Recently I have been to Pakistan, and although the locals had warned me against going to the city of Peshawar, I just couldn’t resist the temptation of checking out the notoriously dangerous and mysterious town for myself, which I finally did.
Peshawar’s reputation as a dangerous place is largely due to it geographical location: it lies in the northwestern Pakistani province that shares a border with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), an autonomous tribal region inside Pakistan.
Although the region is “federally administered”, Islamabad has little control over the area. The FATA has become a de facto sovereign state within Pakistan.
And due to its proximity to both the FATA and the war zone in Afghanistan, Peshawar has become a hub and gathering point for jihadists and radical Islamists.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fled to Peshawar and gradually replaced the local Pakistanis as the majority population of the city.
Not only did the Afghan refugees settle permanently in Peshawar, many of them also used the town as a base to mount their jihad against the Soviet invaders.
And though the last Russian soldier pulled out of the region almost 30 years ago, over the decades the Pakistani government has made very little progress in repatriating the Afghan refugees, many of whom have long become undocumented residents in Peshawar.
Against such a background, Peshawar has developed a thriving black market for guns and drugs, and ordinary people walking around with automatic rifles are a common sight in the city.
When Afghanistan was still under the Taliban rule, most of its heroin was exported to the rest of the world through Peshawar, despite the fact that the Afghan authorities at that time had attempted to curb the country’s drug trade under international pressure.
For years the official Pakistani propaganda has blamed the “chaos” in Peshawar on the collusion between India and Afghan militants, and perhaps readers can judge for themselves as to whether such an accusation is well-founded or not.
As far as the former Taliban regime is concerned, many of its leaders were actually “theologists” trained in madrasas in Pakistan. And during the reign of the Taliban, the northwestern region of Pakistan actually enjoyed a considerable period of peace and stability.
However, the peaceful condition along the Afghan-Pakistan border ground to a halt after the 9/11 attacks, as Islamabad was forced by Washington to take sides and turn against the Taliban. Since then Pakistan itself has also become a target for jihadists.
In particular, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, has become very active in Peshawar in recent years, and has mounted a series of high-profile attacks within the city.
Three months ago, a group of TTP militants raided a university in Peshawar and opened fire indiscriminately on whoever was on the campus, killing 13 and injuring another 35.
And a few years ago, the entire world was shocked after the TTP massacred primary school students in Peshawar, resulting in 156 dead and 114 wounded.
The TTP has been notorious for picking schools and women’s rights activists as its targets, including the now Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
Despite under constant terrorist threat, however, it appears the people of Peshawar are carrying on with their daily lives as usual according to their own customs and rules, no matter whether it is the central government in Islamabad, the TTP or their own tribal leaders who are in charge.
And since armed militias are all over the place, nobody – not even the Islamic fundamentalists – has the resources or interest to topple the status quo in Peshawar.
Besides, Peshawar is only within two hours’ drive from Islamabad, which means the city is actually not that isolated from the outside world as many people think.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 13
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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