PESHAWAR, Pakistan - As armed revolts go, this one had the makings of a doozy:
A thousand armed tribesmen climbed last week into the rocky hills astride the Karakorum Highway, last leg of the Silk Road to China. They rolled boulders down the slopes and created landslides with dynamite, blocking a 180-mile stretch of the highway. Then they dug in with their Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers, vowing not to budge until the United States stopped its airstrikes on Afghanistan.
Five days later, with traffic piling up at either end of the blockade, exasperated Pakistani officials asked for help from tribal leader Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who was busy with another insurrection of sorts. He was encamped with a few thousand volunteers at the Afghan border, waiting for marching orders from the Taliban.
"Not my tribe," Sufi Mohammad said of the Karakorum mob, but the government took him anyway to the scene, where the crowd proceeded to prove him right by pelting his car with stones.
Finally, the government recruited a delegation of Islamic scholars, who scolded the tribesmen for preventing thousands of pilgrims from attending a religious gathering this weekend near Lahore. The blockaders relented but vowed they would return if the airstrikes continue.
"We are free to do as we please," said a defiant Zafar Ullah Orakzai, an influential tribal elder with the Kala Dhaka clan. "We will see whether the government changes its policies or not, but no one is going to disarm us. No one will tell us what to do."
In other words, it's business as usual in the tribal areas of Pakistan, frontier regions that have their own laws, customs and ways of doing business. Scattered through the country's harshest deserts and most difficult mountains, the tribal peoples are yet another volatile element in the explosive mix confronting Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, as he tries to maintain power while remaining friendly with the United States.
Representing a mere 4.5 million people out of a population of 140 million, the frontier regions are not threatening because of the number of people there. It's their location that matters, all along the 1,000-mile border with Afghanistan, where two decades of armed intrigue and economic deprivation - stirred at times by superpowers with their own agendas - have driven people to take refuge in the brand of militant Islamism that produced the Taliban.
"The only person who addresses the [tribal] people in any assembled numbers is the mullah," said Dr. Mumtaz A. Bangash of the University of Peshawar, an authority on the tribal areas. "So, they supported all these bearded people, and turned them into a monster, which has become a Frankenstein."
The administrative heartland of the tribal areas, and the place of their greatest autonomy, is a strip of seven tribal "agencies," or districts, strung along the western rim of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, encompassing the Khyber Pass and a number of other key entries to Afghanistan.
The Khyber Agency alone has a dozen tribes, and each of those has several clans. The government limits its show of official power to a "political agent," who administers each agency, a system that has proved vulnerable to corruption.
Most everything about the tribal areas suggests their separateness.
To enter Pakistan, a foreigner needs a visa. Entering the tribal areas requires an additional set of papers, plus a fee of 200 rupees ($3.30) for the mandatory armed escort. Lately, the government has stopped issuing such passes altogether.
Carrying weapons, illegal elsewhere in Pakistan, is a badge of power in the tribal areas, and the regional economic mainstays are befitting of the forbidding geography: heroin production, gun-running, banditry and tax-dodge smuggling of consumer goods, plus legitimate empires in trucking and timber.
Ethnically, the tribal areas are dominated by the Pashtuns, hill people whose men favor beards and turbans or the pie-shaped wool hats called pakols. "Politically, even today they have not been integrated into the mainstream of Pakistan," said Bangash at the University of Peshawar. "Some of them have written down laws on paper, but the rest of them have an unwritten code of ethics. They make decisions by sitting in jirgas [grand councils], an institution which is highly informal. The elders sit together without any hierarchy, and the people express their opinions."
For all those reasons, the Pakistani government tends to tread lightly when it comes to settling disputes with tribal leaders. Thus, while the government's tame handling of the standoff on the Karakorum Highway might seem by Western standards to be a case of unchecked anarchy, in Pakistan it was viewed as fairly deft policy.