Peshawar: The Obdurate Bastion Of Soviet-era Mujahideen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 17

Traveling on the luxury, air-conditioned Express Bus from Islamabad to Peshawar is a defining experience that suddenly confronts Pakistan’s historical secularism with a new-found Islamic fundamentalism. When the bus reaches the border between the province of the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP, of which Peshawar is the provincial capital), an announcement is made requesting all passengers to hand over their headphones to the hostess. The television screen in the front of the bus that was so far playing a variety of entertaining programs now goes blank. The reason: the NWFP provincial government has banned playing of music on public transport as part of its “Islamization” agenda.

The fall-out is that recent visitors to Peshawar will also find very few billboards on its roads and highways depicting female figures. The “Youth Wing” of the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) – a coalition of conservative religious parties that swept the provincial polls at the end of 2002 – has seen to it that all billboards advertising their wares with female figures be destroyed. The few remaining billboards with female faces are either installed on top of buildings too high for the “Youth Wing” to reach, or they compliantly depict women properly covered in cap and gown and advertising educational institutions.

Such developments are a far cry from the 1960s when the elite of the city used to congregate at the Peshawar Club (now under Pakistan Army management and called the Garrison Peshawar Club) to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday Ball. The Club still has rooms and its bar framed with photographs of stern-looking British colonial officer’s wives and their entourage, including hunting dogs, with titles such as “Lady Spencer and the Peshawar Vale Hunt of 1938.” The Club still has its swimming pool, but there is no more co-ed swimming. However, a peculiar British version of “Tombola” (a form of bingo) thrives on as devotees gather every week to play.

With a recorded history of over two thousand years, Peshawar has often been in the limelight because of its strategic position between Central Asia and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent – a meeting point for traders and invaders passing through on their way to India. During the Buddhist Gandhara period (2nd century BC through 6th century AD), it was a great center of Buddhism and the capital of the Kushan Empire. During the 19th century under British colonial rule, Peshawar played an important role in “The Great Game,” a phrase immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a shadowy struggle for control of Central Asia and India between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia. [1]

At the end of 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Afghan refugees began arriving in large numbers, transforming Peshawar into an exile headquarters for Afghan resistance groups and a base of operations for Western aid and intelligence agencies. Thousands of expatriates, along with a host of preachers, intelligence agents, gun-runners, drug traffickers and soldiers of fortune took residence in the up-scale University Town – assisting the Afghan jihad. The soldiers of fortune and the assorted intelligence agents (of various persuasions and nationalities) often congregated in the evening at the bar of the American Club located in a leafy compound in University Town. Considered the best watering hole to take refuge from the rigors of jihad, the Westerners let their hair down to the limit allowed. Locals – except for the serving personnel, some of whom were suspected to be Pakistani intelligence plants – were taboo at the bar but on occasions they could be invited to the dining room for a hamburger or sloppy joe.

By the end of the 1980s, the NGO coordinating body ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief) was listing nearly 200 aid agencies in Peshawar. Osama bin Laden and his associates reportedly were some of the visitors. Occasionally, bomb blasts would shatter the peace of the locals as well as encourage blood-letting among the resistance groups. Today, an estimated one million Afghan refugees still remain in Peshawar and its environs despite heavy repatriation during the last three years.

Whereas previous acts of terrorism in NWFP were related to the Pakhtun or Pashtun (the largest ethnic group in NWFP and in Afghanistan) separatist and nationalist movements and the nearly two decades of Afghan jihad, the present spate of incidents are thought to be directly related to the Pakistan Army’s operations in the semi-autonomous “Tribal Areas” in pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants.

During the last two years, the Pakistan Army – for the first time in Pakistan’s 57-year old history – has deployed both paramilitary and regular armed forces in parts of North and South Waziristan agencies along the frontier with Afghanistan in a hunt for an estimated 500 foreign jihadi elements who are thought to have taken refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas because of U.S. military operations on the Afghan side of the border. About 70,000 paramilitary (called “levies” in the British colonial lexicon) and regular army troops are deployed by Pakistan on its side of the porous border. [2]

In March 2004, after the Pakistan Army’s operation began in earnest in and around Wana in South Waziristan, rockets were fired, allegedly by tribesmen, towards the runway of the Peshawar Airport, which serves both military and civil aviation. Soon thereafter, two missiles were fired from a hand cart which hit the CIA (Criminal Investigation Agency) police interrogation center injuring at least two policemen. While it is understandable that most people undergoing interrogation in this center would be happy to blow it up, informed opinion is that the rockets were meant for the airport runway which is directly behind the CIA Center.

The cost to the Pakistan Army of the Wana Operation has been high: At least 150 soldiers in addition to many militants (both foreign and Pakistani) and uncounted tribal civilians including women and children have been killed. [3] Furthermore, tribal retaliation in the form of landmines and rocket attacks continue. Security officials also believe that the recent suicide bomber attack on the recently elected Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, originated in the tribal areas. [4] The operation has also highlighted the tensions between the provincial MMA government and the military dominated regime of General Pervez Musharraf. The MMA openly opposes the Wana Operation and the Army’s move into the Pashtun conservative tribal areas. In turn, the former federal interior minister is openly accusing the Jamat-e Islami, a major component of MMA, of links with al-Qaeda militants as some of them were arrested from Jamaat members’ homes. The MMA is also very critical of the federal government’s crackdown on allegedly extremist madrassahs. [5]

For the residents of Peshawar, the Wana Operation means putting up with additional restrictions on their movements. The Army, alarmed by acts of sabotage, has placed areas of the “Cantonment” (another colonial legacy which divided cities into two parts: “Cantonments” where the British Indian Army and the British administrators lived in large open bungalows and the congested old city where most “natives’ were confined). In particular parts of “The Mall” (a major thoroughfare now renamed after the founder of Pakistan as Jinnah Avenue) where major military installations and offices are situated, are off-limits to civilians without a special sticker on their vehicle. To drive through these areas, called “Green Zone” by local hacks after the Coalition headquarters in Baghdad, one requires a sticker issued by the Army authorities. There are also additional check posts around the city manned by army and police personnel.

Post 9/11 Pakistan is facing a new breed of militants. Perceiving the “war on terror” as an open-ended crusade against anything Islamic and Muslim, this breed of educated young men are increasingly angry at the Pakistani establishment, which they feel is compromising with the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” to the level of servility. These middle class youths are ready to go after their leaders as well as the West. Repeated suicide bombing attacks since the end of 2003 on Pakistani establishment figures, including President Musharraf, and the subsequent arrests of alleged perpetrators of these acts in major Pakistani urban areas are a reflection of this mind-set. [6]


1. For a readable account of this secret and not-so-secret struggle see Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

2. Figure quoted by Major-General Sultan, official Pakistan Army spokesperson, in an interview on GEO Television, August 29, 2004.

3. Newsline, Karachi, August 2004, p.26.

4. Newsline, Ibid.

5. Dawn, Islamabad.

6. The August 2004 issue of the respectable Pakistan English language journal, Newsline, cited earlier, addresses these phenomena.