Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Challenging the myths of Pakistan’s turbulent northwest

By Reuters Staff
April 21, 2010


Reuters’ journalist Myra Macdonald travelled to Pakistan’s northwest on the border with Afghanistan  to find that some of the Kiplingesque images of  xenophobic Pasthuns and ungovernable lands may be a bit off the mark especially now when the Pakistani army has taken the battle to the Islamist militants.  Here’s her account :

                               By Myra MacDonald

KHAR, Pakistan – I had not expected Pakistan’s tribal areas to be so neat and so prosperous.

These are meant to be the badlands, mythologised as no-go areas by Kiplingesque images of xenophobic Pashtuns, jezail musket in hand, defying British troops from rugged clifftops.

They are the “ungovernable” lands where al Qaeda took sanctuary after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan; the bastion of Islamist militants said to threaten the entire world.

Yet to fly by helicopter for the first time into Bajaur tribal agency is to challenge the more wildly imagined cliches about this little-visited region on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Here, in the northernmost part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), you realise this region is no longer as ferocious as feared and that while militants still call the shots in parts of FATA, Bajaur at least is somewhat pacified.

The Pakistan army knows this and has brought us, a small group of foreign journalists, to Bajaur to try to convince us it has turned a corner in its battle against Islamist militants.

PAKISTAN-TRIBAL/WITNESSIt is a message we are given repeatedly on a whirlwind tour of the country. In Islamabad, the city is relatively relaxed despite the many checkpoints, the jacaranda trees are in bloom and families are back out strolling in the parks.

A minister reminisces about the bars of his student days; an official remembers the more peaceful country that existed before the jihad against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In Karachi, businessmen party through the power cuts and talk up the stock market; in Lahore, academics speak of the potential cultural revival of a country of 170 million people.

The still-frequent bombings and lingering militant hideouts, including in North Waziristan on the Afghan border, give plenty of grounds for scepticism. But visiting Bajaur is meant to make you believe that something has changed.


Our helicopter lands in Khar, at a fort which less than two years ago was under siege with rockets raining down every day.

Authorities had ceded control of the surrounding area running up to the Afghan border to militants believed to have once offered sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

It became so bad that, according to one military official, the army feared even the fort would be overrun, the troops inside either massacred or taken prisoner en masse.

Outside the fort, the militants ran their own checkpoints, collected revenue, beheaded prisoners in the bazaar and convinced every family to offer up one male child to the cause.

Even reopening a marble factory required written permission from the militants; another man — according to the army — turned himself from labourer to landlord by successfully navigating the paperwork of their newly created bureaucracy.

Now we are able to drive out of the fort towards the border to inspect an abandoned former stronghold of the Taliban.

This is a region which we are told was run according to a 6,000-year-old tribal system — primitive say some, mature say others — where each individual was so clear of his or her obligation to society that it worked “perfectly” in its own way.

The fields are either neatly terraced or carefully laid out and the land is well-tended and fertile. If you have travelled in South Asia, it looks remarkably prosperous, either thanks to the old tribal order or money sent in by workers in the Gulf.

The terrain is hilly rather than rugged, although the mountains rise up at the Afghan border in the distance.

The old order broke down with the CIA-backed Pakistan-led jihad against the Soviets which stressed pan-Islamism over tribal loyalty; it nearly collapsed altogether with the flood of fighters fleeing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The militants became so entrenched that when Pakistani authorities tried to reassert control in 2008 by setting up a checkpoint at the region’s main crossroads, the 150 troops there found themselves surrounded by a thousand fighters.

They began to run out of water and ammunition and each party sent from Khar to rescue them was ambushed. Eventually, after fierce fighting, 140 made it back to Khar. But it was enough to convince the army to launch a full-scale military operation.

In February, the army cleared out the last of the main militant strongholds in Bajaur after months of intense fighting which destroyed villages, left gaping wounds in buildings from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and sent villagers fleeing.


Our small group drives out of the fort of Khar in pick-up trucks, soldiers standing in the back around a rather alarming stack of black-tipped RPGs meant to guarantee our safety.

The roads here are better than in much of South Asia and we drive fast — presumably to avoid a bullet from a lone gunman or a remotely triggered IED. It is clear that while the strongholds may have been overrun, the area is still not secure.

Yet the atmosphere is less threatening than I had felt for example in Kashmir at the height of the insurgency there.

The crowds of men we come across along the road stare, but without menace. The young girls in white, their heads but not their faces covered, ignore us. Women are nowhere to be seen.

The soldiers who fan out when we reach the abandoned stronghold at Damadola some 20 minutes drive away, where local militant leader Fakir Mohammad once held court, are watchful but not jumpy.

At the very least, the myth of the “ungovernable” tribal areas — so beloved of Raj-era tales — has been broken.

The militants were so well entrenched at Damadola that only when the fighting intensified did they put up a sign asking local people to stop bringing their disputes for settlement.

As the army pressed forward, some militants escaped, including the leaders, into Afghanistan, or back into the population. Some were captured, many were killed. The last of them retreated into a warren of caves dug out of the hillside.

You have to stoop low to get through the narrow tunnel at the entrance to the caves, fighting claustrophobia before you can stand up straight again in a dark cavern.

The army says it cleared these caves one by one, throwing in smoke grenades and then opening fire. For some of the local boys, given up by their families to join the militants, this would be the last they saw of their neat and prosperous land.


nice photo Myra, welcome to Pakistan and yes weather in Islamabad these days is really pleasent.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

It’s a good move by the army to allow foreign media journalists to visit the areas once held by militants. This will help in portraying a clear picture of the ground realities i.e. the efforts of our army in rooting out militancy from the region.

Posted by Farukh Sarwar | Report as abusive

This is a good article and it is important to get these after-action reports on areas once the headlines have passed. Nevertheless, it might be worth remembering that Kipling was a writer of fiction, and so any Kiplingesque account would, by definition, also be a myth. Moreover, the phrase ‘ungovernable’ begs the question: ungovernable by whom? For local pashtuns, episodes of violence are often short-lived and for generations a local democracy by Jirga, in other words a local government, functioned well. The neat fields and agriculture you observed has been a characteristic of intensive farming in the area for just as long. The tragedy is that militant leaders, enraptured by false promises, led so many local men against the full might of the Pakistan Army – their own army. One hopes this civil war will soon pass.


i hope india will release from pakistan’s kashimir and …


Is there any danger of this area being flooded with Taliban militants when the push in Kandahar happens soon?



@At the very least, the myth of the “ungovernable” tribal areas — so beloved of Raj-era tales — has been broken.”

—Aren’t we bit quick to draw a conlusion? PA is still carrying out operations. let them comeback, wait and see. I hope all stays well. The I will say for sure—not now.

@Yet the atmosphere is less threatening than I had felt for example in Kashmir at the height of the insurgency there.”
—Oh yeah! tell us more. “felt” is bit loaded word.

It does not matter what you feel in a quick tour.
less threatening to whom—you?–that is irrelevent, must ask civilians if they felt threatened. may be you forgot the artillary fire, the use of airpower by PA. Close your eyes and think you are a resident in the area. You will feel that it is not exactly the way you describe.

If you allow me to speak my mind, your article is sketchy and you are jumping to conclusions.

Posted by rajeevk | Report as abusive

She has aptly written what she has felt and has the ligitmacy to conclude some parameter based on her observation. On the other hand, we been not to area, and flow out our negative fantacies here seems more sketchy. There are sure more things to be sort out including threats on the other side of the border. I hope this area return to its peace and free of evil forces, in whatever forms operate there.

Posted by Khan | Report as abusive

What details more you want? Just look at the Youtube and you will find the facts how Bajaur was captured by the Pakistan Army? She is 100% correct in her observation. The Taliban have been routed in Bajaur as in Swat and South Waziristan.

May I ask what has NATO done on the other side of the border Mr Negatives may I ask?

Posted by ratee | Report as abusive

@ Ratee

OMG , I think I am under friendly fire. My reply was in response to Rajeev, and in favour of the author’s observation.
Anywayz Pak Forces have done the best and now its NATO turn to do more on their side. Also I directed earlier that now threat exists on other side of the border from where terrorist get support.

Posted by Khan | Report as abusive

I hope the journalist and anyone interested in northern Pakistan and Afganistan have read the book “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Relin. The followup book is “Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan.” An incredible story and an important message in how to prevent terrorism.

Posted by G. Duykers | Report as abusive


very nice picture, Though i am from india(Hindu) i am happy to see my brothers and sisters playing…let the terrorism go away and may Pakistanis have prosperous life.

Posted by selvam | Report as abusive

The tour or Pak army is the same as tour my real estate agent will conduct for showing residential property. Americans! wake up. You are spending too much in aid for maintaining balance of power. You are at your own risk in giving trillion dollar aid

Posted by Ragu | Report as abusive

Mr. Ragu seems more concern about American Trillion Dollars aid. So give them your good concept of minimum spending while maintaining the balanch of power.

Posted by Khan | Report as abusive

I’ll believe all this when journalists start reporting from around Pakistan without press passes and minders.

Safe? Yeah right.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

The Brirs. or the forefathers of Ncdonalds stayed there for almost one hundred years and sent similar commentary to their homeland. Yes a lot has changed since those days. Many non Pashtoon folks from other part of the country have taken residence there somewhat similar to millions who are now living in the United Kingdom as UK citizens. In fact it is Scotland now which is seeking indepemdence from the the UK. But this is another story. I have a question, does Myra speaks or understand Pashto. The journalist who report on “France 24″ cable net work go to the same territory with the Taliban guides and that tells the world a different story. Inccidently General Warburton did speak some Pashto and understood the language as well. Perhaps Myra should read his book and next time accompany the local tribe’s man to report the story and not that is insinuated by the occupation army. Myra Macdonald could have also ask the army spokesman if they are still paying a monthly toll to the tribal elders in the area?

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

The last post is gibberish. Warburton was a Colonel and not a General. He was half Pathan (mother was a Durrani ‘princess’) and so he spoke excellent Pashto and Dari, not just ‘some.’

I also suggest you read the accounts of how the Sikhs pacified the Frontier tribes if you want to know why the US is not succeeding. The problem with the Pakistani Army is that it has no plan for what to do once the Taliban are pushed out. There is no COIN strategy and no civilian administration to take over anything… just like in Afghanistan.

Posted by Fuzair | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see