The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier | By Imtiaz Gul | Viking | 320 pages, $26.95

Lawless. The word tends to travel in tandem with Pakistan’s tribal areas. Sometimes you also get wild, often restive, and the occasional seething. Where the focus switches from people to terrain, there’s a great deal of rugged or forbidding––implying that hostility is built into the area’s very topography.

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), as the region is more formally known, is a Massachusetts-sized chunk of land into which is crammed a stupefying variety of overlapping conflicts: tribal, ethnic, sectarian and, with CIA drones chasing foreign jihadists from its skies, international. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, this border zone has likely become home to al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. And for Americans, according to Barack Obama, it—not Iraq or Afghanistan—is “the most dangerous place in the world.”

Imtiaz Gul’s second book, The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, corroborates at least some of these claims. A Pakistani journalist, Gul was among the first to cover the nascent Taliban movement from its birthplace in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1995. (At the time, he personally observed Pakistani military personnel crossing the border to work with them.) Over twenty-five years of reporting on Islamist movements in both nations, he has cultivated sources among militants and the military, and familiarized himself with areas of the frontier that even Pakistani nationals often cannot enter without permission.

Rugged it certainly is. Lawless it isn’t, says Gul, bucking both journalistic cliché and the subtitle of his own book. In fact, the author spends an entire chapter exploring the interplay of “unique history, administrative structure, and culture” that governs FATA’s three and a half million people, who represent less than 2.5 percent of Pakistan’s population. A millennium-old system of tribal jurisprudence remains in place. Superimposed atop this, however, is an abundance of draconian laws left over from the British colonial era—which, for example, allow a political administrator to jail entire tribes on suspicion of hostility.

Also bequeathed by the British is the Durand Line. This 1,640-mile border divides Pakistan from Afghanistan—and tribal brethren from each other, slicing arbitrarily through villages and in some cases individual homes. The border is virtually irrelevant to the people whose lands straddle it, most of them Pashtun. Yet it imposes real jurisdictional boundaries for United States military operations in the “Af-Pak” theater. Notwithstanding that FATA has become “al Qaeda central” in the assessment of US and NATO intelligence, the military is technically barred from crossing the border in pursuit (hence the CIA-run drone program). After all, neither the US nor its allies are formally at war in Pakistan.

Instead, Pakistan is at war with itself. The story of Pakistani patronage of Islamist proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan has been covered comprehensively in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban. Gul focuses on the period following the US invasion of Afghanistan, when Taliban and al Qaeda fighters slipped across the Durand Line and set up shop in FATA, as well as its neighboring border provinces of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). At the time, President Pervez Musharraf vowed to cooperate with the U.S. war on al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. Yet the Pakistani military’s main priority remained India. “From a soldier’s point of view,” notes Gul, “India represents a far bigger threat than a ragtag army of a few thousand fanatics scattered over an inhospitable region.”

Yet Gul argues that Pakistan’s interests have shifted as its former clients (or at least the ideological offspring of those clients) have turned their weapons against Pakistan itself. Such groups insist that they are retaliating, at least in part, for Pakistan’s public claims of cooperation with the United States. However dubious those claims were to begin with, they have now forced Pakistan into a full-fledged war against Islamist militants, with FATA at its epicenter.

Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review