray mustache, and was dressed in a shalwar kameez. He spoke rapidly, in long rhetorical bursts, and was eager to describe his strategic vision. He appeared to have no regrets, or doubts, about the legacy of his encouragement of Islamist extremists. If things had recently taken a dangerous turn, he argued, it was because the United States had made a critical mistake by neglecting the Taliban in the nineties and by attacking them now.

"The nation that gifted you your superpower status today—that nation is being ravaged and destroyed once again," he said. "I am very much a supporter of the Taliban, because they have brought to Afghanistan what it needed most—central authority, law and order, elimination of poppy cultivation, de-weaponization, all those things. It was like a miracle. I never thought they could do it in such a short time, but I saw it with my own eyes. Now you have destabilized a society that had stabilized. It's a great tragedy. A great cruelty, I would say. A great inhuman act."

The Taliban, he told me, had been pushed into a corner. If the United States had tried a different approach, things would have been different.

"And you could have got everything you wanted from the Taliban," he said, with the exasperated manner of a schoolmaster explaining an obvious point to a particularly obtuse pupil. "They would have been eating out of your hands. But you never talked to them, because you thought that they were not honorable. You thought you could pick up bin Laden like you picked up Noriega from Panama. But Afghanistan is not Panama."

General Gul resented the United States' relationship with India and its lack of support for Pakistan over Kashmir. He resented, too, the military sanctions that were imposed after Pakistan exploded six nuclear devices, in 1998. For him, the United States' decision to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda was the beginning of the apocalypse. "The jihad call has been given," he told me. "It will bring the Muslim masses out of their slumber. You cannot say that it's not a war against Islam, that it's a war against terrorism, nameless, faceless terrorism. Who are the terrorists? All the people who took part in this great tragedy are still hiding in America. I can't believe that it's just those nineteen people and they all got killed and that's that. There must be a very elaborate command-and-communications system, a logistics system, people who provided the safe haven as well as the training. And it is simply not possible that someone got six months' training flying the aircraft. You can't fly a jumbo jet like that. It's all bunkum. There had to be somebody manipulating the air traffic-control, somebody who switched off the warning system for the Pentagon. Somebody who asked the Air Force not to scramble for seventy-four minutes. Those people are still inside America."

The September 11th attack was, he said, part of a much bigger conspiracy, an attempted coup against the White House. I asked him who was behind it, anticipating as I put the question the answer that would come.

"Ariel Sharon," he replied. The Israeli Prime Minister, he said, had been enraged by George W. Bush's being in the White House. Al Gore was the man who would have done Israel's bidding. General Gul then listed what he claimed were Israel's demands: the destruction of Pakistan's nuclear program, the disarming of its Arab neighbors, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's "headquarters," and a definitive "no" to a Palestinian state. These, he concluded, were the real objectives of the September 11th attacks. "No wonder that Henry Kissinger and Shimon Peres and Netanyahu—all of them!—are saying, 'America, you have the might! Do it now! Destroy them! Finish them off!' It's a crusade against the Cross and the Crescent, both. And the inspiration? The same people who inspired the medieval crusades. The Jews."

The people of Pakistan, General Gul insisted, shared his view, except, he admitted, for what he called "a handful of intellectuals who occupy Islamabad. But what's Islamabad?" he went on. "Only an island in the sea called Pakistan. And a storm rising out of Pakistan will submerge Islamabad. General Musharraf seems to think that this storm is a small thing, that we are a tiny minority. He says that it's no more than ten or fifteen per cent of the people, without realizing that, even going by his figures—though they are not correct—ten per cent means fourteen million activists and fifteen per cent means twenty-one million. And these activists are the ready-to-die types. If they rise against the government, the government will not be able to stand up to them." He added, "The Army has been known to join the people."


General Gul's version of events was widely shared. I encountered it among government officials and intellectuals, in newspapers, and, every Friday, in demonstrations in Islamabad and Peshawar. The demonstrations followed the Friday-afternoon prayers. As a woman, I was barred from the mosques, but I listened to the speeches of the maulanas relayed on tinny loudspeakers to the streets outside, and the religious leaders I spoke to reiterated the same themes.

On the day following my meeting with General Gul—a Friday, he predicted, that would see tens of thousands on the streets—I went to see what was expected to be a large rally near some government offices in Islamabad. Many of the demonstrators were young madrasah students who repeated the line they had been taught by the maulanas—the same one that General Gul had laid out for me. From a loudspeaker truck, a group of bearded maulanas was haranguing the crowd. Bored members of television crews were foraging for action, and there was a momentary lifting of their spirits when a group burned an American flag. A blow-up plastic alien dangled from a tree. "It's President Bush," a demonstrator explained.

But the demonstrators numbered barely a thousand—fewer, it seemed, than the riot police who were lined up with shields and batons. I had by then attended several demonstrations and found that most of them were small, lacklustre affairs. General Gul had articulated a vision of steadily growing protests that could tear Pakistan apart, but, despite the efforts of the maulanas, there was little sign of that yet. This seemed to bear out what I had been told about the true position of the radical religious parties in Pakistan. The Pakistani people showed them a certain respect but did not seem to want them in power. They had never succeeded in elections and would have remained on the political fringes had they not secured the patronage of the I.S.I. The influence of Islamic extremists was felt more in the armed forces and in key appointments in the civil service, which many of them now occupied—again, thanks in part to General Gul's efforts. Musharraf was trying to dislodge these people. Several religious leaders had been put under house arrest, and Musharraf had reshuffled his Army command and the top echelon of the I.S.I. in order to rid them of fundamentalists who could form a covert opposition to his policies. Even so, there was a widespread feeling that the purge had not gone far enough. And it was possible that the maulanas preaching an inflammatory message in the mosques would eventually have a greater effect on their captive audience.


When the bombing began, Pakistan tried to close the border: thousands of Pashtun tribesmen had reportedly crossed into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, and, in the other direction, thousands of refugees, destitute already after two years of drought, were fleeing the war. The government ruled that no refugees would be admitted, and that any who entered illegally would, if discovered, be arrested and deported. In fact, refugees did come, bribing their way across the border or crossing at night along wilder, more dangerous routes. Then they vanished. Those who had relatives stayed with them. Others were forced to find a place in existing camps. None of them could declare their presence without risk of deportation. Officially, there were, therefore, no refugees.

When the war began, there were forty-eight camps in the North-West Frontier Province, providing a temporary home to some two million people. According to Lateef Afridi, the Pashtun leader, there have been two million refugees in this part of the world for twenty-two years, and now the problem will only worsen. "Two million people without an education, without homes, the agonizing victims of war," he said. "For these people, human rights and bloodshed have no meaning. Most of them are uneducated and addicted to fundamentalist ideas. Iran, Pakistan, the West—the world deserted them. They need a development package, infrastructure, they need a government."

A visit to one of these camps entails a bureaucratic obstacle course: one requires stamped letters of permission and, depending on the state of tension, an armed escort. The most notorious camp, Jalozai, a squalid plastic city just outside Peshawar where only the most destitute go, remains off limits. Others, like Kacha Gari, one of the largest camps in the Peshawar area, can be visited if one secures permission.

Kacha Gari is a bleak place, built on a strip of desert on the outskirts of the city in 1980. Before September 11th, it housed around seventy thousand people; the numbers have increased since then. To get there, you bounce along a dirt road through a moonscape created by the excavation of clay soil to make bricks. As I drove by, bricks were stacked in the sun to dry, and tall chimneys belched foul black smoke, from old tires being burned as fuel. When I appeared on the edge of the camp, I was surrounded by children with open sores on their arms. A man on crutches tugged my sleeve and led me along a rough sandy track to his house, a single mud-brick room, where a group of relations had gathered—an uncle and his five children, newly arrived from Afghanistan. They had been farmers, the uncle explained. Fifteen days ago, they sold their last cow to raise the money to come here. Their possessions were stacked in plastic bags in the corner. "I have lost everything," the old man said. "Here I am, a refugee."

Zahir Khan, the welfare officer for this section of the camp, gestured hopelessly at the miserable accommodation: "These were people who had a good life in our own country." Every day, he said, there are deaths, among the old and the children.

Finally, on November 7th, the Pakistani government agreed to open eleven new camps in the tribal areas. By then, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the newest group of refugees numbered about a hundred and thirty-five thousand.


In Islamabad, I met Sahar Shaba, a twenty-eight-year-old Afghan Pashtun, who is a member of the clandestine Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). A small woman, she was wearing a shalwar kameez, her scarf draped across her shoulders, and short dark hair loose around her face.

Shaba was born near Jalalabad, and, following Pashtun tradition, lived in an extended family of some thirty members. Had she stayed there, she said, she would have become a conventional Pashtun wife after an arranged marriage at fifteen. But her family fled to Pakistan as refugees from the Soviet Army. The camps, she confirmed, were dominated by fundamentalists. They banned music and television, as well as secondary education for girls, so when she heard of an underground girls' school in Quetta she begged her father to send her there. The school was run by RAWA. The organization, which is dedicated to the liberation of Afghan women, has a number of schools for girls. (It was founded by a young Afghan called Meena, who was murdered in 1987, at the age of thirty. The assassins, her followers believe, were members of the Afghan secret service.)

Shaba arranged for me to visit a camp near Peshawar where RAWA operates. The name of the camp, she insisted, must be kept secret. At an appointed time, a young Afghan man appeared at my hotel. I noticed with a jolt that he was wearing jeans and a shirt. I had grown used to a country in which the women were all but invisible and the men were uniformly dressed in shalwar kameez. His name, he said, was Nazeem and he was seventeen. We climbed into an ambulance and set off.

"When I was young," he said, "my father used to tell me that one day there would be peace and freedom. Now he is dead, and I am seventeen and there is still no peace. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar murdered my father because he was broad-minded, because he wanted democracy. I wish I had been born in any other poor miserable country except Afghanistan."

The camp we were going to, he told me, held some six thousand people and had been set up in the eighties by a liberal Pashtun leader. The camp was, he felt, the way Afghanistan used to be. "We have jirgas," he said, "and we all live together—Tajiks, Pashtun, Uzbeks. And you can wear what you like. In other camps, people throw stones at you if you dress like this."

We were driving through a landscape of neat sugarcane fields. About twenty miles outside Peshawar, we turned onto a dirt road in another desert of brick fields. On the other side rose a mud-brick settlement. We stopped in front of a door, and I stepped into a courtyard shaded by young trees. I spent the evening and the night in the camp. This was the first time, in more than two weeks in Peshawar, that I had been in the company of unveiled Afghan women. Night fell, and, as I was led to small houses set in secluded courtyards, I felt as though I were visiting a peaceful rural village. Sitting cross-legged on thin rugs laid out on hard earth floors, the women told me their stories. Under the Russians, they said, women had been forced to abandon the veil. Under the jihadis, they had been forced to wear it again. Under the Taliban, they had been forced to wear the burka and were confined to their homes. And, even now, with the Taliban gone, most women had not abandoned their bur-kas. They were afraid of what was next.

Fatima, a tall, attractive woman from Kandahar, had fled to Pakistan with her four children three days earlier, after her husband was seized by the Taliban. He had once been a doctor and she a teacher, but under the Taliban she stayed at home and he sold vegetables.

She glared at me. "What will you do for us?" she asked. "The Americans are killing people. I have no food for my children, and I at least am lucky that I crossed the border. I hate the Taliban," she continued. "I don't hate them for obeying the laws of Islam. I hate them because of the poverty, the fact that there are no jobs, the fact that if a woman is sick she can't go to the doctor." Her youngest son, a fierce two-year-old, sat on the floor and began to eat a flower that was crushed in his fist. He grimaced and spat it out. His mother began to cry.

Another mother, surrounded by her six children, described how her husband, too, had been taken by the Taliban. A former teacher, he had run a shoe shop where he secretly taught his youngest son. Six days earlier, the child had come running home, the keys to the shop clutched in his hand. His father had been taken away. The woman fled with her children. "I have very little hope that my husband is alive," she said. "People in Afghanistan have no tears left. We have seen our sons grow up and be shot." She told me stories of the Taliban's cruelty—the cutting off of hands and feet and the slitting of throats.

That night, I joined a group of RAWA activists for a meal of eggplant and meat served with rice. Two RAWA teachers talked about the children in their classes— the little girl haunted by the murder of twelve members of her family, the boy who wept when the bombing began, convinced that his remaining relatives would be killed. One day, they told me, there will be another Afghanistan, another government. "Then we can return to teach in our own country."

Women like Sahar Shaba and her fellow-refugees are consumed by another battle raging in Pashtun society, a battle between tribal tradition and modernity. For them, a future Afghanistan must have a place for women outside the confines of purdah, free of the restrictions of both fundamentalism and Pashtun custom.

The next morning, I left the camp just after dawn and drove back to Peshawar, a city where the maulanas were preaching the message of holy war and the women were invisible under their blue burkas. At a traffic light, a woman with a baby in her arms came to the van's window to beg. The camp, with its hopes of education for girls, of democracy and peace, its faded memories of a time in Afghanistan when teachers taught in schools and doctors attended to their patients, seemed like a dream. Nazeem shook my hand as we parted. "When we go back to Afghanistan," he said, "I will invite you to the public hanging of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."


In Peshawar, I witnessed the first attempt to rally broad support for convening a Loya Jirga in Afghanistan—the highest form of jirga, it would be a temporary national council that could decide on the country's new political structure without resorting to violence. It was organized by Pir Sayeed Ahmed Gailani, a Pashtun religious leader who was being backed, I was told, by the Pakistani government—an affiliation that had probably doomed the meeting before it began. It was held in a modern conference center and attended by a thousand men from all the tribal areas and from Afghanistan, as well as by a number of familiar Peshawar faces.

Pir Gailani swept onto a platform, a magisterial figure in black robes and a white turban. He seemed to be already auditioning for the office of Afghan Prime Minister. Local reporters scanned the rows of bearded faces, looking for figures of authority who would indicate how serious this attempt at organizing a viable alternative to the Taliban would be. They were disappointed. As speaker after speaker called for the return of the king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, to convene the Loya Jirga, it was finally noted that the King had sent no representative. Nor was there any senior figure from the Northern Alliance.

Many of the Pashtun's rivals in Afghanistan feel that a Loya Jirga would be simply a device to restore the Pashtun to power—an aim that traditional Pashtun certainly hope to achieve. Even among the Pashtun, though, authority has been eroded by twenty years of war and the rise of radical Islamism, which has become the focus for many in the refugee generations.

Some convoys have set off from the refugee camps, returning ragged families to what remains of their Afghan homes. But most refugees are holding back. They remember, Sahar Shaba, the RAWA activist told me, the last time that the Northern Alliance held power. "We would be deceiving ourselves," she said, "if we thought this was a real peace." What she sees, from her vantage point, is another version of a familiar story—warlords, in different guises, jockeying for positions of power. "The situation is getting worse day by day," an aide to Pir Gailani told me, "and there is no sign either of the Loya Jirga or of the broad-based government we proposed a month ago. If the United Nations does not act, the warlords will simply seize territory."

On November 15th, exiled mujahideen crossed the border from Peshawar and swept into Jalalabad to haggle with rival commanders for control of the city. In Kabul, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance, who was President of Afghanistan before the Taliban took power, also returned, on November 17th, apparently, with the intention of resuming his old job. And in the Pashtun heartland many local figures have emerged, positioning themselves to claim their historic right to rule Afghanistan. But their ethnic solidarity does not disguise their lack of a united leadership or their conflicting positions. Some are willing to strike a deal with the deserting Taliban commanders. Others see them as an obstacle to the greater purpose: the reunion of the Pashtun under the tenuous authority of Afghanistan's former king—a figure who carries no weight with the Northern Alliance. The political leadership of the Pashtun has been systematically undermined by the likes of Zia and General Gul, the I.S.I.'s veteran holy warrior, by the refugee camps and the madrasahs, by the maulanas in the mosques, and by Pakistan's calculated effort to strip the Pashtun of their political identity. For many Pashtun, radical Islam is their new allegiance: that's what this generation knows.

This allegiance was at the front of General Gul's mind. "I asked myself why the Taliban waited so long to retreat," he told me when I spoke to him several days after the Taliban had abandoned Kabul. "But now I understand. They held on to give themselves time to evacuate their Scud missiles and their anti-aircraft guns before they took to the hills. Withdrawal is the most difficult military operation. It requires command and control and meticulous planning. This they have achieved. Ask your intelligence where the Scud missiles are. They had two hundred and fifty of them." There is now, the General said, a Russian-backed government in Kabul. "Putin has played a very clever card. But the Pashtun will resist, of course. And who will lead that resistance? The Taliban." And their foot soldiers, he insisted, would be the Pashtun tribesmen. "They don't like bombing," General Gul added. "But a long-drawn-out conflict in the mountains—that's the thing they enjoy the most."

I found the General's predictions dubious, and yet there was no denying that few parties are eagerly inviting the Pashtun to form a government. Once again, Afghanistan's neighbors—India, Russia, and Iran—are entertaining alternatives. The Pashtun are not in a good position to bargain. For now, the only hope they have is to win, with force, enough territory to make them too strong to ignore, to become a power without which no peace can come to Afghanistan. If nothing comes of negotiation, they will fight.


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