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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 September 2006, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Dinner date with the presidents
By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Islamabad

Pervez Musharraf, George W Bush and Hamid Karzai before the dinner meeting
Musharraf and Karzai did not shake hands
The Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, flies home from London on Saturday after a week speaking at the United Nations, shaking hands with President Bush and infuriating the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, by suggesting that he cannot control the Taleban.

Mr Bush played peacemaker inviting the two men to join him for dinner.

Talk about a power dinner. Breaking bread, three warriors on terror: Presidents Bush, Musharraf and Karzai.

Of the trio, President Bush may be the mightiest but Hamid Karzai has the longest political lineage.

For generations his family have been a leading clan in the Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan producing men who advised Afghan kings - people who held sway in Kabul.

New power

In fact Hamid Karzai's father was the tribal Kahn or chief when in 1999, the Taleban assassinated him leaving Hamid Karzai with a score to settle.

Then the host, President George W Bush.

Not a tribal leader maybe but as close to royalty as you can get in the American republic: the son of a president, the grandson of a US senator, the brother of a state governor.

And the third guest - Pervez Musharraf - not so much new money as new power. A child refugee and the son of an accountant, he elbowed his way to the top without the help of family connections - he rose through the ranks of the meritocratic army and then mounted a coup grabbing power for himself.

Hamid Karzai has openly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taleban

As he tucked into the first course - sun choke soup - whatever that is - with feta triangles, President Musharraf might have felt he had the upper hand.

The general has been the man in Washington this week - constantly on TV - including an interview on the Comedy Channel to promote his new book.

But by the time the presidents had got onto the spicy sea bass with stuffed Catalan tomatoes, grilled fennel and shallot juice, Musharraf may well have been feeling just a little more defensive.

Ungovernable heartland

Hamid Karzai has openly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taleban - and even if President Bush has always backed Musharraf, many American officials have made it clear that for all Islamabad's denials, they think Mr Karzai is right.

Gen Musharraf's problem is that even today the Taleban's heartland - the tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan - is ungovernable.

Most of the security experts in Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan too, believe that Osama bin Laden has been hiding there ever since 9/11.

Pakistan army soldier monitors the Afghan-Pakistan border
Waziristan has proven to be ungovernable

It's never easy getting permission to visit the tribal areas but I've managed it on maybe half-a-dozen occasions.

It's a different world, an anachronism. Not wine, women and song, but opium gunmen and prayer. The men are steely, the women hidden, the smugglers brazen.

They live by an ancient code. And in trying to describe it I can't really do better than a young man who was in the tribal areas filing some stories for the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, back in 1897 - Winston Churchill.

Army truce

"Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian," he wrote. "Every large house is a real feudal fortress, made, it is true, only of sun-baked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud."

The generalisations may be somewhat sweeping but what can you expect from a journalist - or a politician anyway - and much of it remains true.

The tribesmen really can fight. Just a few weeks ago after a couple of years of ferocious air and ground assaults in the tribal area called Waziristan, the Pakistan army, half a million strong, was forced to admit that it could not defeat the tribesmen by military means. Instead they negotiated a truce with tribal elders.

Marri tribal fighter
The tribesmen in western Pakistan are used to warfare

So how come the tribal areas have resisted change so successfully?

Well here's one reason why. Soon after Pakistan won its independence in 1947 the young government turned its mind to the issue of increasing the disastrously low literacy rate - to this day, by the way, most tribesmen can't read or write.

Educationalists travelled to the most remote corners of the country and one ended up right by the Afghan border in the tribal belt where the local chief, the Nawab, was a huge landowner with political power to match. A man with a really small kingdom.

'Forget it'

"I have good news," the civil servant told the Nawab, "the federal government has allocated funds to build a school in your area."

The Nawab's response was brusque. "I don't want one," he snapped." The educationalist looked confused. "Come with me tomorrow morning" said the Nawab, "and I will show you why."

The next day the Nawab gave his guest a gun. "We are going hunting," he said, "for duck." And after a few hours the chief had bagged his fill and the ducks lay dead, many floating on an ice cold pool. Then he whistled.

It was a command. Suddenly tribesmen who had been watching the shoot hurled themselves into the freezing water, thrashing their arms, swimming and retrieving the ducks; then with their salwar-kameezes clinging to their skin they brought them back to the dry land for the Nawab's inspection.

The Nawab turned to his young idealistic visitor. "I am sorry to disappoint you," he said, "but do you really think that these men would be willing to fetch my duck if they had been to school. Just forget it."

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