Part 2: The ‘al-Qaeda’ cleric
SHAWAL, Pakistan – Maulana Salahuddin is respected as a voice of moderation and enlightenment in the valleys of Shawal in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. He wears several hats: those of a cleric, a Sufi, an educationist (he is the most educated person in the valleys – a master of arts, Arabic) – and a social worker.
The full-bearded Salahuddin also wears the traditional Taliban-style turban, which, allied with his clerical status, has made him fair game for the authorities as, in their twisted logic, beard + Taliban turban + cleric + residence in North Waziristan = al-Qaeda. (Such simplistic characterization is perhaps one reason key al-Qaeda members remain at large, but that is another story.)
Anyway, Salahuddin was rounded up by a Joint Interrogation Team comprising all Pakistani intelligence agencies as part of Islamabad’s hunt (at the behest of the United States) for al-Qaeda suspects taking refuge in the tribal areas.
Salahuddin was arrested in early April, and spent several weeks in custody. He was charged with harboring al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, plus having links with the killers of a Pakistani army major who was shot in Shawal during the recent insurgency in South Waziristan. He is the only person from Shawal to have been arrested to date, although the government has given a list with the names of 14 people – Salahuddin’s is not on it – who are believed to have ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to the tribal chief, Zarma Jan. The government has asked the chief either to hand over these suspects to the government or produce himself.
Asia Times Online was given the opportunity to meet with Salahuddin at his seminary in Mana (Apple) Valley in the Pakistani Shawal (there is an area also known as Shawal across the border in Afghanistan – it is much more rugged and inhospitable than the Pakistani one).
Commenting on his arrest, Salahuddin said: “I have good relations with all segments of society, including the [Pakistani Army] brigade commander and the [Federally Administered Tribal Area – FATA] political agent. Since I am the most known student of Islamic learning, somebody [referring to the US and its proxy network] thought that I would be the right catch. Therefore, one day I was summoned to the political agent’s office. I was told by different tribal elders not to go, as I would be arrested. I also had the same feeling, but since I am a man of a clear conscience, I went there and they arrested me.
“During the interrogation I answered all questions, and then put a question to them: ‘What was the need to arrest me?’ The entire state machinery from Bannu to Miranshah [in the FATA] knows me personally. Even the former corps commander of Peshawar, Ali Jan Orakzai, knew me as he inaugurated a school in my area. So much so that as I did not have the teachers for subjects like English and mathematics, I spoke to the brigade commander, and he gave me two army men who came and taught the students in the school. The school is with my seminary and home; therefore, they know all my activities.”
Maulana Salahuddin took a pause for tea, and then smiled. “I think to be a cleric is the only qualification which makes you a suspect in this area.”
This was our initial conversation, after which this correspondent remained with Salahuddin during his entire tour of Shawal, which, where possible, was made in a double-cabin vehicle (crew-cab truck).
Scenes from Shawal
The name Shawal sends shivers down the spines of the urban Pashtun residents of Peshawar and Kohat as it is widely perceived as being extremely remote, and beyond the general writ of law that governs other Pakistanis.
Most of Shawal’s decent people are engaged in farming. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling as many locals have sold their land to contractors, who have been quick to cut down trees and sell the wood in urban centers. One estimate suggests that by next year, Shawal will be completely devoid of vegetation on its mountains. Sadly, the uneducated people of the region believe that the trees and plants will simply grow again, and deforestation is not an issue, despite the efforts of Salahuddin to convince them otherwise.
Many of those people who are not farmers have found quick money to be made in activities like kidnapping for ransom, carjacking and heroin trafficking, so much so that these businesses are the trademark of the Datakhail area of Shawal. To the authorities, the area is like a big black hole where things simply disappear without a trace. Children are also kidnapped, both male and female, and they are used for labor as well as sex. Recently, a new business has emerged – kidnapping government officials for ransom.
The residents are not without humor, though. At one point, when our vehicle stopped for refreshments, people, noticing Salahuddin, joked that we were ripe for kidnapping. “Yesterday, two people were kidnapped, now you have brought three new ones,” one man said, adding that one of our clean-shaven Pashtun colleagues “would fetch Rs300,000” (US$5,200).
With this kind of interaction with the tribals of Shawal in mind, later that night, when Salahuddin was with this correspondent in the guest house of the chief of the Shawal, we spoke at some length, including various philosophies on Sufism.
Asia Times Online: In the outside world, the valleys of Shawal are considered as hotbeds of al-Qaeda. What is your opinion on this?
Salahuddin: Nobody can outright deny that there are no al-Qaeda in the area, but people do not actually know. You have visited the area – it comprises a very porous mountainous border [with Afghanistan]. The government of Pakistan has only stationed a brigade, which has set up a few checkposts in the area. There are no barricades on the border, only checkposts. At the same time, we all know that resistance fighters are active in Paktia, Paktika and Khost [provinces in Afghanistan’s east] and when they are chased [by the US] they cross the border into Pakistan. The present force of the Pakistan army is insufficient. They need to jack up their presence in the area. At present, they are not in a position to secure their own positions, how can they protect the area from infiltration?
ATol: So you are asking for additional troops in the area?
Salauddin: Of course, yes. But it is not the only solution, there are some urgent steps which are required also. The first step is the installation of a TV booster in Shawal … [interrupted]
ATol: There is no electricity in the area, no hospital, and you ask for a TV booster?
Salauddin: Understanding and awareness are more precious things than other necessities. I run TV sets with batteries, and people use bulbs and other electrical gadgets operated with car batteries. These people do not have much ambition in life. Therefore, they take recourse in fighting with other tribes, and some of them support al-Qaeda and the Taliban and fight their battles. The reason is their minimum interaction with the outer world. Once these people got a vision of the outer world through television, it would change their social lives.
At the same time, education is equally important. On my campaigning, the government constructed a school In Shawal [which goes up to Standard 8] , but since we do not have enough teachers, we only teach up to Standard 6, and that is not up to the mark. I spoke to the brigade commander of the area to provide us the teachers. He arranged for two army men to teach subjects like English and math. But after a while they felt it was too difficult to handle the kids, and they gave up teaching. I appeal to you through you publication to private institutions to come forward and send educated teachers and arrange for their salaries. We will provide them with accommodation and full protection. Illiteracy is the biggest problem of the area. Most of the Shawal people are rich. Each house has three double-cabin vehicles worth millions of rupees. Each family owns land, yet you see children roaming the valleys with bare feet, and they grow up without any understanding of what life is all about.
ATol: During the recent insurgency in South Waziristan, a major along with two soldiers was shot dead in Shawal. Who was behind it?
Salahuddin: Obviously no Shawal tribe was involved. Major Waheed [the deceased] was a known figure in the area, and known for his down-to-earth nature. Whosoever is friendly with Shawal people, we cannot think of killing him. It is against the nature of these people.
ATol: Then who were the killers?
Salahuddin: Maybe an infiltrator from a neighboring tribe, maybe Northern Alliance miscreants [from Afghanistan] to fan insurgency in all the [seven] tribal areas, and yes, possibly al-Qaeda fighters, who can easily cross into Pakistan for hit-and-run operations. But let me make it clear, no stranger can stay [unknown] in the Shawal area for any length of time. It is impossible.
ATol: The movement of tribes is the main reason behind the infiltration. For instance, in the Pakistani Shawal, we have tribes with relatives in the Afghan area of Birmal, near the no-man’s land of the Afghan Shawal. What do you suggest to resolve this problem?
Salahuddin: The relationship with the Afghan tribes is a reality, but there are other realities as well. The whole world believes in international boundaries – yet we have to live without boundaries. The autonomy of our tribal belt has been something of a shattered dream since September 11 , and if we tribals abide by these old concepts [no borders] we will ultimately lose … [interrupted]
ATol: But what about tribal relations. There might be one cousin in Afghanistan, and another in Pakistan?
Salahuddin: We have examples of another great divide, and that is India and Pakistan, in which millions of families are divided. They have maintained their relations under the legal restrictions. They get visas and cross the borders to meet their relations. It is a painful thing, but a reality. Ultimately, the same order will have to prevail in the region to prevent complications.
ATol: How is it that you have views that are not shared by others in Shawal?
Salahuddin: I received my education in various places, including Lahore, Bahawalpur, Hyderabad and Karachi, but my interaction with the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Karachi gave me new vision. At the same time, in the Sufi school of thought I follow Shah Waliullah [the most prominent scholar Sufi and reformer of his time, 1702-63, in Delhi]. Shah Waliullah was the voice of reform in society, and was against blind followings in religious schools, and therefore emphasized new research.
Tomorrow, Part 3: The Taliban’s story