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I remember standing outside the famously clandestine Deans Hotel in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan exactly 28 years ago, nervously smoking a Gold Leaf cigarette and wondering if I would ever make it alone across the mountainous western border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
I made it in the end, thanks largely to the late mujahideen commander Abdul Haq, who was later murdered by the Taliban after 9/11 and not long before the US-led invasion to overthrow them.
I was not inside Afghanistan for long, but spent enough tense days and sleepless nights with 28 of his armed men to be trusted.
Being close to people does not always mean you take sides. But it does mean respect.
It was at Abdul Haq’s headquarters on the outskirts of Peshawar that I first came across the ambigious relationship Pakistan held – and still holds today, many say – with the so-called jihad.
At the headquarters, Abdul Haq asked me to wait in one of the outhouses. I had been driven there by local hotel taxi driver Gul, whom legendary British TV journalist and writer Sandy Gall later claimed was an ISI informer, and I watched him slowly pull away as the tall gates slammed shut.
I was there to discuss my proposed trip and the logistics of smuggling myself across the border. I had a Super-8 camera and a pen and was keen to report what I saw as David taking on Goliath.
But it was the Pakistani authorities whom Abdul Haq seemed most concerned about. And not just the ones parked in their eyrie-like border checkpoints.
‘We have a Pakistani officer here,’ he smiled, kicking at some dust. (This was before he lost part of his right heel.) Coca-cola was brought on a battered tray. ‘He is here to train us,’ he whispered mischievously. ‘He would not like you to see him.’
Of course, this sort of thing was happening all the time. Pakistani specialists training rookie-like Afghan friends. The odd dexterous westerner teaching a kind of pro-western yet pro-Allah insurrectionism.
Good, thought the West. We are in this together. Fight the Soviet Union, the largest army in the world. Stop the Ruskies getting a saltwater port in the Indian ocean. (And don’t let them make a push for the oilfields of Iran and Iraq.) Then, the thinking continued, our enemy will have to withdraw and they will be defeated.
Which is exactly what happened. The Soviets withdrew, leading directly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and their empire fragmented.
This was when our – and Pakistan’s – new problems began. With the west now gone, certainly from the needs of the ordinary Afghan, a different kind of fragmentation – the fragmentation of all hope – emerged.
Or, as Charlie Wilson put it, “They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f****d up the endgame.” Cities, buildings, schools, were torn asunder. To many Afghans, we had abandoned them in their real hour of need and some think we are about to do it again.
As a result, sometimes out of pure frustration as well, the Afghans began turning their still plentiful weapons on themselves. Children – often orphans – grew up to become Taliban. I had seen many of them earlier in poignant clusters in the western-funded refugee camps outside Peshawar, being taught the Koran by paternalistic Saudi-funded young men with beards. Some Afghans believed that in becoming Taliban, they could actually stop fellow Afghans fighting one another.
A few Arab stragglers hung around, too. And one of them still has his face plastered across most international newspaper. But it was after a curious interim of four years in Sudan that Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan and made the country his home again.
This was 1996. It is likely Pakistan’s ISI were as keen as anyone at this time to track the movements of this mysteriously returning millionaire jihadist. And they were probably the best disposed to do so.
To understand why they would want to penetrate Osama bin Laden’s tight circle further does not require a taste for conspiracy theories, or the kind of perpetual mistrust which seems still to linger in the minds of many today thinking about Pakistan. Sometimes, even in this complex region, vigilance can be a simple case of looking after the interests of one’s own people.
I was in Pakistan again recently. Much has changed since those days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. ‘AfPak’ is the buzzword among new diplomats and strategists there. Also gone, it seems, are people such as myself in 1983 hanging around the border.
I witnessed change during my four recent trips back to Afghanistan too. On a good day, it was like I was with old friends again. Also, schools were being built, people were being protected, and women once again were more visible. On a bad day, it was as if we had become the Soviets.
But it is Pakistan we are closest to.
On my second recent trip back there again, I travelled by road from the capital Islamabad through various checkpoints to Muzzafarabad – the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan. Abbottobad, where we now know Osama bin Laden was living, was deemed too tame to visit.
In Muzzafarabad, there was a “Loya Jirga,” or grand council meeting, taking place, and some of the people connected to the Mumbai bombers were purported to be there.
But I was there to witness some of the most impressive post-earthquake reconstruction work done by UK’s DFID (Department for International Development).
If ever there was an example of co-operation at its best, this was it.
Much has been criticised recently about the more than ?650 million given by the UK government to Pakistan. In and around places such as Muzzafarabad, where up to 80,000 people died in the 2005 earthquake, it will not go unnoticed. By the Afghan border, where security concerns can sometimes eclipse humanitarian needs, people will be fed.
Held aloft that night in Muzzafarabad by earthquake-scarred mountains, men in green Kashmiri jackets strolled through a night air tinged with lamb cooked in heavy spices.
I sat down on a low wall and spoke quietly to a man in his forties.
‘One day,’ he said, ‘America will leave Afghanistan. We in Pakistan know this. You know this.’ I watched the soldiers by a gun position a few hundred yards away. ‘So who will keep an eye on things then?’ he asked. ‘The Chinese?’ Like some of the soldiers, he was looking dispassionately eastwards: ‘India?’
It was then I realised that Pakistan – barring the risky creation of some kind of experimental new country, along the lines of the creation of Pakistan itself, in Waziristan – will always be joined with Afghanistan and all that takes place there. Just as they will always be involved in India.
And can we blame them?
It is one thing to keep tabs on the bad guys and another to support them. Some people believe – the US, perhaps, excluded – it really was a case of bungled intelligence.
But if Pakistan did know of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, is it possible one or two loose cannons within its power structures had decided to support and house him to put him out of action, in a manner even our own Archbishop of Canterbury might have approved of?
Much has been made recently that Osama bin Laden was a spent force anyway and that his absence from the scene was helping dampen down the flames of his power and influence.
Making him a martyr could have risked the opposite, with his blood on Pakistani hands leading to the disintegration of their already embattled country.
There are over one million British-Pakistanis in this country, an equal amount in the US, and they alone require we do everything to protect the west’s relationship with Pakistan. (It is also a nuclear state. Peace with India is crucial, not just to the region but to the entire world.) And what of young British-Pakistanis and American-Pakistanis in our own sometimes volatile cities? Is harmony so out of date as a fashion these days that we cannot see the importance of cultural demystification and unity?
Just as I was asked to wait in an outhouse back in 1983 while a Pakistani officer spoke to members of the Afghan mujahideen, should we not now also wait in the outhouse – busily, helpfully, observantly – while they continue to get their house in order?
I am sure Pakistan shares our appetite for peace. Only through close partnerships – such as our own – can extremism be quelled and a kind of non-denominational trust return.
Besides, if we won’t trust them, how can they trust us?
Peter Bach lives in London.