The South Asia Channel

Arithmetic on the frontier

The following is an excerpt from an article by Declan Walsh, the Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. It appears in the current issue of Granta, which in this issue features original art, fiction, and reporting from Pakistan. The full article is available for purchase here.

There are, by his own admission, two Anwar Kamals. One is the ‘polished gent' of Peshawar, a leading member of the Pashtun elite with a taste for frontier bling. His pied-à-terre is a spacious house in Hayatabad, the city's best suburb, where he frequently dines with his three university-educated sons. He drives an imposing white Japanese jeep with dashboard television (and prayer counter for Islamic recitations), carries the latest mobile phone and, being a qualified pilot, keeps a small plane at the local aerodrome. Some years back he imported a pair of greyhounds from England for the purpose of hunting boar on the family lands. A fading portrait of a serious-looking man on his living-room wall is testimony to his rich political pedigree. Khan Habibullah Khan, Kamal's father, was a minor star in the early decades of Pakistan, serving as Home Minister in the 1960s and chairman of the Senate in the 1970s. At one point he was Acting President of the country. Kamal has had a less prominent, yet also distinguished, career in public service. He was a provincial minister twice and a national senator once; in 1990 he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, during which time he lodged at the luxury Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.

The second Anwar Kamal emerges when he jumps into his jeep and heads for Lakki Marwat, a bumpy four-hour ride to the south. Lakki is his constituency, but also his land, his power, and his identity. Here, Kamal sleeps with a rocket launcher under his wood-frame bed, in a sprawling, draughty fortress guarded by dozens of tribesmen, spends his time in lengthy confabulation with bearded elders and generally acts in a manner that seems to contradict everything the other Anwar Kamal stands for.

The first time we met, in June 2007, we were sitting in his living room in Peshawar, which is adorned with pinkish, flowery wallpaper. On the table between us was a photo album, the sort that might contain snaps of foreign holidays or grinning grandchildren. Instead it was a gallery of war: dozens of images of fierce-looking tribesmen, bristling with weapons, against a harsh backdrop of arid hills. Kamal featured in several of the pictures; in one he sat at the controls of a long, menacing weapon. It was an ack-ack, he explained: a 12.8cm anti-aircraft gun of the kind used by the British to fend off German bombers during the Second World War. A most satisfying weapon, he added, recounting its most recent use.

‘You see, we were being fired on from three sides by some individuals who were hiding in a burj,' he said in his gravelly voice. ‘So I called up my driver, Akhtar' - a smiling young chap I'd met earlier - ‘and I said, "Bastard! Get that ack-ack and fire back!" So he grabbed it and gave it a burst of seven or eight rounds. What a noise - the whole ground started shaking! The bullets went right through that burj, killing two of those individuals who were sitting there.' He paused for effect, and then chuckled.

‘Within a split of a second there was absolute silence. Everyone was calm and cool.'

This dramatic exchange had taken place in 2004 at the height of some particular aggravation with the Bhittanis, the Marwats' nearest neighbors and oldest rivals. A row had erupted and for the next year hotheads from both sides engaged in the usual needle tactics - tit-for-tat shootings, kidnappings, hostage executions - when things got out of hand. In a brash upping of the ante, the Bhittanis snatched two Marwat women. Kamal was outraged. ‘Now, kidnapping men we don't mind. That is usual. But taking our ladies - that was totally unprecedented!'

In retaliation, first the Marwats kidnapped six Bhittani women and three children. Then they roused a lashkar - a tribal fighting force - with the aim of sweeping into the Bhittani lair, retrieving the abducted damsels and teaching their insolent neighbours a sharp lesson. Kamal led from the front, binoculars in one hand and pistol in the other. It was, by several accounts, a messy affair. The Pakistan Army, which was conducting operations in the nearby tribal belt, mistook the tribesmen for al-Qaeda fugitives and fired a few artillery rounds at them. ‘A genuine misunderstanding,' said Kamal.

Combat was sporadic. The most dramatic confrontation occurred when Kamal's guards shot dead a pair of Bhittanis racing towards them on a motorbike. ‘Two hundred bullets in each!' he recalled with relish. And the hostages were less lucky. One of the abducted women was burned alive with lamp oil (some said it was suicide, others murder); the second was spirited deep into the tribal belt. When the matter was finally resolved a year later, an inter-tribal jirga ordered the Marwats to pay 16 million rupees - about $260,000 - in blood money. It was expensive, Kamal admitted as we polished off our tea, but worth every cent. ‘It's not about money. The question is: "Did you restore your honour?" And we did.' 

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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