Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Saturday, 20 September 2008 12:02 UK

Turning to the Taleban in Pakistan

US raids on Taleban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory have caused outrage in Pakistan. And that has added to the loathing that some people there have long felt for the way that the US conducts itself on the world stage, as Owen Bennett-Jones discovers.

US Troops on Afghanistan-Pakistan border
Many Pakistanis resent what they see as heavy-handed US tactics

"I would rather live in the dark ages under the Taleban than be subservient to any foreign power."

The unexpected comment comes from an urbane, sophisticated and, I had always thought, Westernised Pashtun lawyer.

He wears none of the badges of Islamic piety - a beard, for example - and he normally sports a navy blazer not the local shalwar kameez.

He is a former minister with the Pakistan People's Party, the most liberal in Pakistan.

Rejecting the West

The word liberal in the Pakistani context means modern, educated, secular rather than theocratic and, up until now at least, pro-Western.

"You can't mean it," I protested. "Do you know what the Taleban were like in Afghanistan when they ran it, with compulsory prayers five times a day, do you want that?"

"Look," he said. "I can deal with Taleban, they are my own people. They come from here. I know them.

"I will be able to get around them. But the Americans never. No way."

That is how badly the battle for hearts and minds is going in Pakistan. It could scarcely be worse.

Taken aback by that conversation, I chatted about it with another senior Pakistani politician, a senator, again a well known liberal.

"I agree with him," he said. "Is there is no end to it? The Americans are now bombing Pakistani people. What are they doing here 12,000 miles away from home?"

And he told me about his children, four boys.

"I sent them to the UK for their education," he said, "I spent all my money on it. They had five, six years in England at boarding schools, it was a crucial time of their lives, they were young.

"They could have stayed and settled down there but they all choose not to. They didn't want to. All four are living here in Pakistan and praying five times a day.

Anti-Americanism in Pakistan has reached quite fantastic levels

"I don't pray five times a day," he said. "They do. Why? Because you in the West have forced them away, forced them towards Islam. You have forced them out."

Again, I was taken aback. Apart from the familiar complaints about foreign policy, what had those boys seen in their English boarding school that they did not like?

Drunkenness, I guess. Consumerism, maybe. Disrespect for the elderly always shocks Pakistanis, so perhaps that.

I guess that seen through some young Pakistani eyes there are things we do that they do not want.

Still, anti-Americanism in Pakistan has reached quite fantastic levels.

There are now suicide bombs every few days and no-one doubts that the Taleban recruit, train and equip the bombers.

After one recent suicide attack, the brother of one of the victims was quoted in the press.

Did he blame the Taleban? He did not. "America is responsible for my brother's death," he said. "If the Americans went back home everything would be calm here."

There is, I think, universal agreement amongst Pakistanis that, if the US continues to rely so heavily on military firepower in Afghanistan, and increasingly in Pakistan too, then the Taleban will win.

Preaching moderation

And, in fact, elsewhere in the world, there are signs that the US is using much more subtle and maybe more effective tactics.

Pro-Taleban militants in Pakistan
The Taleban are winning friends at the expense of the US in Pakistan

In a US base on the outskirts of Baghdad, for example, where captured insurgents are held, US taxpayers are paying the salaries of some heavily vetted Iraqi clerics who preach moderation.

I met one of them recently. When he relaxes he mooches around in an England football shirt, when he is working he wears the long flowing, gold-edged robes denoting his clerical status.

He told me about a session he had with a group of 20 recently detained Iraqi Takfiris.

Takfiris are really the last word in intolerance. They believe that anyone who does not share their very rigid interpretation of Islam is an infidel and should be killed.

The cleric described walking into the room where the Takfiris where waiting for him and offering the traditional greeting: "Salaam Aleikum".

The leader of the group responded by hurling his slippers into the cleric's face.

'With these guys you cannot let something like that go," the cleric told me, "or you lose all authority."

'Battle of wits'

The cleric looked the Takfiri leader in the eye and asked: "What did I just say to you?"

"You said Salaam Aleikum," the man replied.

"And what does that signify?" asked the cleric.

The Takfiri leader looked confused. "The word Salaam is one of the 99 names of Allah," the cleric went on.

"You have just thrown your slippers at Allah." He then turned to the other 19 Takfiris. "This man is an infidel," he said, "are you going to kill him?" He turned and left the room.

That night, the guards woke the cleric at 3am and rushed him down to the detention centre.

The Takfiri leader was huddled in the corner of the room shivering, his arms around his knees. "I didn't mean to offend you. Please get me away from here. I think they are going to kill me," he begged.

"So, in just 12 hours," the cleric concluded, "I dealt with the leader of some of the most hard-line people ever captured in Iraq."

"It's a battle of wits," I said. The cleric laughed. "Let's see who wins."

From Our Own Correspondent is broadcast on Saturday, 20 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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