The killing of Osama bin Laden has thrust the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, into the international spotlight. However surprising it may be to find al Qaeda's notorious leader not in a cave in the tribal areas but in a comfortable villa near the capital, it is perhaps fitting that Abbottabad is having its 15 minutes of fame. The hill resort town -- named after Maj. James Abbott, the first British deputy commissioner who arrived there in the mid-19th century -- is a perfect example of one side of the cultural divide that now defines Pakistan.
When I arrived in Abbottabad to enter boarding school at Burn Hall, a century after Abbott, it was a bustling town with retired officials living in neat homes, a golf course, and, of course, the famous Pakistan Military Academy. I was later posted there as assistant commissioner under training for the Pakistani government, in the late 1960s, a post that oversaw judicial, revenue and law and order matters. There could have been no town more integrated into the state than Abbottabad.
A decade later, I found myself in charge of a region that could not be more different: South Waziristan. While Abbottabad's population is a mixture of ethnic Pashtun tribesmen and Punjabi settlers, Waziristan is made up entirely of Pashtuns. The Waziristan tribes, who were long suspected of providing a safe haven for bin Laden, have long felt that they possess their own history, culture, code of behavior, and identity that are distinct from the Pakistani nation-state. When I would ask the elders of Waziristan why they resisted the modern state, they would reply good-humoredly, "Why do you wish to impose the corrupt police and revenue officials of Pakistan on us, while at the same time taking away our freedom?"
It is crucial to understand the dynamics that differentiate these two very different parts of Pakistan now associated in the world media with bin Laden. Only by more successfully navigating the tension between the two regions, and between tribe and state in Pakistan, will the United States have any hope of stabilizing South Asia.
An old Pashtun proverb sums up the historical divide well: "Honor (nang) ate up the mountains, taxes (qalang) ate up the plains." The proverb means that tribesmen living in the mountains, where the government has little sway, destroy each other in tribal warfare over honor. Meanwhile, the settled populations below are subject to the dominance of the state, and are suppressed through oppressive taxes, or qalang.
Qalang societies live in plains, on irrigated lands that are often fed by big rivers, and their economies are integrated by highways into market towns. These people pay rents and taxes and live within the state system in hierarchal societies that are dominated by powerful feudal, political, or military authority. Unlike in the mountain areas, leaders in qalang societies have their status bestowed on them by birth or through economic or political means.
Pakistan's military and intelligence elite, who are overwhelmingly from the qalang areas and are the ultimate instruments of the state, consider bin Laden and his affiliates, al Qaeda and the Taliban, as terrorists. They loathed bin Laden not only because he was on top of the wanted list of the United States for the 9/11 attacks, but because he had wrought death and destruction in Pakistan as well. Although the Taliban were patronized by Pakistani intelligence in the 1990s, as "our boys," after 9/11, the 180 degree turn against them as Islamabad was pressured into getting in line with U.S. policy, resulted in a complicated and bitter relationship.
For this reason, bin Laden's voyage from nang into qalang society may not have been entirely voluntary. It is likely that at some point, Pakistani intelligence successfully convinced him to move as their "guest" to one of their "safe houses" there -- which may explain reports that bin Laden arrived in Abbottabad as long as six years ago. He was now vulnerable because he was at the mercy of his hosts -- who would have seen him not as a guest to be honored, but as a commodity or asset to be bartered for gain with the Americans at the right time.
Nang people, on the other hand, make up bin Laden's natural constituency. They live in scarcely populated mountains that are largely inaccessible to the central government. They have a pastoral economy that depends on goats and camels, and do not pay rents or taxes. Their societies exist outside the state's legal systems, yet are egalitarian. Elders must earn their status through acts of honor and bravery, and problems are adjudicated by the jirga, or counsel of wise men or elders.
More than anything, the nang prize their freedom. Even under British rule, the authority's jurisdiction rarely exceeded more than 100 yards on either side of the main roads. In the most profound sense, the nang people were probably among the freest in the world.