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.

Gul’s narrative winds through each of FATA’s seven administrative districts. He pays particular mind to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement, a network of jihadist groups that coalesced in 2007 and was until recently led by Baitullah Mehsud. Like the Afghan Taliban of which Mehsud was formerly a part, the group aims to drive U.S. and NATO forces out of Afghanistan. But it has additional goals, including the disruption of cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S. and the imposition of sharia law throughout the country. As Gul puts it, the TTP “is out to destroy the entire Pakistani security establishment” in pursuit of these goals.

Pakistan has responded in force, pouring almost a fourth of its armed forces into FATA and its environs, and sustaining more than 2,300 combat deaths. Gul highlights evidence of increasing coordination between Pakistani and US intelligence services—a high-profile example being the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009. He also suggests that Pakistan’s military leader, General Ashfaq Kayani, has seen the error of supporting jihadist proxies to project Pakistani influence in the region, and no longer has the money for it in any case.

But it’s hard to be sure. To support his speculation of Kayani-led “paradigm shift” in how Pakistan perceives its interests, Gul twice quotes a “quip” from the general, in which he brushed aside allegations of Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks of November 2008: “We cannot outsource our national defense; that is a thing of the past.” But pith is not evidence, however highly placed the source, nor is it completely reassuring given the history Gul himself describes. Further, repeated reference to the number of casualties Pakistan has sustained in pursuit of the TTP says nothing about how, or if, Pakistan intends to deal with the groups who focus their attacks on Americans and Afghan security forces.

Ultimately, argues Gul, Pakistan must “address issues such as good governance and the rule of law” and “integrate FATA properly into Pakistan.” These solutions seem cursory, and even inconsistent, in light of the preceding 221 pages, many of which point to the historical impossibility of such integration and the fundamental incompatibility between centralized, Western-style “good governance” and the tribal structures that have ruled the area since well before the advent of Islam.

Still, The Most Dangerous Place makes it clear that ignoring the area, which has been called “the geographical crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,” is no longer an option. Obama’s “Af-Pak” strategy is a belated acknowledgment that the US war in Afghanistan doesn’t stop at the Durand Line. To paraphrase Trotsky: you may not be interested in FATA, but FATA is interested in you.

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Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review