Late one evening in March, I sat in Haandi, a Pakistani restaurant on Lexington Avenue, and watched the swearing in of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani. Gillani is a loyalist of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which since its founding in 1967 has been led by the Bhutto clan. The general election in February was held seven weeks after the PPP’s chair, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by a bomb blast and a bullet to the head at an election rally in Rawalpindi, and in an acrid climate of grief, anger and bewilderment, the PPP ended up trouncing President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League. A television suspended from the ceiling at Haandi showed Pakistan’s new prime minister discussing the restoration of democratic institutions and then announcing the release of the sixty-two judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been living under house arrest since President Musharraf imposed martial law on November 3. Soon after Gillani’s announcement, the television showed Chaudhry on the balcony of his house in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Crowds of supporters danced about and showered him with rose petals.
The news anchor then claimed a scoop, as one of the network’s reporters thrust a cellphone into Chaudhry’s face. The chief justice spoke into it, and his words reached me and the dozen or so Pakistani cabdrivers staring at a television in a restaurant in New York City. “There is still a long struggle ahead of us,” he said. Three men at my table broke into a spontaneous discussion. The newscast’s images of reform and hope reminded them of their country’s failures: a feudal social system, the rule of the landlords, nearly four decades of military rule, widespread inequality. These were men who worked twelve-hour shifts in their rented cabs and had for years lived apart from their families in Pakistan, to whom they regularly remitted their meager savings. One man talked about the tragedy of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Another compared prepartition India to a neighborhood: the country had been a cluster of houses owned by people who were related, often sons of the same father. They argued and fought, but at the end of the day they lived together as part of a larger whole. “We didn’t even maintain the house we got,” the man said.
The rooms long thought to be Pakistan’s messiest are the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which hug 500 miles of the country’s mountainous and dangerous border with Afghanistan. Six years ago, the mullahs of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamist parties, were elected in the NWFP during the wave of anti-Americanism that swelled up after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Yet in the recent elections there, the MMA was defeated by the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun nationalist party established in 1986 after the merger of a few left-leaning parties. The ANP is led by Asfandyar Wali Khan, the grandson of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the foremost twentieth-century leader of the Pashtuns, who was known as Frontier Gandhi and had opposed the partition of British India. The MMA’s re-election bid faltered because the party had failed to provide even the most rudimentary government services to the impoverished people of the frontier region, an area scarred by the brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare being waged by the Taliban and other Islamist militants who control the area and Pakistani soldiers supported by US forces. The MMA’s defeat has been celebrated as one of Pakistan’s most dramatic and positive developments.
The “war on terror” has made the borderlands a newsworthy topic, yet accounts of the daily struggles, aspirations and challenges of the region’s population are rare. American coverage of the recent elections there spotlighted the ANP’s victory as a rejection of Islamist parties and marginalized the issues that dominated the campaign: reducing the presence of the Pakistani military, lowering civilian casualties in the counterinsurgency operations and pushing a development agenda in the tribal belt. What’s not in short supply are stories about the mullahs and warring tribes; their prominence is a testament to how the frontier region remains an unruly captive of the narrative that first defined it for the world beyond the Hindu Kush and the Khyber Pass: the imperial “Great Game” played by Britain and Russia in the region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Great Game had its second inning in the early 1980s, when the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported the Afghan resistance against Soviet forces in neighboring Afghanistan.