Back in the Game – Tribes and Society in Pakistan

Back in the Game – Tribes and Society in Pakistan
Hamid Hussain
Defence Journal, April 2007

It is not a question how much a man knows, but what use he can make of what he knows. Josiah Gilbert Holland

Human beings live with various identities and these identities transform over the course of time. Family, clan, tribe, ethnicity, nation and religion are some of the manifestations of these identities. These identities can be like circles and various circles interacting or at times clashing with each other. Intertribal relationship, access to external resources and interaction with central authority are key elements of the tribal society. Modern India took its current shape under British rule. In case of agriculturalist tribes inhabiting plains, central government had an upper hand and they were easily brought under central authority with little bloodshed. Centralization of state under British Raj had a mixed effect on the tribal structure of sub-continent. The effect of urbanization and attachment to central state structures resulted in weakening of tribal bonds especially in the heartlands. In case of tribes at the periphery especially Pushtun and Baluch tribes along British India’s frontier with Afghanistan, a different methodology was adopted. The terrain is rugged and can not sustain large scale agricultural activity. There is no revenue source which is the magnet for central government to assert its control more aggressively. Permanent stationing of large number of troops to keep turbulent tribes in check was not considered a cost effective approach. Indirect rule through tribal leaders and leaving tribesmen alone to settle their own problems was the preferred method used during British rule. Military expeditions were used intermittently to punish crimes. Pakistan continued the same policy with some modifications. Like all post-colonial nation states, Pakistani state has been trying to forge a national identity supplanting other identities especially in case of tribes at the periphery of the state. The results of these efforts have been mixed. In some cases, state has been able to successfully link various tribal groups to the concept of nation state through their attachment to the structures of the central state. On the other hand, some groups who were either not welcomed or resisted their links with central state at best gave only nominal allegiance to the state. They tried to confront the state whenever state found itself in difficult times.

Tribes at the periphery of the empires and their successor nation states have survived for centuries by raiding and plundering neighboring settled areas and joining invaders passing through their territories to seek fortunes in far away lands. Later with delineation of boundaries of nation states, smuggling became a major source of income for these tribes. Smuggling cartels of tribesmen engage in smuggling of luxury goods, alcohol and drugs worth billions of dollars between Gulf States, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Prior to independence, tribesmen were not allowed to control resources in settled areas and their activities were restricted to their own lands. They were allowed to serve in paramilitary forces and army and after retirement these tribesmen would go back to their ancestral lands. Since 1947, a dramatic change has occurred and government institutions such as schools, colleges and hospitals have helped to strengthen bonds with the state. In addition, many educated tribesmen have found opportunities in lower and higher levels of government service. A number of senior civil servants and army officers from tribal territories have held high posts in the country. This has resulted in a dichotomy. On one hand, tribesmen are trying to get all the benefits of the centralized state and insisting on getting civil service and military job opportunities and sending representatives to national assembly and senate. On the other hand, they want to maintain their independence and no interference from state. This means that their representatives in assemblies are free to debate and vote on laws passed by elected bodies but same laws are not applied in their own constituencies. Similarly, civil and military officers from tribal territories enforce laws of the state except in the areas of their origin. At some point tribal societies have to confront this dichotomy. Clash of interests of urban classes and settled populations with those of tribal areas will invariably increase frictions in the society.

In October 2001, when U.S. forces landed in Afghanistan, Pakistan deployed paramilitary forces and regular army troops in tribal areas. Then Corps Commander Lieutenant General Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai (a Pushtun belonging to Orakzai tribe and now Governor of North West Frontier Province) then Inspector General Frontier Corps (IGFC) Major General Hamid Khan (now Lt. General and Corps Commander Peshawar) and then Governor Lt. General ® Iftikhar Hussain Shah patiently worked with tribal elders and deployment was done without any violence. All these three high ranking officers were Pushtuns and this helped a lot during their negotiations with tribal leaders. Afghan front was quite for a while but in the last three years, violence is escalating. U.S. approach of aggressive military tactics in violence ridden Pustun areas of Afghanistan and overall hostility towards Pakistani tribal areas has complicated the situation. Increasing violence in Afghanistan is the main factor but without understanding intricate dynamics of the region and tribal politics, a knee jerk military approach looking only at the numbers killed without pondering over the end game plan will only bring grief to Americans and more bloodshed to the region. Under intense U.S. pressure, General Pervez Mussharraf launched military operation in Waziristn in 2004 against the wishes of even many members of the armed forces. The result was disastrous. Paramilitary forces and regular troops suffered heavy casualties and violence quickly spread to a larger geographic area. Military then embarked on use of heavy artillery, gunship helicopters and fixed wing aircrafts to regain momentum. This resulted in collateral damage and alienation of large number of tribesmen. The most devastating blow to government came when militants started to target tribal leaders allied with government. Government lost its intelligence assets as locals stopped providing information for the fear of retaliation from militants. In the absence of local intelligence, any military operation in tribal areas is doomed to fail. General Mussharraf quickly understood this and this was the major factor in his decision to cut a peace deal with local militants. This was necessary to give time to government to rebuild its local intelligence network; however the tough task was to convince Americans that this is the correct approach. Musharraf took N.W.F.P. Governor Lt. General ® Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai on his visit to Washington and both tried to convey this point to the administration officials. Washington agreed to give few months to see the result of this approach. Escalating violence in Afghanistan and continued flow of fighters from Pakistan resulted in gradual intensification of pressure on Pakistan to do something. In February 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Islamabad for heart to heart talk with Musharraf. He brought Deputy Director of Operations of Central Intelligence Agency with him to provide evidence of militant activity in Waziristan.

Washington wants swift action from Pakistan in Waziristan but unable to understand Pakistani dilemma. Pakistani security forces are operating under significant limitations. Most important factor is the perception that these forces are being used to help U.S. interests rather than Pakistani interests. The hearts of officers and rank and file are not in this fight and if active engagement is stretched, it may impact on the morale and discipline of the security forces. A small number of officers and men have been disciplined for their refusal to participate in military operations in tribal areas. In terms of manpower, paramilitary forces are overextended. Large numbers of Frontier Corps N.W.F.P. (recruited from tribal territories and settled districts, officers are seconded from army) personnel are deployed in North and South Waziristan as well as troubled areas of Khyber and Bajawar agencies. If another problem erupts in any tribal territory (sectarian or law and order), it will be difficult to rush paramilitary troops there. Frontier Constabulary (recruited primarily from settled districts, the officers are seconded from Police service) is also stretched thin. This force is designed for control of law and order in areas between tribal territories and settled districts called Frontier Regions (FRs) as well as serving as back up for police force in settled districts. More than two third of Frontier Constabulary is deployed outside FRs. This is one of the factors that militants have expanded their influence in FRs when they came under pressure in tribal areas. In case of any new crisis, government will have to use regular troops. In addition, a large number of Pushtuns recruited from settled districts of N.W.F.P. serve in Frontier Corps Baluchistan (an independent entity headed by a Major General).

Different groups of local and foreign militants based in tribal areas joined hands when Pakistani security forces launched operations against them. Foreign militants (including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs) and their local tribal allies fought against Pakistani security forces. It is inevitable that there will be differences among these groups about ideology, methodology and most importantly financial resources and these differences will result in armed clashes. The first shots have already been fired when tribesmen clashed with foreign militants (especially Uzbeks) and their local supporters in March 2007 resulting in death of over 100 people in Waziristan. It is not clear whether local tribesmen with their own agenda developed differences with foreigners or they are confronting foreigners at behest of government. The most difficult problem for Islamabad will be how to tackle this situation? Some will argue that it is better to let the tribesmen take care of the problem and leave government forces out of the loop. Others will argue that government should provide active support to local tribesmen in confronting foreign militants and their local supporters. Foreign militants may decide to strike Pakistanis security forces and try to provoke a large scale response in an attempt to incite tribesmen against government. It will be tempting for Islamabad to launch another large scale military operation to solve foreign militant issue once and for all, however the move may backfire sending tribesmen back into the arms of most extremist groups operating in the area. In short term, covert support with intelligence and arms to tribesmen and financial rewards for dead and injured tribesmen may be more than adequate. More important is to think about long term consequences. Even if local militants are able to solve the foreign fighters issue, this will invariably strengthen their own hold in the area, further eroding government’s authority and opening the doors of future armed conflict among militant groups. Case of Afghanistan is a classic example of such feuds perpetuated by external financial resources and complications of use of tribal militias by government. A number of factors are responsible for the escalating violence inside Afghanistan. A major factor is U.S. failure on military, intelligence, political and reconstruction fronts. It is unlikely that removal of all foreign fighters will result in cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan. A more broad based strategy and cooperation among all key players to find a grand bargain is the only viable option to bring peace and stability to the region. It will take a long time and patience on part of all players to bring back the equilibrium of influence of tribal leaders and government’s limited authority back to tribal territories. Tribesmen should be encouraged to discuss consequences of uncontrolled militant activity by a number of groups in their territories. Islamabad’s focus should be on tackling the issue of militants. Fundamental changes to tribal structure and administration which are long overdue but in current state of affairs are unlikely to succeed. Anyone who is negatively affected from the change will resist the change and will not be hesitant to use violence to thwart government’s attempts. This violence will be solely related to local affairs but will invariably contribute to general instability thus providing ideal environment for extremist groups to increase their influence. One example will show the complexity of the problem. In 1999, about 25 villages were detached from Mohmand Agency and attached to settled districts. Tribesmen usually do not pay land revenue and get electricity free of charge. Attachment of these villages to settled districts meant that they would come under Pakistani law and had to give up some of the privileges enjoyed before. This caused resentment and a small group calling itself Mohmand Resistance Movement attacked some government installations especially electricity towers causing hardship to a large area of Mohmand agency.

Efforts of coordination among U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been successful. U.S. set up a Tripartite Commission which gave an opportunity to military officers from U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan to interact with each other. In March 2006, Washington brought Afghan and Pakistani military officers to Germany where issues of border security were discussed. In 2006, Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested that tribal elders from Pakistan and Afghanistan should be invited to address violence in the region. A nine member delegation of Afghan Jirga Commission headed by Pir Syed Ahmed Gilani visited Pakistan in March 2007 to discuss the volatile situation in tribal territories of both countries. In the absence of a long view and concrete measures it is unlikely that simple gatherings of tribal elders will solve the complex problem. Divergent interests of different tribes and clans, intra-tribal rivalry, suspicions of key nation state players and presence of large number of players on the scene will make any comprehensive solution very difficult if not impossible. Violence in tribal territories will not abate as long as Pakistan and Afghanistan governments are at loggerheads with each other. It will be tempting for both governments as well as U.S. to use local tribal proxies to try to serve their perceived interests which will further increase violence in tribal areas.

Tribesmen are masters of taking full advantage from a crisis. Large sums of money are now available from different sources. Money for Jihad from rich Gulf countries, money to counter Jihad from United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and money from other sources such as drug and transport mafia and Iran is flowing to tribal territories and tribesmen are happy to grab it from every source. Pakistani tribesmen not happy with Islamabad will go to Kabul while Afghan tribesmen not happy with Kabul will look towards Islamabad. Wazir tribal elders have been traveling to Kabul to plead their case. In March 2007, about 60 tribal leaders from Pakistani side visited Afghanistan and met with Afghan officials. They asked NATO and Afghan officials to deal with them directly rather than routing everything from Islamabad. Pakistan is playing the same game by working with some tribesmen on the other side of the Durand Line (border between Pakistan and Afghanistan). If violence escalates and Pakistan’s authority over its border areas wanes, then U.S. may have to re-adjust its mission in Afghanistan. Non-Pushtun Afghans are waiting for that opportunity. They may get restless sooner than expected. Division of Afghanistan along ethnic lines with Hindu Kush as border may be the intended or unintended consequence. In that case, Pakistani state will come under intense pressure with a clear danger of fracture along ethnic and ideological lines. Pushtuns will be major losers as violence will be invariably intra-Pushtun and the battlefield will be their cities, villages and mountains.

In Baluchistan, the situation is more complex. Here two different types of tribal forces are at work: Baluch and Pushtuns. Baluch tribesmen are operating under ethnic and nationalist umbrella. Baluch are alienated from Pakistani state and society. Their small numbers and negligible representation in various segments of the society is reinforcing their alienation. In the last sixty years, Baluch have risen several times against the state authority. Since 2004, violence has rapidly escalated in Baluchistan. Baluch militants attacking security forces, critical infrastructure of gas pipeline and railways while security forces responding by launching operations against Baluch. Members of three major tribes: Bugti, Marri and Mengal are actively involved in armed struggle against government. Government is trying to use intra-tribal rivalry and competition to thwart the efforts of hostile tribesmen. This is a recipe for long term instability. Sincere efforts of a comprehensive dialogue with Baluchs need to be put on a fast tract. Genuine grievances of Baluchs need to be addressed and Islamabad has to take Baluchs into confidence in all matters pertaining to development in the province. Pushtuns in Baluchistan are not monolithic. In addition to tribal divisions they have different political visions. Afghan Pushtuns based in Pushtun dominated areas of Baluchistan have been successful in maintaining some influence in that region. Insurgents fighting Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan have also found support among these Pushtuns. This support is based on religious, ethnic and tribal bonds. On the other hand nationalist Pushtuns see current violence in which Pushtuns are dying on both sides as against their interests.

Pakistan-Iran border is also becoming hot. There have been several shootouts between smugglers and other trouble makers and security forces of both countries. In February 2007, Pakistanis security forces arrested seven Iranian trying to enter Pakistan. There was disagreement between two countries about who should interrogate these suspects and in protest Iran closed its border. In early 2007, a Sunni group called Jundullah claimed attacks on Iranian security forces in Baluchistan-Sistan region. Iran is building a fence along its border with Pakistan which is the cause of resentment among Baluchs of both countries. In addition, this attempt of fencing of border by Iran will affect smuggling operations therefore smugglers will partly finance the activities of Baluch insurgents operating on both side of the border. Iran fearful of U.S. intentions, see Pakistan’s cooperation with U.S. with suspicion and worries that Washington and Islamabad may be colluding to cause headaches for Tehran by stirring trouble in Iranian Baluchistan. Some Gulf sheikhdoms fearing decline of their fortunes in case of success of Gwadar port are also quietly funding some Baluch armed groups. In view of increasing frustrations of Washington and Kabul, it is also tempting for them to support Baluch groups. They may see rise of ethnic and nationalistic Baluchs as a buffer against religious extremism emanating from the region. That project can be sub-contracted to Indians who will be happy to oblige. Indians may consider this option to use it in future as a bargaining chip over Kashmir. The deal may have a clause of ‘You stop supporting my terrorist and your freedom fighter and I’ll stop supporting my freedom fighter and your terrorist’. If instability of the area bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran increases, Baluch may be tempted to emulate Iraqi Kurds and try to carve out their own autonomous region.

Everyone shares the responsibility of current dangerous situation in a volatile region. Washington is responsible for its short sightedness, arrogance, alarming ignorance of local realities and refusal to accommodate concerns of others. Afghans are responsible for infighting and tendency to jump on any wagon passing by for narrow interests and in the process turning their beautiful country into rubble. Pakistan and Iran are responsible for indiscriminately using Afghan proxies for their own agendas callously disregarding enormous loss of life and property at their chosen battlefield. Arabs, rather than channeling their petro-dollars for development decided to use their money for erecting forces of destruction and extremism. All of them are now complaining about the bitter harvest, blaming others while ignoring their own role. It is unrealistic to expect that tribal territories will be violence free. All necessary ingredients of armed confrontation such as tribesman’s love of his independence, suspicion or hostility against a distant and uncaring central state, rugged terrain, availability of state of the art weaponry, plenty of financial incentives, tribal rivalries and ideological indoctrination are in place and only a small incident can result in spontaneous or planned violence. A certain amount of conflict will be ongoing in view of clash of interests of various players. All efforts should be geared towards keeping violence to a minimum level. All parties especially nation state actors need to act prudently and avoid the temptation of using tribesmen for their own narrow interests.

Patience, an essential commodity in such an environment has never been an American virtue. U.S. and NATO need to re-assess their priorities and accept the ground reality that without regional cooperation and taking into consideration genuine national security interests of Pakistan and Iran, hope of a peaceful Afghanistan will be a mirage. On their part, Pakistan and Iran need to accept changed realties and desist from interfering in Afghanistan‘s affairs. They should do it not for Afghanistan but with a clear understanding that stoking such flames will invariably come back to burn their own house. They have the right to express their concerns but funding their Afghan proxies for a violent showdown is not in their own interest. They should learn a lesson from their previous such misadventures. Afghan government has to understand its own limitations and it should try to avoid confrontations with its neighbors. Regional cooperation especially among Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran is critical to defuse tensions in border tribal territories. Governments at loggerheads with each other and public accusations only give more room to non-state actors who will try to expand their area of influence at the expense of the state authority. This applies to all countries where Afghanistan will see its border areas coming under insurgent influence, Pakistan seeing the influence of armed militants encroaching on settled districts and Blauch militants gaining more confidence while Iran experiencing a jumpstart of insurgency in Baluchistan-Sistan region. U.S. and NATO troops will be in the middle of this web of intrigues and shifting alliances. If violence crosses a certain threshold unleashing centrifugal forces, then tribal forces of the region may become the catalyst for major instability and even possible fragmentation of three important states: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. In the last one hundred and fifty years, representatives of a central government (British followed by Pakistan) have penetrated deep into tribal territory and society with an attempt to control them and expand government authority. However, each attempt ended with some kind of accommodation with tribal leaders and practice of indirect rule. Ironically, one hundred and fifty years later, successors of the Raj and new kids on the block are learning the same lesson again.

Consider not only present but future discords … If one waits until they are at hand, the medicine is no longer in time as the malady has become incurable. Machiavelli

Dr. Hamid Hussain is an independent analyst based in New York. His website is

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