Rhetoric fuels the people's anger in troubled province

War against terrorism: Frontier
Click to follow

As the Afghan war enters its second week, can General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, retain the support of his people? Or, as reported civilian casualties multiply, will disorder weaken his hand – even, perhaps, threaten the existence of his government?

President Musharraf moved to quell these dangers last week. He sacked two generals formerly close to him, Ahmad Mahmood and Muzaffar Usmani, who were obstructing his pro-West policies and may have been plotting to oust him.

And on 7 October, the day Allied air strikes began, he put a fundamentalist cleric, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, under house arrest in his home near Dera Ismail Khan in North West Frontier Province. Mr Rehman, the leader of the extremist religious party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, had been whipping up large crowds in cities around the country for weeks, denouncing the United States and calling for a jihad against the infidels.

Despite Mr Rehman's confinement and that of several other firebrand clerics, demonstrations continued all week across the country. I travelled five hours south of Islamabad to speak to Mr Rehman, and spent the following day driving through the province, close to the Afghan border, to gauge the mood in this, the most sensitive area in the country.

Mr Rehman – an imposingly large, fleshy man with the compulsory heavy beard and black curls peeping from under an embroidered cap – is guarded at his concrete villa by armed police. But he is not kept in isolation, and a steady flow of followers, relatives and Pakistani journalists pay court. I was the first foreigner; the police waved me in with bored expressions.

Mr Rehman's rhetoric is a cocktail of blandly outrageous assertions and more interesting comments that suggest he has a shrewd political mind.

The Jews, he said, repeating what every Pakistani bazaar urchin "knows", were behind the attacks of 11 September.

"Before the US/UK attacks began, we were not sure what their nature would be," he said. "Now our suspicions have been confirmed: as we feared, civilians are the only targets."

Moreover, he said, Osama bin Laden could not have committed the attacks on America (which he, Mr Rehman, had condemned): "He doesn't have the resources." So if he was not involved, why had Osama rejoiced in them? "It is only human to be glad when bad things happen to your enemy."

The demonstrations organised by his party had kicked up a lot of noise, but had they achieved anything else?

"Government policy has changed as a result of our protests," he claimed. "The government offers only limited support to America. Our protests have encouraged the mass of people to give moral and political support to the people of Afghanistan."

I said that General Musharraf had pointed out that Mr Rehman represented a minority – only 15 per cent of the population. "Well, 15 per cent is a big part of the population," Mr Rehman said. "We would ask the government, what percentage do you represent? I say to the government, don't use the word 'minority' for us, or we will use the phrase 'some soldiers' for you."

China and Russia had wanted America to attack Afghanistan, he chuckled fleshily. "America has fallen into a complicated trap, and it won't be able to get out."

Outside the house, my translator and I were beckoned over by the police and told we were not at liberty to go back to our hotel. They wanted us to return to Islamabad "immediately". An officer with a sub-machine- gun was put into our car and we were taken around the town's primitive police stations while they tried to find a senior officer to decide what should be done with us.

After we had waited two hours, a superintendent said we could stay in the town overnight but had to return to Islamabad by the fastest route the next morning. Two officers visited my hotel room that evening to repeat the message, and in the morning they telephoned to ensure we were on our way.

General Musharraf is clearly falling back on the tried and trusted Pakistani stand-by of heavy policing. Foreign journalists are kept away from scenes of protest "for your own safety" (though no journalists have yet been injured); the protests themselves are kept under control by increasingly naked and intimidating displays of state power. And these may be prudent precautions, because up and down the North West Frontier, the anger of the people is rising.

I did not return to Islamabad by the fastest route. Instead, we meandered northward through the province. The Afghan border was 35 miles away, the far side of tribal lands into which foreigners must not venture without permits that have been impossible to obtain since the conflict started.

We drove through the fatly fertile flood plain of the Indus Valley, through fields where camels pulled ploughs, through plantations of sugar cane and date palms, into a landscape of rust red conical hills and high eroded cliffs. I was the only foreign journalist for hundreds of miles in any direction, and everywhere I went the locals were glad to bend my ear.

We stopped for tea in the town of Tank, where the Raj administrator Sir Mortimer Durand was knocked from his elephant and killed 150 years ago by a gate that was too low. It was named Durand Gate in his memory.

The locals do not have much love in their hearts for the English (in which term, worryingly, they include America) just at the moment. A crowd quickly gathered around the string bed on which I was perched. "The English cannot win this war," a young man said with his eyes glinting. "To repay these attacks, we will do much harm to the English." He pulled a fingernail across his jugular. "We've heard that 200 people have died in Afghanistan. If our leaders call for jihad, we will go to Afghanistan and fight."

I stopped at a bend in the road called Ghundi Chowk to buy fruit. At once another crowd pressed round, some smiling, others merely staring. "We all support the Taliban here," they said. "It's nothing to do with the religious parties – all of us feel the same way. We're not a minority at all. Only 2 per cent support Musharraf."

I smiled and said thank you for their views and got back in the car. The driver, who was becoming unhappy, shot off.

General Musharraf and his spokesmen have repeatedly argued that the anti-American protests are the work of religious parties such as Mr Rehman's. In the cities, this may be substantially true. But in the small towns, I found that anger about the war was widespread.

In the pretty town of Hangu, set amid cliffs looking across a broad valley to the bare hills of Afghanistan, a protest last week saw one policeman shot dead and 12 people injured, four seriously.

We took tea in a gloomy den in the bazaar; on a building across the road I noticed the black and white flag of Mr Rehman's party flying. Had last week's protest been organised by his party? "No," said the cook, "he doesn't have much support in these parts. It was us bazaar-wale, the market-traders, who came out on the street. We set fire to a bank and a video shop and tribal people who had come into town with their guns joined in, then they started firing." And on Friday? I asked. Wasn't there another protest after prayers? "There was talk of one," he replied, "but it didn't happen." I wondered why not.

Then we went out to the main street and my eye was drawn to the rooftops. On three flat roofs overlooking the bazaar, Frontier Constabulary paramilitary forces had set up sandbagged firing positions, their machine-guns pointing down into the bazaar.

Friday's protest in Mr Rehman's town, Dera Ismail Khan, turned out to be less explosive than the authorities had apparently feared. That morning, before the demonstration could get under way, a convoy of troops, Frontier Constabulary and regular police poured into the town in jeeps with mounted machine-guns and patrolled the town. General Musharraf is leaving little to chance.