Dispatches From Pakistan

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 4 2004 12:54 PM

Dispatches From Pakistan

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Box portrait camera and photographers, Peshawar
Box portrait camera and photographers, Peshawar

We rose early to travel with our friend Masror and driver Shah 100 miles north to Peshawar. Masror convinced me I would blend in better if I wore a traditional salwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy pants worn by most Pakistani men. He said I could pass for one of the light-skinned Pashtuns, or failing that, an Uzbek or Chechen tourist of some sort. I wear it, but my mannerisms and incomprehension of Urdu, Pashto, Dari, or anything else useful are a dead giveaway. Masror's Pashtun friend tells us the South Waziristan town of Wana stands for Women Are Not Allowed. He adds that Peshawar should be called Fana: Foreigners Are Not Allowed.

Crossing the junction of the Indus and Kabul rivers, we enter the North West Frontier Province, the vast semiautonomous region that borders Afghanistan. Outside Peshawar, we passed the madrasah that, according to Masror, 80 percent of the Taliban studied at. Peshawar, supposedly the most dangerous city in the most dangerous country in the world, the last stop before the Khyber Pass, has had a romantic allure for centuries, so I was a bit disappointed to see a billboard with the smirking, bearded countenance of … not Osama, not even Shah Masood, but Col. Sanders looming over the city. KFC has arrived at its final frontier.

The author has his photograph taken with a box camera
The author has his photograph taken with a box camera
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Another unconsciously ironic abbreviation in Peshawar is found on the ubiquitous signs for United Bank Limited—UBL for short—whose directors doubtless have no idea that their abbreviation of choice is the FBI's code name for Bin Laden himself. Or maybe he's just hiding his funding apparatus in plain sight. As for the whereabouts of Pakistan's most famous noncitizen, everybody has an opinion. Our driver, a well-connected Pashtun tribesman, states matter-of-factly that Bin Laden is in the Waziristan town of Tirah. A human rights advocate in Islamabad insisted to me that Osama is in New York City. "He works for the CIA. He is no hero to Muslims. What roads, what medical centers has he built for the Afghan people?" Masror says, with a smirk, that he's at Musharraf's house in Rawalpindi. In his view, Bin Laden is Musharraf's trump card, his best chance to keep Pakistan at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy and aid. No major al-Qaida figure has been "rolled up" without severe pressure from the United States. To Masror, the quid pro quo involved in such exchanges, like allowing Musharraf to pardon A.Q. Khan, is clear. I don't know whether to believe him when he tells me that a relative, a medical doctor, was secretly flown to Tora Bora every week to offer his medical services to al-Qaida's high command.

We stopped for lunch at the offices of Babrak Shinwari, an Afghan Pashtun who spent 10 years in a Soviet jail and is now a member of the loya jirga, the Afghan tribal council that is fitfully attempting to establish a government. If the elections, delayed once already, occur on time in September, Shinwari intends to run for office. Like many Pashtuns, he is gigantic, with hands that look as though he could palm a bowling ball, and speaks passionately about the fate of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He refers to Bin Laden with the Pashtun word for "comrade," but we hope it is an error of translation.

After lunch, we take a tour of an Afghan refugee camp. Women billow through the alleys between mud brick houses, and shopkeepers sell almonds and dried mulberries. Men sit for portraits in front of ancient wooden box cameras. Masror calls the burqas "shuttlecocks" for their resemblance to badminton birdies. The camps, many of them 20 years old, have shrunk since the fall of the Taliban. But the remaining refugees are stuck in an untenable situation, because while international aid has largely migrated to Afghanistan, many believe the situation there hasn't improved enough for them to safely return home.

From the camp, we drove up through the Smuggler's Bazaar, the famously wild face of Peshawar, a swarming mass of tents and shops presided by Pashtuns, Afghans, and Chitrali tribesmen. There is possibly no more diverse old city in Asia than Peshawar's, with the mixed bloodlines of a hundred conquering armies conducting a frantic commerce, selling everything from Chinese DVDs to hairbrushes to the latest Hollywood films.

Public transportation, Afghan refugee camp, Peshawar
Public transportation, Afghan refugee camp, Peshawar

The road continued west toward the Khyber Pass, and our driver, a Pashtun tribesman, dapper with sunglasses behind the wheel of his Suzuki, drove us past a barricade that said, in block letters, "NO FOREIGNERS BEYOND THIS POINT." I figured he knew what he was doing, and I suppose I was thinking, "How often do you get to just drive by a sign that says that?" There we were, all of a sudden in the tribal-administered Khyber Agency, beyond the reach of the Pakistani authorities. This is where the ungovernable Pakistan begins, bordering Afghanistan for 600 miles, kept as a buffer zone from the marauding Afghans since British times.

If he is in Pakistan, "Comrade" Bin Laden is somewhere up there, and the tribal codes by which the region is governed, the complementary philosophies of revenge and hospitality, have led to a head-on collision with the outside world. Supposedly hunting for Ayman al-Zawahiri near Wana this spring, the Pakistani army made its first-ever incursion into the tribal areas, which ended as a failure or a complete disaster, depending on who you ask. Pakistan's North West Frontier is not a lawless region, but rather a strict feudal system that cannot be moderated by the modern world.

A gun shop in the Khyber Agency
A gun shop in the Khyber Agency

Somehow, perhaps stupidly, I felt protected by my salwar kameez, and I stepped out into the gun-selling bazaar we had just parked in. A sign unself-consciously advertised an "International Arms Dealer." A man in a shop front filed a 9-mm pistol from a block of steel clamped in a vise. In the next shop, I was offered a brand new Kalashnikov for $300. That seemed to attract the attention of the Khyber police, and they came over waving their (loaded) Kalashnikovs, yelling in Pashto for us to get the hell back onto the other side of the barrier. I looked up the road, which vanished in a haze of dust as overloaded trucks and buses crept toward the Khyber Pass. Thirty miles on is Torkham, where Alexander the Great entered the subcontinent, and beyond that, 14 hours by road, Kabul. Maybe next time.

Driving back to Islamabad, we passed fields of boys playing cricket in the setting sun. We stopped at a Subway outlet managed by the cousin of our driver. By the ancient law of melmastia, the Pashtun code of hospitality to visitors even unto death, we weren't allowed to pay for our sandwiches. The boy at the register smiled and blushed, "I will not take your money." We got back to our heavily guarded guest house in time to watch the second half of Law & Order on cable.

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