In June of 2009 I and a colleague of mine from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, came up with the rather unorthodox decision to travel to Pakistan. This despite the existence of intimidating travel advisories that stated "The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Pakistan. The presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan. Threat reporting indicates terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to attack locations where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to congregate or visit." Threatening advisories aside, I wanted to study the impact of the CIA's drone assassination campaign on the Taliban in that country's Pashtun tribal regions for a book I was writing and my colleague wanted to meet up with a Pakistani friend from his college days, so off we went.
Our experience was illuminating and points to the real pleasures and perils of traveling in this country whose tourism industry has all but vanished in the wake of the post-2001 Pakistani Taliban uprising which has killed tens of thousands in that country. Our journey began in the eastern city of Lahore, long recognized as Pakistan's most liberal and Westernized city. There we visited the magnificent Moghul palace which I found to be on par with the more famous Moghul palaces I'd previously visited in India. From Lahore we made our way across the burning plains of Pakistan, where temperatures soared to 110 degrees, to Peshawar, the capital of the tribal zones where the drones ply their deadly trade. Along the way we also visited Pakistan's rather uninspiring capital of Islamabad. As we crossed Pakistan from the Indian border in the east to the Afghan border in the west, we found Pakistan to be a rather drab version of its more famous tourist-destination neighbor India. And for all its fame as a center for CIA spies and mujahideen anti-Soviet freedom fighters in the 1980s and Taliban today, Peshawar was a polluted, packed, typical third world town whose only interesting feature was an off-limits Moghul-era fortress that had been taken over by the Pakistani army.
Having roasted for days in the plains of the south and tribal zones I and my travel partner longed for a respite from the heat. It was at this time that we hit upon the idea of making a journey to Pakistan's legendary northern mountains. I had previously spent time in the beautiful but war-torn Himalayan region of Kashmir in India and thought a journey to the north would provide us with a well-earned respite. Having acquired an intrepid Pashtun tribal driver and an SUV we made our long journey up into the snow-covered mountains. But first we had to cut through the notorious Swat Valley which had just been recaptured by the Pakistani army from the Taliban. Along the way we were regularly stopped at army checkpoints by incredulous soldiers who told us we were the first tourists to Swat since the Taliban insurgents had been routed. We spent one fearful night in the Swat and kept to ourselves per the soldiers' instructions before making it out of this war-torn land that had briefly provided sanctuary to Bin Laden.
From Swat we made our way up to the mountain province of Chitral over a snow-covered pass. It was like entering paradise. The highlight of our journey was spending time on the Afghan border villages with the pagan Kalash mountaineers, a blue eyed ancient people whose women still go unveiled and claim to be the descendents of Alexander the Great's Greco-Macedonian army. From there we made our way to the capital of Chitral and watched a British Raj-era polo match played between the police scouts of Chitral and those of the neighboring province of Gilgit in the very land that invented the sport. All this in a surreal mountain landscape dominated by the snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush and the even higher Himalayas to their east in Gilgit.
In the north we were treated with the sort of hospitality one rarely finds in more advanced regions of the world and found ourselves quickly falling in love with this mountain Shagri La. This welcoming region seemed to belong to a different world to the hot, polluted, packed plains of the south. We were also shocked to see several tourists in the north, including a Japanese hiker and a few European and Australian backpacking mountaineers. This should not, however, have been surprising since there were still a few intrepid climbers who made their way to the region to climb K2, the world's second highest mountain, and Nanga Parbat, the "Killer Mountain." These brave climbers were the last remnants of the "Hippy Trail" of the 1970s, a transcontinental path that took intrepid explorers across a (then) relatively safe pro-U.S. Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan and on to India. It was wonderful to see the way Pakistanis of all ethnic backgrounds welcomed foreigners and treated them as honored guests in a world that seemed dominated by terrorism-related headlines.
Flash forward to 2013. On May 29th of this year the deputy head of the Pakistani Taliban, Waliur Rehman, was killed in a CIA drone strike in the tribal regions. His successor vowed vengeance for his death and was not long in carrying it out. On June 23rd a party of climbers from China, Lithuania, Nepal, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and America, and their trusted Pakistani guide were brutally killed and robbed in Gilgit by a Taliban unit that had infiltrated the north from the Pashtun tribal lands to the south. It was a savage act of butchery against unarmed tourists who had traveled across the world to partake of the beauty of Pakistan and her people. It was also Pakistan's worse attack on foreigners in over a decade. The local villagers, who belonged to a non-Pashtun ethnic group and made their living off the dwindling tourism industry, bemoaned both the senseless slaughter (neither Slovakia, Ukraine, Nepal, Lithuania nor China run drone operations against Taliban terrorists) and what appeared to be the death knell for their local economy. Already foreign mountain climbing groups are cancelling their plans to this last remaining region in Pakistan that was previously thought to be safe for tourism.
This is a tragedy on many levels and certainly fulfills one of the terrorists' main goals, to prevent interaction between Western "infidels" and average Pakistani Muslims. As I have found in my own personal travels in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even the smallest interactions between Westerners and local Muslims go a long way towards humanizing the "other" and establishing personal bonds between societies supposedly engaged in a holy war or a "Clash of Civilizations." For every bigoted pastor burning Qurans in Florida or Taliban fanatic bombing a church in Pakistan, these mundane human interactions create a new bridge of understanding. Alas, it appears that one of Pakistan's final bridges to the Western world was destroyed in the recent attack, thus further isolating a country that already has one of the highest disapproval ratings of the U.S. in the world. One more victory for the terrorists in the battle against the average people from both sides who seek to peacefully interact in an increasingly polarized post-9/11 world.
Brian Glyn Williams is author of Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda. Washington DC; Potomac Press. July 2013. For a map and photo essay from this trip see here.