Where the Taliban breeds...
Toronto Star: February 18, 2007
By Olivia Ward
Analysis | The porous Afghan-Pakistani border has been lawless since being imposed on Pashtun tribes in 1893. But this wild frontier must be tamed if Afghanistan is to flourish.
When Hassan Abbas, then a Pakistani police chief, went on a raid in the country's lawless border region, he was surprised to find himself outside his territory – and inside Afghanistan.
"We weren't the only ones who were confused," says Abbas, now a fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"For hundreds of years, people have been living on both sides of the border, and when it was divided they found it inconceivable that they should suddenly be residents of another country."
The story illustrates how porous is the wild, mountainous frontier that separates the two countries along the 2,400-kilometre line, which is still in dispute more than a century after it was negotiated by British diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand.
But for Canadian and other NATO troops – and the traumatized people of southern Afghanistan – the border is real and menacing as they anxiously await a predicted spring onslaught of Taliban fighters and suicide bombers from Pakistan.
The coming battles are said to be crucial for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership presence inside of Pakistan remain a very significant problem," said the outgoing American commander in Afghanistan, Lt.-Gen. Karl Eikenberry, urging a "steady, direct attack" on their operations bases in the border areas.
But those who are familiar with the turbulent border regions say the realities there are far more complex than Western policy-makers believe. And they warn that putting a stop to the "Talibanization" that is threatening both Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be accomplished by military means alone.
"The Pashtuns are the historically dominant group in the area, and they have been split by the Durand Line, so that there is a feeling their destiny has been interrupted," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and author of five books on the border regions.
Moreover, he says, no foreign army has ever subdued the fierce border tribes.
The Durand Line, which divided Pashtun tribes between British India and Afghanistan in 1893, is viewed with resentment by people on both its sides and many of them of them consider it irrelevant.
"When you look at the partition today, it doesn't make a lot of sense," says geography professor Jack Shroder of University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has mapped the rugged areas.
"In the time of the British Raj, it was a ploy to divide and rule, and they put down white rocks to mark it. But people move the rocks around, because the border doesn't exist for them."
Like the border, law and order is a fluid concept in the tribal lands.
Pakistan has never managed to take control of the largely Pashtun area and created seven semi-autonomous units – Bajaur, Momand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and North and South Waziristan – administered by federally appointed political agents.
Six smaller Frontier Regions provide a buffer between the agencies and the North West Frontier Province to the east. To the south is the large but sparsely populated province of Baluchistan, whose capital, Quetta, is said to be a Taliban command centre.
In the tribal regions, Pakistani courts and law enforcers have almost no sway, and the real power are the jirgas, or assemblies of elders, says Abbas, author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror.
The border regions have a population of some 38 million, including members of 60 Pashtun tribes and 400 sub-clans. With a literacy rate of little more than 10 per cent, few job opportunities beyond subsistence farming, deeply conservative religious views and an abundance of guns, the regions are a staging ground for militancy, drug trafficking and numerous smuggling rackets.
All these factors give the Taliban a head start in recruiting.
"The Taliban are sons of the soil, not foreigners," says Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based senior analyst for Strategic Forecasting Inc. "Over the past two decades, there has been a drift toward their kind of conservative Islam. An Islamist wave has hit the region, and there are many people who don't believe 9/11 happened and are convinced that there is a war going on against Muslims."
The tribal areas also have sheltered foreign and Afghan fighters fleeing previous wars in Afghanistan, and some of them have married local women and settled there.
Abbas says the Taliban was encouraged by "the Pakistani military's hidden alliance with religious political parties," in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. When the United States urged Pakistan to attack the militants, the campaign was brutal but disastrous. In a territory where revenge is part of the traditional code, secular parties lost out and Islamists gained ground.
But pockets of secular Pashtuns who oppose extremism still remain, with little support from the government and constant threats from Islamist groups.
Some analysts point to these secularists as the hope for future peace on the borders. A leader of the nationalist Pashtun Awami National Party, Asfandyar Wali, recently defeated pro-Taliban politicians in an election in Bajaur Agency.
Nevertheless, Islamists in Bajaur have threatened local men against shaving their beards, and while some men have protested, Abbas says, the episode demonstrates the strength of extremism even in opposition areas.
But even among the Taliban, there are divisions and opportunities for negotiation, says veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of several books on militancy in the borderlands.
"Negotiating with the present leadership (Mullah Omar, Mullah Dadullah and others) is not acceptable," says Rashid, adding that there are "moderate elements" who are willing to talk to the Afghan government and have met with the secular and nationalist Pashtun groups.
Rashid points out that the Pakistani government is deeply suspicious of those groups, fearing a new secession movement if they gain support. Pakistan rejected a recent peace plan put forward by Wali – and approved by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – to hold a jirga of tribal leaders from both sides of the border.
"Wali believes it's the last hope for the region," says Abbas. "But in Pakistan, it is difficult to challenge the military intelligence establishment."
Bokhari, who had a recent meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, says the Pakistani leader admitted he had "no magic wand" for solving the crisis on the borders but was open to political negotiation, as well as fencing and mining the frontier (the latter opposed by Canada). And Musharraf denied reports that the Pakistani intelligence service was supporting militants, saying that creating an unstable neighbour was against his country's interests.
But as the countdown to a predicted spring offensive continues, so will pressure on Musharraf to shut down Taliban bases in Pakistan's borderlands.
Says Harrison: "Since the economic viability of Pakistan depends on continued aid, a credible threat to cut it off would alarm the armed forces and other sectors of the Pakistani business and political establishment, forcing Musharraf to tack with the wind."
But most analysts agree that force alone will not be effective on the frontier. They say that tightly targeted attacks against the hard core of the Taliban, avoiding civilian casualties, should open the way for negotiations with those who are willing to lay down their arms.
"People who want to fight can be tackled militarily, and NATO must not allow (the militants) to believe they will just leave the area," says Abbas.
But Pakistan, he adds, is only part of the problem.
"It's crucial to support development of Afghanistan. A person with a job, and kids in school, will think twice before picking up a gun."