Mythbusting Peshawar: No longer a hotbed of drugs, AK-47s and terrorism

Published: March 21, 2019
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Under PTI’s tenure, the region has witnessed an improvement in the law and order situation and continual reduction of terrorist incidents. PHOTO: KALEEM HUSSAIN

I recently had the honour of visiting the city of Peshawar in Pakistan, travelling through the panoramic mountains linked to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) border pathways which lead to Afghanistan. This was my first visit to the city and I must confess, I had various pre-conceived perceptions about the city and region. These preconceptions were largely fed by the British Foreign Office, which for many years had advised British citizens to be extremely cautious when visiting this region.

There are various myths pertaining to Peshawar. Most people believe it to be a hotbed for terrorists and thus extremely unsafe to travel. This is coupled with further misconceptions, such as the city being dominated largely by the presence of drugs and AK-47s.

I had been fascinated and intrigued by this region throughout my teenage years, and hence was keen to visit the city for the very first time and test these myths in person. My interest was furthered by the fact that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has been governing K-P since 2013 to largely positive feedback.

The K-P region has a rich history and culture which has been plagued by the shackles of wars and invasions spanning many generations. It features the gateway route of the famous Grand Trunk (GT) Road, which is one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads running all the way from Chittagong, Bangladesh through Delhi and Amritsar in India, continuing towards Lahore and Peshawar in Pakistan and finally ending in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Grand Trunk Project has also been set up in the UK to ferment the spirit of the ancient road and create relationships and friendships, despite the differences that exist between the neighbouring countries.

Standing in front of the Grand Trunk Road

The Khyber Pass

Peshawar’s recorded history dates back to at least 539 BC, making it the oldest city in Pakistan and indeed one of the oldest cities in the world. I was taken aback by the rich heritage and culture of the city.

Upon my arrival, I was introduced to the wonderful warmth and hospitality of Peshawari family customs with an offering of the famous Peshawari kebab, commonly called the ‘chapli kebabby locals. This is a minced kebab with a combination of Pakistani and Afghan cuisine originating in K-P and neighbouring regions, spread as far as eastern Afghanistan. I also had the pleasure of drinking Peshawar’s finest kahwa, which is a form of green tea and one of the healthiest drinks to improve digestion and weight loss.

I then had the honour of visiting one of the oldest higher education institutions in Pakistan, namely the Islamia College, Peshawar founded in 1913 by Sir SA Qayyum and Sir George Ross Keppel. The college was granted official university status in 2008. The tranquil cricket fields and green lawns provide a beautiful backdrop for students to study and partake in a range of sports, away from the hustle and bustle of Peshawar’s vibrant inner city.

Islamia College

As a British citizen visiting this region for the first time, I could not help but reflect on the multitude of wars that have plagued this region in recent times ranging from the Soviet invasion in the 80s to the US invasion after 9/11, resulting in the myths that surround the region. Through these aforementioned wars, Peshawar, K-P and the wider Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which include Waziristan, have been scarred with a multitude of terrorist attacks in recent years.

In Peshawar alone, I was told of numerous areas in the city that have fallen prey to various terrorist attacks and bomb blasts. Amongst these is the Army Public School. On December 16, 2014, six gunmen affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children, killing 149 people, of which 132 were children.

Having spoken to various natives in Peshawar and neighbouring regions, what was apparent is that there are very few families that have not lost a loved one due to the ongoing battles, wars and tensions.

One native exclaimed:

“What do they want from us? Why do they not leave us alone to live our lives in peace?”

The “they” presumably refers to the multiple coalition countries that have been operating militarily in the region during the last three decades.

Plaque at the Islamia College

The glimmer of hope that is readily apparent in my excursions to the city and neighbouring areas was that in the last three or so years, the terrorist attacks have subsided considerably, with many city-goers now able to undertake their daily activities with less fear and trepidation. Under PTI’s tenure, the region has witnessed an improvement in the law and order situation and continual reduction of terrorist incidents, especially in the last few years.

My visit was thus also timely in the sense that it was in the backdrop of active negotiations between the Afghan Taliban, Afghan government and the US, with the hope of brokering some sort of a peace agreement. President Donald Trump had given a signal to US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan and enlisted US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad with the inviolable task of bringing a truce to the long-standing conflict. Up until now, the Taliban had considered the Afghan government to be nothing more than western puppets.

Many still remain pessimistic as to the viability of a lasting peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Some people are also pessimistic about keeping the numerous regional and international stakeholders on board in these agreements. However, this trip affirmed just how important it is that the doors of dialogue are never closed.

Dialouge is vital for the sake of the victims of terror attacks and their families, who have been scarred by the decades of terror and warfare in the region. Dialogue is also vital if we are to broker a peace agreement in the Pak-Afghan region in order to keep the hope for peace alive.

As I was about to leave Peshawar to travel onward, I was gifted a pair of beautiful leather Peshawari chappals, which are traditional footwear worn by Pakhtuns in the K-P region and a gift I shall certainly cherish.

My visit to Peshawar has certainly dispelled many of the pre-conceived notions and myths that I falsely believed, which will probably resonate for many outside observers regarding not only Peshawar itself but Pakistan in general. It is only when one physically visits cities such as Peshawar and travels throughout Pakistan that the sparks of a Naya Pakistan can be seen in practice. These sparks coupled with the wonderful heritage, historical legacy, landscape and diverse cultural norms of our country, have a lot to offer to any budding and inquisitive international tourist.

(All photos by author)

Kaleem Hussain

Kaleem Hussain

The writer is a multi-disciplinary public-private sector and international relations professional based in the UK. He is also an independent analyst, and a Global Diplomatic Forum Alumnus. He tweets @KaleemHussain20 (twitter.com/KaleemHussain20)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.