The Most Dangerous Place

A reporter explores Pakistan’s border region and argues that it holds the key to a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan.

The Most Dangerous Place Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier By Imtiaz Gul Penguin 320 pp., $26.95

On May 21, a drone attack killed Al Qaeda’s No. 3 leader and top Afghanistan commander, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, at his hiding place in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Three weeks earlier, an American citizen parked his Nissan Pathfinder in New York City and, with bombmaking training learned during his time in Pakistan’s tribal areas, attempted to blow up Times Square.

Their connection, of course, is an area the size of Massachusetts in western Pakistan that is formally called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is where the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other militant groups are believed to be based.

“For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world,” President Obama said on March 27, 2009.

That America helped turn this region into the hotbed it is today, and that Pakistan’s own spy agency has for the past decade allowed it to remain a source of terror, is addressed in a new book, The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, by Imtiaz Gul, head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

Gul has reported on the region for 25 years, and he is periodically sourced in the Monitor as an expert on militants. His contacts within the Pakistan military, including Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, give the book credibility and insight. As a Pashtun born in Peshawar in what used to be called Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, he knows the language and customs of the Pashtun tribes that comprise the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban.

For the lay reader, this probably isn’t the first book to read on the subject. At times, Gul’s book feels more like list of dates and deaths than a narrative. He sometimes leaves the lay reader behind because he knows his subject too well, breezing through names and acronyms without explaining exactly who belongs to various insurgency groups such as TTP, JeM, LeT, SSP, and LJ. Of aid is a 35-page encyclopedic rundown of every major militant and militant organization in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

For those seeking greater depth in this area, however, Gul can be trusted as a skilled and informative guide.

He argues that Afghanistan’s war, and to an extent global jihad, won’t be resolved without Islamabad’s help in eradicating jihad in Pakistan. His argument is strengthened by a recent RAND report, “How Insurgencies End,” which argues that the Achilles heel for the Taliban is the loss of their Pakistani sanctuary.

As with many wars and conflicts, this one is fueled by a problematic border drawn up by a colonial power. The 1,600-mile Durand Line dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan, established by colonial Britain in 1893, cuts through the Pashtun tribal region. Under the Durand Agreement, tribes living on either side of the border are allowed to pass through it freely, which contributes to its porous, lawless nature, writes Gul.

When the Soviet Union effectively ruled Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, Western countries financed a Pashtun-led insurgency. The US funneled $6 billion to the mujahideen through the Pakistan spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), giving rise to two Pashtun insurgency groups: Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami.

“Besides dozens of training camps located in FATA and Balochistan, where ISI instructors trained Afghan mujahideen, hundreds of new seminaries catered to the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees and also served as indoctrination centers for recruits in the war against the godless communist forces next door,” Gul writes. This is a well-known and often-embellished story, obvious from Hollywood spinoffs such as Rambo III and Charlie Wilson’s War, but Gul’s book roots the reader back in the facts.

Kabul fell in 1996 to the Afghan Taliban, who fell in 2001 to US-led coalition forces. The Taliban and Al Qaeda fled across the border into Pakistan, offering the Pashtun tribes money and, according to Gul, “ideas of Muslim fraternity and Islamic ideology, which appealed to emotional tribesmen.” This gave rise to the Pakistani Taliban, known formally as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It was this environment that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, visited last year, when he learned how to make a bomb.

The US began spending vast sums of money attempting to deconstruct the mujahideen it had built up. From 2002 to 2008, the US gave Pakistan $6.6 billion in military aid. In October 2009, the US agreed to give Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years.

This amount is practically negligible compared with the $270 billion spent on operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2009. Gul questions why the US government is not allocating more to Pakistan. After all, he argues, this is where the war in Afghanistan – and the formerly dubbed “War on Terror” – will be won or lost.

Gul is hopeful. In February 2010, The Christian Science Monitor broke the story that in one week Pakistan’s government had arrested nearly half of the Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura. Further reported deaths of Pakistani Taliban leaders appeared to show evidence that the Pakistani government was stepping up its hold on the region. Gul believes the recent arrests and killings have put pressure on Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar to enter peace talks. Gul also sees increased US-Pakistan military cooperation as leading to more precise drone strikes that will kill top leaders.

Overall, “The Most Dangerous Place” is a useful guide for any journalist, policy-maker, or concerned civilian. It also supports the assessment of Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who has said: “To me, the most important issue for our success [in Afghanistan] is dealing with the sanctuary in Pakistan.”

Stephen Kurczy is a Monitor correspondent.

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