For the past several days I have been staying at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, as close to Waziristan as I can reasonably go. I have been meeting with various victims of the drone attacks. The Pearl would get two or three stars in Europe, but it has an unenviable history. It had been slated for conversion into an American consulate, but on June 9, 2009, a massive truck bomb destroyed a large section of it. Seventeen people were killed, and 46 injured. A little-known Pakistan extremist group, the Fedayeen al-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack, demanding that the U.S. should get out of the country.
Rather than the photos of carnage that flew across the internet, the manager probably hopes we will focus on the large swimming pool with a mosaic of the hotel's initials emblazoned across it. Yet there is nobody swimming here and the hotel remains only half re-built. As I drive towards it, I pass the extraordinary Bala Hisar fortress, rebuilt by the Sikhs in 1834. There was a certain beauty to security back then, but in the twenty-first century our precautions are far less attractive. On the road in front of the hotel the law courts and the governor's residence are obscured by massive sandbags and rolls of barbed wire.
At the entrance to the Pearl itself, the security is daunting: a bar rises up, before a metal roll barrier lowers into the ground. The car stops, and a sniffer dog circles as one guard checks the chassis with a mirror and two others search the bonnet and the boot. Then a second roll barrier sinks down. The vehicle weaves through the yellow striped concrete barriers to the parking area. I then skirt more barbed wire (here, tastefully hidden in the ornamental trees), towards the glass doors of the hotel, fifty yards away across landscaped gardens. I am slightly disconcerted by the rifle that is levelled at my head as I pass the concrete guardhouse, but I notice there is nobody at the trigger - the weapon is bolted into the aperture for show. I am directed towards the "hospitality centre", a low concrete building to the right. Expecting someone to offer a lassi yoghurt drink, instead I find a massive metal detector for my suitcase, followed by a wand and a pat down for me. A short walk past the lonely but vocal peacock, and there is another metal detector before hotel reception.
I've got nothing against security, but none of this is going to address the root causes of extremism. We are still many miles from the FATA ('Federally Administered Tribal Area'), yet the people of Peshawar have been abandoned by the West. I later go out (with an escort) to try to locate a psychiatrist who has been doling out anti-depressants to the Waziristan people, to combat the impact of the drones circling over their heads. I attract some stares, and I see no other obvious Westerners in a city of three and a half million.
In truth, even the hotel lobby underlines a sense of panic. There is a tiny shop, selling some of the common items often forgotten by travellers. I notice the Jo One Sex Appeal Eau de Toilette and a bottle of Beautimatic Blue Image (4ml) between the Colgate toothpaste and Gillette shaving cream. But it is the range of books on the shelf that truly catches my attention. There are probably only forty titles in total, but rather than those I'd expect to see, this is a reminder of the isolated promontory that is Peshawar:
Islam, 9/11 and Global Terrorism
Rethinking Islamist Politics
The Globalisation of Terror
The Secret History of Al Qa'ida
Pakistan Under Siege
The Al Qaeda Connection - Taliban, Terror and Pakistan's Tribal Areas
Terrorism and Global Disorder
Pakistan - Islamic Nation in Crisis
Al Qaeda in Europe - the New Battleground of International Jihad
Secularism Confronts Islam
The Ideology of the New Terror
Islam's Fateful Path
Revelation and Revolution in Islam
I cannot imagine that this bedtime reading list is going to make the Pearl's guests rest easier. Even the isolated pulp fiction that one might expect to see on such a shelf has a religious overtone -- Wilbur Smith's River God, "packed with passion, war, intrigue, and revenge."
Driving to Peshawar from Islamabad, a Westerner can only turn around and go back again. All other exits are closed. Waziristan is cordoned off by the military, and the glorious tourist steam train through the Khyber Pass long since ceased to run. Peshawar itself is currently set on a metaphorical road to nowhere as well. As I write this, news comes in of another bombing in the city, and I can hear the sirens wailing. If there is a Western strategy being applied here, it offers no solution to the local people, only more violence.
This originally appeared in The Huffington Post, 11/05/2012