Don't Panic! October 09 2003

Your war questions answered

What are the "tribal" regions of Pakistan and why are they so called?

Pakistan's tribal regions are very similar to the rest of Pakistan, only with more drumming and casinos.

Never mind, that's a description of our tribal regions. The areas Western journalists are referring to when they mention Pakistan's tribal regions are the ones in the country's Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. To get there from Pakistan's largest city, the southern port of Karachi, hop in a car and head north and a little east. Yes, northeast. If you look at a map, you'll see that Pakistan leans to the right (no wonder Bush likes 'em!).

Pakistan refers to the regions as Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The tribal areas are Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohman, Orakzai, and North and South Waziristan. The country's constitution grants the FATAs a huge degree of freedom from Pakistan's federal and provincial governments. Pakistan's courts and parliament essentially have no jurisdiction there. Basically, the FATA is as much part of Pakistan as Jamaica is part of the United States — only Americans are far more welcome in Jamaica than Pakistanis are in the FATA.

Whose genius idea was that? I once heard on TV that 50 percent of women murdered in the U.S. are murdered by a current or ex-spouse/lover. Based on that, I'm gonna coin my own generalization. Fifty percent of all screwed-up border areas in the world are the result of British colonialism (Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Ireland and Kashmir are other examples).

The Brits screwed up northwest Pakistan thusly. They created the autonomous regions to serve as a buffer between Afghanistan and colonial India (which consisted of modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). The Brits couldn't conquer the area, so they drew dotted lines around it on their maps and paid off local tribal leaders. "Here's some money. You don't bug us. We don't bug you. Just keep the peace, and a few roads open, so we can pass through now and then.

Pakistan kept up the British policy. For nearly 60 years (Pakistan became a country in 1947), the autonomous regions went about their business without anyone here noticing. Then 9-11 happened. We enlisted (a nice way of saying bribed and threatened) Pakistan to help us beat the Taliban and take on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. One small problem though: The parts of the Pakistan that actually border Afghanistan aren't under the control of the Pakistani government. Bigger problem, the people who live there are somewhat fond of the Taliban and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda.

The people in the tribal areas of Pakistan are primarily Pashtun. Afghanistan's Taliban are also Pashtun. Pashtuns in Pakistan dig the Taliban for many reasons. They share a language and a similarly puritanical/ fanatical view of Islam. Many Pashtuns see the Taliban as a vehicle for Pashtun nationalism (there was talk around the time of Pakistan's formation of a separate nation of Pashtunistan). They also dig them because they see the Taliban as defenders of Islam and Muslim lands from infidel outsiders (aka us).

al-Qaeda kind of piggybacked its way into Pakistani Pashtun with the Taliban. The tribal folk don't like outsiders, but al-Qaeda members are sorta OK because they're viewed by many as spiritual allies.

Pakistan's tribal areas sit right across the border from Afghanistan's Tora Bora region. That's the last place Osama bin Laden was spotted alive (as far as the public knows, anyway). It's thought that he and some of his top henchmen are hiding out in Pakistan's tribal areas, where a strict honor code forbids anyone from narcing on them, and where the lack of control by Pakistan's central government means that, short of full-scale bloody invasion, little can be done about it.


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