Archive: April, 2009
Spent 8 hours in Islamabad's international airport (which has no restaurant and kiosks that sell no food other than mouldy candy bars and Pringles chips). I was waiting for a U.N. flight, which had been cancelled the two previous days.
Again, I was reminded of the lack of transportation between two countries that are bound together by geography and war. There was no other way to get to Kabul except to wait for this unreliable flight. Pakistan International Airways flies only twice a week to Kabul and Ariana, the Afghan airlines, only once. On my flight were diplomats, World Bank personnel, UN personnel, and they could not get to their assignments.
At one time one might have taken the day long drive to Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass, and over rutted roads to Kabul. But that is much too dangerous now. The chief of the Frontier Corps, the Pakistani paramilitary body responsible for security for the pass, offered to send me with military escorts to Torkham at the Afghan border, but I wasn't about to risk going on alone from there.
The building is nondescript, like a huge apartment block. in a field in east Karachi. But it contains a notorious religious school, or madrassa, called Jama Ashrafiya, and when you drive around it you can see students and teachers in the rear courtyard. Young boys from poor families get meals and board and have their worldview shaped here.
Many of these radical madrassas are built without permits on government-owned land, yet the police never intervene (indeed the city mayor has no control over the police who respond to the provincial government). Repeated pressure by the United States and millions in education aid intended to bolster the underfunded public schools, have had little impact. Madrassa reform efforts undertaken by former President Musharraf, have come to little.
And so, hardline madrassas like this one continue to indoctrinate youths, a small portion of whom may become future suicide bombers.
I was supposed to leave today for Afghanistan, but my flight was cancelled. It was a United Nations flight, the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service, which is used by nongovernmental agencies and journalists because there are so few regular flights between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, there was no other flight from Islamabad to Kabul today.
It's really quite amazing, given the geopolitical pairing of these two countries, that it is so difficult to get from one to the other, and also difficult to phone. Yet there are around three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and the troubles in Afghanistan have spilled over into Pakistan, along with the Taliban and al Qaeda who are based along the border.
But when it comes to the most basic linkages, the two countries have little contact.
I'm driving around Pakistan's largest city and financial capital, Karachi, with the mayor, Syed Kamal, who tells me that Islamists have penetrated th slums of this crucial port metropolis, pop 17 million, and may threaten its future.
We ride in an SUV preceded and flanked by police vans with a gunner poking his head through the roofs and two other shooters looking backwards out of the van. We pass by the highway overpass where the late Benazir Bhutto's convoy was blown up in Dec. 2007, shortly before she was assasinated in Islamabad. We drive by the radical religious school outside which Danny Pearl's body was dumped.
What's most scary is two things: first, there are 3500 such radical schools or madrassas, where young boys are closeted away until teenagerhood and brainwashed with radical versions of Islam. Many of them have been painted pink, in sympathy with the Red Mosque, a hotbed for radical preachers in Islamabad which was razed a couple of years ago but has now reopened.
My driver, helper and protector in Islamabad is Suleman Minhas, the Operation Manager of the Central Asia Institute, run by Greg Mortensen, the author of the longrunning bestseller, Three Cups of Tea.
Greg has built 78 girls schools in Pakistan and 25 in Afghanistan. His book details his rescue by Pakistani villagers from a mountain climbing accident on K-2 nearly two decades ago, after which he pledged to return to the remote mountainous area and build the village a school. On one of his early visits, Greg met Suleiman, who was then driving a taxi, but became inspired by Greg's idea and has been working with him every since. Now Suleiman makes all arrangements for Greg's visits and the visits of board members and others who work with the project.
Since then, he started the foundation and has built schools with a fraction of the money that would be expended by aid agencies, using local labor from villagers who want their children to be educated. With the earnings from his book and speaking engagements, he also pays for teachers and teacher training, until the local government is willing or able to take on that responsibility.
A self-declared member of Taliban lines up to be searched before praying at the infamous Lal Masjid or Red Mosque, in islamabad, where the government attacked around 21 months ago, killing scores of radical students and family members and arresting radical cleric Maulana Abdel Aziz. Taliban wear black turbans and hitch their pants up above their ankles (no, I do not know why).
Maulana Abdul Aziz was released from prison last week. I went to hear his Friday sermon, standing on the sidelines, the only woman among hundreds of men who gathered in the area surrounding the mosque. I was well covered, wearing a huge headscarf (called a chadoor), and no one caused me any problems.
Maulana Abdel Aziz, a Khomeini wannabe, announced he would travel around the country calling for imposition of Islamic law. He will tell the people that only Islam will bring them justice.
Today I visited Balahisar fort, the incredibly impressive fortress where the Frontier Corps are headquartered may be as much as 2000 years old. I did an interview with the FC's impressive commander General Tariq Khan.
The British extended their rule to Peshawar in 1849 and reenforced the then mud fort at with bricks.
On 14 August 1947, the Pakistan flag hoisted over Balahisar, and the following year it became the Headquarters of the Frontier Corps (FC).
The FC's paramilitary force, neglected for the past couple of decades, is being beefed up, including US aid and trainers, in the hopes that - since its members are Pathans from the tribal areas - it can be more effective in fighting militants who are gaining in strength there. I will be writing about the prospects for remaking the FC in my Sunday column.
Here's how the Taliban grow. These are refugees from the Bajaur tribal agency who were forced to flee their villages when the army came in looking for Pakistani Taliban. They were caught in the middle.
Now 16,000 (of 85,000) are stuck in Kacha Garhi camp near Peshawar, a flat expanse of nothing but dirt and khaki tents. No water to wash, no firewood to cook, no electricity, overflowing latrines, no work. No future. The government was supposed to resettle them but no sign of it.
These were not Taliban before, but they now provide perfect recruiting material for Islamic militant groups. Talking with the desperate elders, who are nearly in tears at the destruction of their dignity and futures, makes one want to weep. US aid money, if nothing else, should be building them new homes. Much cheaper than fighting thousands of new Taliban.