The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Imtiaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, has been a reporter for 25 years, covering the eponymous region on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We had a sort of romance with these areas,” Gul said. “They excited me, not as barren, rugged terrain, but because of the people there.” Below, Gul chats with Zócalo about the history of the tribal areas, how militants infiltrated the region and the rest of Pakistan, and what the U.S. can do to help assuage a problem that, Gul says, is ultimately Pakistan’s to address.

Q. You’ve spent a lot of time in the tribal areas. What are your impressions of the region?

A. With the arrival of the militants in those areas, the situation changed in the sense that the arrival of the military, a lot of local people started leaving those areas. They have not been familiar with the presence of military in the past. History shows that the tribal areas of Pakistan never liked foreigners, outsiders. Very gradually these areas have turned into a battleground between the Pakistani army and militant groups. The army conducted not only dozens of operations there, but also increased its numbers. Because of this, many people have moved out of the tribal areas. More than a million people from different parts of it are today living in camps. The more that the army increases its numbers, the more it impacts social life in the area as well.

Q. How did militant groups gain a foothold there?

The Most Dangerous Place, by Imtiaz GulA. These areas are governed by a special set of laws introduced by the British in 1903. Under these laws, the people of the tribal areas are at the mercy of an administrator, a government representative, otherwise people are free to do anything. Traditionally, people in the tribal areas were involved in smuggling, drug trafficking, arms trading. There are no political parties allowed there. That’s how these areas easily became the center for militant organizations. But we also have to remember that in the early 1980s, the U.S. and other countries decided to confront the Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan. They used the tribal areas as a launching pad for the resistance fighters.

Q. Are those administrators still active today, and do they have any power?

A. They are there. they’re called the political agent, and there are seven of them in all. Theoretically they are in charge. But practically, it’s the military that calls the shots.

Q. What is Pakistan’s military presence in the tribal areas today?

A. It’s about 140,000 currently deployed on the border to Afghanistan. They’re manning about 900 checkpoints on this border, which is over 2500 kilometers long. Almost all of these check posts coordinate with the United States troops deployed across the border on the Afghan side. Whenever there is a need, both armies exchange information. But usually there are no joint military operations in the tribal areas.

Q. Are militant groups in the tribal areas making inroads into the rest of Pakistan?

A. The presence of militant groups in FATA and the tribal areas has had a very very negative impact on the rest of Pakistan. Number one, they are associated or inspired by Al Qaeda. Number two, these groups provide shelter to all those militants who may have connections inside Pakistan, but come to the tribal areas for training. Most of the suicide bombings that have hit Pakistan – more than 210 attacks in the last four years – have had a direct or indirect link with the tribal areas.

Q. How sympathetic are Pakistanis to these militant groups?

A. The general public is not sympathetic to the militants. Many of the Pakistanis may be sympathetic to Al Qaeda and to the Taliban, but the majority are moderate Muslims. However, the problems, such as governance, absence of the rule of law, unemployment, and poverty – they do serve as the prompters for many people to somehow view organizations such as Al Qaeda with sympathy if not direct support.

Q. How dangerous is that level of sympathy?

A. It can become dangerous in the medium to long run if the problems that people face continue. If governance can improve, if the economy can take off, if there are more employment opportunities, and if the government can really attend to the education sector, then we might see some improvement. Then it’s not a big problem and the real challenge lies in somehow controlling people within media, within other segments of the society who somehow directly or indirectly sympathize with a lot of conspiracy theories directed against the United States and other Western countries. These theories basically project the Americans and their allies as enemies of Muslims. They then try to stoke anti-American sentiment. Some people, because they face problems inside their own countries, fall victim to this propaganda. There’s an urgent need to develop a counternarrative to these conspiracy theories.

Q. Is the U.S. or Pakistan doing anything to that end – developing a counternarrative?

A. What they’re doing right now is fighting – the U.S. in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis in the tribal areas. There is not enough effort on the intellectual front. There is not enough intellectual intervention. One would wish they could do more.

Q. How is President Obama’s strategy working so far?

A. I think under Obama, the U.S. is now more sympathetic to the Pakistani considerations as far as taking on the militants is concerned. Cooperation between the two countries and their armies has never been better. The desire is for Pakistan to scale up its anti-militant operations and to narrow the space as much as possible for supporters and sympathizers for Islamist group. Pakistani civil society also wants this. It’s a difficult challenge because of the problems I mentioned earlier – the problems face by the common man.

Q. What about the U.S.’s increased use of drone strikes?

A. It’s working as far as taking out the bad guys is concerned. We’ve been told more than two dozen Al Qaeda people have been killed as a result of these attacks. A lot of people in the tribal areas – people who are fed up with militants, people who are sandwiched between the Pakistani military and militants, and youngsters in particular – are happy with the number of people who have been killed by the drone strikes. The issue remains a little controversial, however, because of the question of ownership. Right now it’s the CIA that does the drone strikes. Pakistanis believe that if the Pakistani army were to conduct these drone strikes, it would mitigate the concerns and criticisms that many people have about them. There is of course collateral damage, innocent people getting killed, but that is not as much the issue as ownership of the strikes.

Q. Is it likely that Pakistan will start conducting strikes?

A. Pakistan has been demanding that it should be provided with the technology to conduct its own drone strikes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement earlier this year indicating that the U.S. may consider it, but I don’t see it happening in the near future.

Q. Why is the U.S. reluctant to share that technology?

A. The U.S. wants to keep control over the technology itself rather than passing it on to Pakistan.

Q. What are the challenges to bringing the tribal areas under control, given its long history of being left alone by the central government?

A. This is a large area along the border with Afghanistan. It is very thinly populated – perhaps less than two million people live there, under the laws that the British introduced. I think there’s an urgent need to change the status of these areas by extending the law of the land, so that people living in the tribal areas get a sense of belonging to Pakistan as equal citizens. If we extend the law of the land, it narrows the space for nonstate actors – for all the people using the area for their narrow ends, the militants, the smugglers, the criminal gangs.

Q. Are the people of the tribal areas supportive of changing the law that governs them?

A. People are fed up with that law, which has been in effect since the early 1900s. They want it abolished. This demand, this craving for a just system, has also resulted in an increase in Islamization. It is one of the reasons for religious radicalism in that area. It encourages the creation of religious groups, which create their own fiefdoms. The government has been giving lip-service to the idea – even the president announced last August to change the status of the tribal areas, or at least make big amendments to the laws that govern them. But so far, nothing much has happened.

Q. What else can the U.S. do to help extend control to the area?

A. I think any support, any help in reaching out to the people, addressing their issues, is always welcome. The U.S. can also help with financial resources.

But the real challenge rests with the government of Pakistan. They need to demonstrate a commitment to the people, and try to change the law, or extend the constitution of Pakistan and extend fundamental rights to these areas. This is essentially a challenge to the Pakistani government, the ruling elite. Outsiders can help facilitate and expand the influence of the government, and also help reach out to people through the media. But fundamentally the Pakistanis themselves are responsible for this in the first place.

We have to keep in mind that if you don’t treat common people as equal citizens in special status areas, then there is always the possibility of nonstate actors like militant groups coming up and taking things into their own hands. This is what happened in Pakistan, in the tribal areas. Let’s hope that sooner rather than later the status of these areas changes, and that the people there are treated as equal citizens and weaned away from support of militant organizations.

*Photo of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region courtesy the U.S. Army.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.