MITHA KHEL, Pakistan --
The news from outside came at 8 p.m. from the radio in Omer Gul's lap.
The signal was weak and filled with static, so he relayed the headlines to those around him.
"A missile fell short and hit in Pakistan," he announced, straining for the next item. "Kabul has been attacked again. So has Kandahar." The men who had gathered on wood-framed rope beds called charpois mulled over the latest reports of America's air campaign against Afghanistan, knowing that the news would echo the next day through this remote village of a little more than 4,000 souls, serving as a focus of conversation for some, changing the lives of others.
Mitha Khel is so remote that until recently, no foreigner had visited in two decades, and the village seems centuries out of sync with modernity. But its isolation has failed to save it from the shock waves of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and of the U.S. and British air war that has followed.
A sense of smoldering resentment pervades the atmosphere here--part of a larger mood that has spread across Pakistan's wild and remote frontier region since the bombing campaign began 2 1/2 weeks ago. In these areas where tribal ties and the rhythm of life have long ignored national borders, the feeling is that cousins--often quite literally--are under attack in neighboring Afghanistan.
This strong reaction to recent developments has helped fuel opposition to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and to his decision to side with the West in the war against terrorism. It has also stoked anti-Americanism even where American culture never intrudes and has shaken the quiet calm of rural life.
Young men from the village--about 25 so far, residents say--have left to reinforce the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan trying to counter the American onslaught. More are ready to go but have been told to wait until the battle is joined on the ground.
Business at Habibullah's truck stop on the main road outside the village has been hit because angry street protests in the nearest market town, Karak, have cut down on traffic. Demonstrators gather on the road daily to vent their anger over Musharraf's decision to back the Americans in their fight against Afghanistan--a fellow Muslim country.
"Drivers don't want to get on the road when people are burning tires and throwing rocks," said the truck stop's manager, Jamshed Ullah. "We're serving about 50% fewer meals now."
Since it began Oct. 7, the war unfolding over the mountains to the west has preoccupied the village, and the staunchly Muslim people of Mitha Khel have developed an animosity toward the United States that seems to deepen by the hour.
Nudged on by religious fundamentalists and village elders, they have decided that the conflict is exactly what President Bush insists it isn't: a war between America and Islam.
"America is selfish. It is cruel to Muslims," insisted Tahir Ullah, who also works at the truck stop.
Sixteen-year-old Saifur Rehman, the star pupil in his 10th grade Urdu-language class at the village high school, is programmed with a similar message.
"America?" he answered quizzically in response to a visitor's question. "It wants to defeat Islam. But with God's will, the Muslims will triumph."
A local official watched the exchange with pride, then stuffed two 10-rupee notes (about 30 cents) into the boy's pocket.
A Quiet Departure to Join the Taliban
Despite the intensity of emotions in the village, there have been no parades, no flag-waving send-offs for the youths headed to join the Taliban. They leave quietly at night because Pakistani authorities now try to block such moves. Still, villagers note the departures with a sense of pride.
"Of course we are proud of them," said Zafar Ullah, a member of the elected village council, who briefly fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "They are fulfilling their duty."
Much as in any community sending its finest off to war, emotions among the families involved are mixed. Some boast. Some cry. Some simply command would-be fighters not to leave.
Ironically, America's power seems to work against its credibility here. The villagers compare the United States to Mitha Khel's former elders--men who, respected for their influence, helped settle differences between sparring residents.
"The Americans can settle disputes in Palestine and Kashmir if they wish," Tahir Ullah said. But now, he went on, "they are after bases in Afghanistan and [the Himalayan region of] Kashmir to contain China and exploit our natural resources. That's what they are up to."
In a community whose daily rhythm is defined by religious ritual, adults with only the vaguest idea of the United States are planting the seeds of anti-Americanism among a new generation in ways that seem never to have occurred before.
Local schools are the starting point.
A few hundred yards from the main village, amid a cluster of mud and brick homes, about 130 young boys study on the dirt floor of the local madrasa, a religious school attached to the settlement's small mosque. The boys' task is daunting--memorizing the chapters of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
Although the settlement has existed for nearly a century, the madrasa is relatively new. It was founded only in the mid-1990s, one of hundreds of Koranic schools established throughout Pakistan as part of the country's rediscovery of its Islamic heritage over the past two decades. The school's leader, Hafiz Naeemullah, accepted as a wise and respected teacher, urges his students to obey the tenets of Islam--how to eat and to speak with respect, to practice humility and honesty in dealings with others.
But he also preaches a more troubling message drawn from current events.
"What happened in the time of the prophet [Muhammad] is happening again these days," he said one recent morning. "Nonbelievers are cruel to Muslims and create atrocities against them. America has been proved the greatest enemy to all Muslims. Whenever it has had the chance, it has acted against Islam.
"Americans," he added, "go to nightclubs, engage in revelries and think that's all right. Their women are brazen."
At the morning assembly of the high school's 450 students, the day began with a sermon, delivered by a teacher who concluded his remarks with a warning.
"Muslims must be especially careful in their relations with non-Muslims," he said.
Village Insulated From Much of World
There is little to balance such talk. The roots of Mitha Khel's people run deep in the rugged, sandy soil they lay claim to, but their horizons are narrow and near.
Few residents have ventured far enough to see the other side of the rugged Kohat Pass, 40 miles to the north, let alone interacted with foreigners or thought much about the vast world beyond. Until the nearby stretch of the Indus Highway connecting Pakistan's frontier with the Arabian Sea port of Karachi was finished three years ago, just reaching the main road required an hourlong bus ride over dirt tracks.
With no satellite TV, no movie theaters and little interest in Western culture, Mitha Khel has none of the points of access to Americana available in so many other remote places. Here, the local heroes are the same as they have been for generations--Pushtun poets or brave Muslim generals of the past who defeated infidels. It is the latter mold that villagers say Osama bin Laden fits.
"A hero fighting a noble cause for the Muslim people," said Safar Ullah, dismissing the idea that Bin Laden had a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as "impossible."
Still, a family in Karak, four miles to the west, emigrated to the United States several years ago, and information from their phone calls has seeped into the local consciousness.
"They say you can find anything on Earth there, anything you want," said Tahir Ullah, the truck stop employee. "It has tremendous development."
Auto mechanic Shafiur Rehman spoke glowingly of American cars, extolling the luxury of a Chevrolet he once drove.
"It felt like a new home," he said.
But more than two weeks of U.S. and British strikes on Afghanistan have tempered even that admiration.
"It's not just cars they've mastered but weapons and missiles too," he said. "America is very powerful, but what they are doing now is not good."
Outsiders are viewed warily.
Two American journalists who came to the village as guests of someone born and raised in Mitha Khel initially enjoyed the welcome instinctively offered to guests of a Pushtun community. However, suspicions quickly mounted, and after 24 hours, many villagers had concluded that the visitors were spies.
Fond Memories of American Visitor
Mitha Khel's experience with foreigners hasn't been all bad.
The last one to visit, an American oil exploration expert from Oklahoma who came in the early 1980s, is remembered fondly as someone who gave the children candy and cheap jewelry and then blew his vehicle's horn to amuse the younger residents.
And one of the great legends of the region centers on a true story from the 1920s of the daughter of the British garrison commander at Kohat, Molly Ellis, who locals are convinced fell in love with a famous Pushtun leader named Ajab Khan Afridi after he had kidnapped her to protest British colonial excesses against his people.
But Mitha Khel's isolation has left it anchored in another time, wary of life outside it. Marriages are usually arranged between cousins, so that any trouble or misfortune can be easily handled within the family.
When enmity does occur, it is dealt with in much the same way it has been for centuries. As a late evening gathering broke up in the village the other night, schoolteacher Gul slung a loaded Kalashnikov AK-47 over his shoulder for the 200-yard walk home. He is involved in a blood feud with a neighboring farmer, one local explained.
The neighbor shot Gul's father dead in a land dispute three years ago, and villagers say that one day, Gul will take his revenge in the age-old Pushtun way.
Efforts to bring modernity to the area have run into heavy resistance.
Workers at two privately financed women's self-help groups that set up in Karak persevered through a series of personal threats, but they finally gave up two months ago after religious extremists attacked one office with rocks and lobbed a hand grenade into the second.
Yet older members of the community lament the changes that have come, including the new highway, a new affluence and the disappearance of a simpler time without war at the doorstep.
"People used to have one shalwar kameez, but they were happy," noted retired farmer Gul Sadaat, referring to the traditional long shirt and baggy trousers. "Now they have 10 but are burdened with worry. Life has changed, and it is for the worse."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times