In early 2006, when a band of scruffy kids and a former Afghan mujahid joined me on the streets of Peshawar to shoot a film about a boy who runs away to the city, fear of suicide bombings never entered our minds. We walked past the Pearl Continental and I remember thinking how much happier I was to be sleeping on dusty rope beds in the homes of my Pashtun friends, sharing their food with my hands and listening to them sing.
That year there were barely any reported suicide bombings in Pakistan and in 2007 only six suicide bombings were recorded for the whole of the country. Since last year however, at least one suicide bomber has detonated himself each week. The country is gripped with fear. My friends and collaborators in Peshawar avoid leaving the house.
Every one of them has witnessed the aftermath of a blast and almost every one has a story of a family member or acquaintance killed in such attacks. With so much blood running in the streets of Pakistan, one has to question why the extremists have garnered support in many parts of the North West Frontier Province and its tribal areas given the Taliban’s track record of casualties among their own people.
When Washington and its allies demanded a strong military response to the Taliban’s move into Buner District in April they perhaps did not factor in the way in which the Pakistan Army fights a battle. Vietnam style obliteration of villages with little appreciation for protecting civilians has left more than a thousand dead.
This estimate is derived from what refugees have said and cannot be verified as Pakistani authorities have neglected to conduct body counts of civilians, instead focusing on creating an inflated tally of dead militants in order to satiate the US. Tough measures against the rising radicalization of the NWFP and tribal belt would only be justified if the targets were accurate and the ordinary people protected.
Unfortunately neither of these have happened. Many of the two million refugees who have fled the Swat Valley during the current campaign against the Taliban have complained that many more civilians have been killed than real militants.
Adding to the mess is the pre-existing hatred of the US after its predator drone attacks. The unmanned aircraft patrolling continuously over the frontier unleash regular missiles on hapless tribesmen. Pakistani authorities themselves have confirmed that close to 700 people have been killed by more than 60 “hellfire” missiles since January 2006, launched by “experts” sitting in a luxurious Nevada command centre. They also admit that only 6% actually took out their intended target.
The US has not only conducted these attacks with scant regard for Pakistani sovereignty, but if ‘precision’ is the advantage of such missiles then the Americans are guilty of premeditated murder on a grand scale for which they ought to be prosecuted.
Pashtuns of the frontier have traditionally been more committed to their tribal code of honour than to radical interpretations of Islam. Although there has been a shift toward religious extremism in the past few years, it has been directly proportional to the degree of interference by Pakistan Army and US drone attacks in the area.
Religion has always been the glue, in times of trouble, to help unite a population and give it collective strength against invading forces. A prime example of this was when the Soviet Army entered Afghanistan in 1979 causing the liberal masses to start praying five times a day and the women to voluntarily don the burqa again. Adding to this “reawakening” in the NWFP and FATA of Pakistan is the second complication.
Even without Islam, even if al Qaeda and fundamentalist Mullahs were not working overtime, the local Pashtun tribes would still fight to be left alone, invoking their age-old honour code known as “Paktunwali” in which revenge is second only to hospitality. From a tribal point of view alone, the death of hundreds in drone attacks and blanket bombing of villages in the Swat Valley demands revenge. According to counter-terrorism expert David Kilcullen, the Pashtuns have become “accidental guerillas” caught in the fight between al Qaeda and the West. This is a frightening outcome, because although a Pashtun can be your most loyal of friends, if you wrong him he can be your worst possible enemy.
In Darra Adam Khel, an arms-manufacturing town south of Peshawar where a stick of dynamite can be bought for less than an dollar, young men are queuing up for suicide bombings at an alarming rate. These are the very boys who just a few years ago played parts in our film Son of a Lion, a film promoting education and progress.
Broken up into “Chapters” and with a registration system in which potential bombers are allocated numbers, locals tell me the Taliban in other agencies are just as meticulously organised and in Swat have only been momentarily inconvenienced by current military operation. The fight will go on so long as we continue to fire rockets from the sky and sponsor a corrupt establishment to oppress its people.
Despite the increasing number of horrific blasts around Pakistan, hope is not lost. The frontier tribes are reconcilable. Pashtuns are historically open to negotiation. Obama has a chance to put his fine words about peace into action and encourage non-violent means to counter the Pakistani Taliban and the tribes sympathetically giving them support. For starters he should call off drone missile attacks, urge Pakistan to protect its civilian population during military campaigns and offer as much support as possible to the shell-shocked refugees it has made of its own people.
Benjamin Gilmour is author of the book Warrior Poets and director of the film Son of a Lion.