At first glance Peshawar, literally the "High Fort" in Persian, seems no different to any other major Pakistani city. All manner of vehicles, modern and ancient, vie for supremacy on dusty streets surrounded by markets while traffic cops struggle to control the constant torrent. But on closer inspection it’s apparent that things are somewhat different in Peshawar.
It isn’t merely the almost total absence of women on Peshawar’s streets (although some can be seen driving). Women are equally invisible on the numerous advertisement hoardings littered throughout the city — the role of pouting seductively on billboards has been left to the menfolk.
What makes Peshawar unique is its location. Situated between the conflict-plagued tribal agencies of Waziristan to the southwest, and Mohmand, Bajaur and Swat to the north, the city has become emblematic of the contradictions of this besieged country.
A string of suicide attacks, mostly targeting police and the Army, has put authorities on high alert. Taliban-controlled regions of Waziristan are only a few hours drive away, and Taliban leaders have publicly spoken about capturing the city. Such boasts are far-fetched as the city is too well protected, but the pronouncements have made the population fearful.
"There is much insecurity for us," says Mansur, a fruit seller near the city’s famous "White Mosque." "On top of everything else," he says, referring to the high cost of living, "[the insecurity]is another thing I have to worry about."
Islamic militancy is not new to Peshawar. It was here in the 1980s that General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s American-backed dictator in those days, established the main infrastructure for creating a generation of warriors to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. That project led to the creation of several hundreds of madrassas, or religious schools, in Peshawar and many thousands more throughout Pakistan.
The Soviets may have left in 1989, but the seminaries remained. Until only last year many, like Markaz Aloom e Islamia near Peshawar University, were still openly recruiting young men to fight United States-led forces in Afghanistan.
But as the militancy originally directed towards Afghanistan has turned into a full-blown insurgency in Pakistan, authorities have started to put pressure on Islamic groups to curtail their support for the Taliban and other Islamic militants. This has partly been in response to increased US demands for Pakistani to take military action on this front.
Now the support for the Taliban is more equivocal. Last week a council of religious scholars who have historically been sympathetic to the Taliban met in Lahore to condemn the movement’s use of suicide attacks in Pakistan. Although the religious leaders were quick to blame the US presence in the region as the primary impetus for violence, the highly public condemnation was unprecedented.
Peshawar may still be a hub for jihadis, but they are not the only ones with a presence in this city. The US has a consulate here that looks more like a bunker than a place for processing visa applications. The consulate compound is protected by three walls and an array of barbed wire and gun turrets. It is simply impossible to enter the building without making an appointment, which is a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure. The consulate certainly has cause to fear attacks, but it in turn is a source of considerable insecurity for ordinary Peshawar residents, few of whom would even dare stop their car in front of it for fear they may be fired upon as suspected suicide bombers.
Almost as well protected is the "American Club," the only place in Peshawar that openly sells alcohol. The club, much like the consulate, is a bristling fortress of concrete walls, barbed wire and electric fences. Only foreign nationals are allowed into the facility, and technically only non-Muslims are permitted to drink. You have to be very eager to have a drink here because entering the club is quite a task.
The club’s interior is somewhat underwhelming. It is true they have two autographed cricket bats, including one from the Australian team circa 1999. But apart from a pool table, a TV lounge, and overpriced alcohol, there is little to distinguish the club from any other drinking spot.
Yet the Club has proved an oasis for foreign workers and diplomats, particularly State Department employees from the US consulate. Indeed, it is the only place in Peshawar where journalists can freely meet US officials.
"It’s not easy for us to get around here," says Dan, a State Department employee with a fuzzy red beard styled in a Pashtun fashion.
Two of Dan’s colleagues agree as we sit, sharing a bottle of low quality red wine. One, a bald, well-built man named Jeff in a Hawaiian shirt and board-shorts is the most interesting of the group. Although he insists he is State Department, his demeanour and stories from Liberia, Iraq and Gaza suggest he has links to the military.
As we speak, and I discuss my journeys through Pakistan, it dawns on me that their experience of the country is very limited. Their only experience of ordinary Pakistanis comes via the few locals allowed to work in the consulate and the staff at the American Club. For them, Pakistan is a collection of impending threats, and every Pakistani is a potential assailant.
"If you want my advice, it’s a bit like Germany and Japan [after WWII]," suggests Dan, suddenly charged after a few glasses of wine. "They just need to blow the crap out of the [tribal agencies]and whoever survives will be left to rebuild the place."
Ironically, that sentiment bears a striking resemblance to popular perceptions of the US in this part of the world. It isn’t far removed from official US policy either.
In a high profile visit to Pakistan concluded yesterday, US State Department Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said the US supports continued Pakistan military operations in areas controlled by the Taliban. Negotiations with the Taliban, Boucher added, were out of the question.
For the residents of Peshawar, that could spell more attacks.
The names of people in this report have been changed to protect their identities.
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