Tribal Areas in Pakistan: whats the inside stuff?



Daily Times, March 17, 2006
VIEW: What is happening in the Tribal Areas?— Shaukat Qadir

Peace can no longer be brokered by bribery. It requires tangible, meaningful promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation on both sides of the border. This should include a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and an immediate end to the humiliation that the Afghans are being subjected to. The numerous successful punitive strikes against militants claimed by the government cannot succeed in themselves; they must be a part of a bigger strategy

I am astounded by the drawing room discussions these days on the developments in the Tribal Areas. In particular I am amazed by the comments of those whom I expected to be better informed about the situation. When they talk about the ‘Talibanisation’ of the tribes near the Afghan border and the rise of ‘Islamic extremism’, I wonder whether they are being deliberately simplistic or deliberately obtuse. Perhaps it is my own understanding that is at fault. Perhaps I am out of sync with reality, but for whatever it is worth, let me attempt to explain the phenomenon as I see it.

The Pashtun society was perhaps the most egalitarian in Pakistan. The tribal people took pride in that the government could not exercise its writ in their area without bribing the tribal elders. Within the tribes, each member is treated equally when it comes to rights and resources. Justice was provided through the local ‘Jirga’ — the council of elders. There was, however, a social contradiction within this egalitarian system — the leadership of the tribe.

Each tribe had its own social hierarchy. Only those who were from a certain ‘blue-blooded’ lineage could occupy leadership positions. Not every member of the tribal society could aspire to leading the tribe. When the Afghan war against the Soviet invasion started, the Pashtun tribal elders in Afghanistan nominated a temporary warlord for leading the campaign. In most cases he was a close, but younger relative of the tribal leader. All volunteers, young and old, followed him. In the case of the Tajik and Uzbek tribes in Afghanistan located directly in the path of the invaders, entire tribes took to arms, necessitating the tribal elder to lead the armed effort personally.

The tribes in Pakistan did not appoint ‘warlords’ but encouraged members to participate in this jihad. Some of them operated under the leadership of Afghan ‘warlords’. This jihad threw up individuals with leadership qualities, though they were not necessarily from the lineages that enjoyed a monopoly over leadership. When the Soviets withdrew, these men witnessed the anarchy that followed, welcomed the peace brought by the ‘Taliban’ and returned home to Pakistan.

Most people now tend to forget that at the beginning of their tenure the Taliban provided representative and just rule, ruling through effective ‘tribal and village councils’. It was a local self-government of sorts. Did anybody wonder why all the Pashtun tribal elders and ex-warlords who had left Afghanistan when the Taliban were conquering it, flocked to return when the American invasion appeared imminent? It was because Mullah Muhammed Omer was not a Durrani, the tribal line of the majority of Pushtun rulers of Afghanistan; he was Gilzai. Hence he was unacceptable to the Durranis.

In the meantime the Taliban began to change. The ‘religious police’ took birth; they enjoyed extraordinary powers to punish men, women and children publicly for any act that was deemed to have violated the Taliban’s ‘stringent’ view of Islam. The proud Afghan was humiliated in the presence of his wife, mother, sister, or daughter or had to watch helplessly while the women of his family were humiliated.

Almost all members of the border tribes cursed the Taliban and prayed for their downfall. Most of them were even grateful for the US invasion. However, the post-US invasion has not brought the promised rehabilitation and reconstruction. Instead there has been more humiliation. (While it might take the media months or years to discover and disclose the Guantanamo Bays, the Abu Ghraibs of Afghanistan, the Afghan tribes and Pakistani ones bordering Afghanistan, know of them, even before their construction is completed).

This has rekindled latent animosity towards the US, and even some sympathy for the Taliban. This is why I have referred to the latest resistance as a nationalist movement against American occupation, which is destined to turn into more ‘Taliban’ and Al Qaeda movements. It is against this backdrop that we need to view the current political situation of our Tribal Areas.

The Afghan war had produced an alternate leadership that had no cause to challenge the traditional tribal leadership. However, the new leadership had been the result of war. Its followers were trained, armed, and equipped. It was also the more charismatic leadership — more capable of attracting the youth.

Quite understandably, those in our tribal society who had fought in the jihad in the 1980s are sympathetic towards their brethren across the border and want to help them in their struggle against American occupation. When the Pakistani government tried to put an end to their support for the anti-American movement in Afghanistan, through the traditional tribal leadership, the new leadership revolted. We are witnessing today the destruction of the traditional tribal leadership. Every other day a tribal leader sympathetic to the government is slain; the fabric of tribal society is being rent.

The government cannot succeed unless it understands that now it has to deal with the new leadership to broker a peace. Peace can no longer be brokered by bribery. It requires tangible, meaningful promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation on both sides of the border. This should include a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and an immediate end to the humiliation that the Afghans are being subjected to. The numerous successful punitive strikes against militants claimed by the government cannot succeed in themselves; they must be a part of a bigger strategy.

The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

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