Awoken by the glow and buzz of a midnight SMS, my instinct is to curse the sender. But these are regular nowadays, and I know just what they contain.
“Brother, three missilz hit us today, more than 10 killd, too many troopz, fightr jets come over mountain, one thing 4 sure, this will only increase violenz.” Amir, my Pashtun friend in Pakistan, updates me when sporadic reception allows.
Shocking it was for many Muslims to see the recent destruction of Islamabad’s Marriot Hotel during Ramadan when most in Pakistan hoped for a moment’s relief from the terrorism escalating within. But why would insurgents sit idle watching US Army commandoes take advantage of this holy month of fasting for cross-border operations? Now my friends, cast and crew of our feature film Son of a Lion, like many in the country, anticipate the ultimate blow — an all-out war with the USA.
Here, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the intention of the authorities to extend the writ of Islamabad and control the Pashtun clans is obvious to the entire population of the world’s largest remaining autonomous tribal group. Washington has been demanding it as essential to its war on terror, and Pakistan’s new President Asif Zardari is carrying on the doomed strategy began by Pervez Musharaf, the country’s recently resigned dictator.
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But it’s surprising for many who know the Pashtuns well to see support for the Pakistani Taliban in an area where the vast majority voted against Islamist parties at the February ‘08 elections, where people tend to be more loyal to their tribal code of conduct than their religious beliefs, and where the gun-carrying population pride themselves on the peace they have traditionally been able to keep. My contacts deep in the FATA all concur that the popularity of the Taliban can be directly attributed to Pakistani Army activity in the tribal area, cross-border operations by US forces and hellfire missiles fired on alleged al Qaeda and Taliban targets from American predator drones. Inevitably, these anti-terrorist missions have resulted in greater civilian deaths than those of any genuine militants, usually due to spurious intelligence.
On a recent visit to Australia for the Melbourne International Film Festival, the executive producer of our film Mohammed Khan went on record to say that many moderate, middle-class Pashtuns — and I have personally seen them watching TV in comfortable lounges while their children do homework — are now donating to local Taliban and even offering to fight with those they have previously despised. While shooting Son of a Lion I saw just how unpopular the village Mullah can be. And yet now, less than 2 years later, Khan tells me the Pakistani Taliban are considered the “lesser of two evils” and “the only group truly putting up a fight”. Local Islamists are indeed leading the widespread resistance movement against what ordinary secular-minded Pashtuns see as a major imperialist threat to their peace, freedom and very way of life.
“We can always mold the Taliban in their ways,” Khan told me, “but we have no influence over the Americans. You want us to be free from extremists? Then leave us to deal with them ourselves!”
What Pashtuns have been denied for years in the FATA is well-managed aid to create the economic conditions for locals to be weaned from the Taliban, as well as a real commitment to genuine negotiation with those we consider the enemy. But USAID will only deliver on its own terms and, when it comes to diplomacy, Washington has convinced itself the Taliban was to blame for the failure of Pervez Musharraf’s peace talks last year when Musharraf’s very credibility was rock bottom.
Meanwhile, locals of the FATA see the extension of war across the border as a result of the US Army’s frustration at its failures in Afghanistan, where a poor, illiterate and hungry population have managed to successfully resist modern, well-equipped Western forces. Shifting the blame on Pakistan will not solve the mess Afghanistan has become. There is no doubt the FATA is a “safe haven” for militants, but so is most of southern Afghanistan. Talk of “destroying safe havens” in Pakistan would mean bombing the homes of more than 4 million Pashtuns living in the tribal area, almost all of which would currently sympathise with the “freedom fighters”.
A military presence in the FATA has already given the Taliban ammunition and legitimacy. Three weeks ago American troops landed in the Waziristani village of Angoor Adda and killed 20 people in three houses, including four women and seven children under the age of ten, not a militant in sight. After weekly missile attacks from drones my friends tell me ordinary people are now angrily firing at these distant unmanned planes with household weapons. And the Pakistan Army continues demolishing villages, the conflict resulting in more than 500,000 displaced people in the FATA this month. How many of these will take up arms, I wonder?
By attacking Pakistan hoping to hit al Qaeda and Taliban targets, the US will inadvertently begin a war with the Pashtun tribes themselves, resulting in a bloodbath of grand proportions. In making enemies of these tribesmen we will also miss the opportunity to work with them in creating unwelcome conditions for the militants.
Since completing Son of a Lion our primary fixer has been kidnapped, a teenage actor shot and killed, our production car destroyed in an explosion and a group of extras have left to join the militants. Even so, it is clear to me that the violence Pashtun tribes are suffering at the hands of the Pakistan Army and US forces will never destroy the extremist minority, but simply spread and strengthen their ideologies.
Thus, a war on terror will forever feed itself.
Benjamin Gilmour is the director of the film ‘Son of a Lion’ and author of the book ‘Warrior Poets’ (Pier 9) about Pakistan’s tribal areas.