Deepening Crisis in the Tribal Belt: What Can be done?

Stabilising the tribal belt
By Talat Masood: Dawn, September 17, 2007

THE worsening situation in the tribal belt could be categorised as one of the foremost among the multiple challenges facing Pakistan. For all practical purposes, the state has lost its authority and is in full retreat especially in Waziristan and Bajaur. The Taliban and other militant groups having strong links with their counterparts in Afghanistan are in control.

Clearly, no government in the 21st century, more so after 9/11, can remain indifferent to this situation due to its serious implications for international security and its adverse fallout on domestic stability.

US intelligence agencies have recently warned that the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the tribal belt poses a serious threat to homeland security. More than one US presidential candidate have threatened to send US troops into Pakistan to target Al Qaeda and militant sanctuaries, in case of actionable intelligence.

We are also daily witnessing the expanding influence of the Taliban in the settled areas, and the wave is travelling downwards unchecked. Incidents of burning of music and barber shops and blowing up of statues are a clear indication that religious fanaticism has returned with a vengeance.

The government’s initial efforts at countering this mix of terrorism and insurgency through military means and then later through peace deals have both failed in reasserting the writ of the state. Militant groups in Waziristan are intensifying their guerrilla tactics as their confidence grows. They are also resorting to vigilantism to assert social and political control in Waziristan and the adjoining settled areas.

The recent abject surrender of nearly 250 personnel of our armed forces to the militants is a huge embarrassment for the army which prides itself on its professional competence and high level of combat alertness. This incident is another reminder that the war on terror cannot be won with the same tools used in past conventional wars. Neither can it be won with the existing power structure or the one that President Musharraf is hoping to evolve through political “deals” and the use of state machinery.

Combating insurgency needs the support of the nation. Just as external wars cannot be won without the support of the people, as was clearly demonstrated in the 1971 India-Pakistan war, internal insurgency and terrorism cannot be defeated without the broad support of the nation. To say that democracies are also facing insurgencies such as in Nagaland in India or the one Britain faced in Ireland, and for that reason democracy is not a prerequisite, is a misplaced argument.

The United Kingdom was eventually able to resolve the Irish issue on the intrinsic strength of its democracy. Similarly, the Indian government is relatively better placed to tackle the insurgencies on its eastern borders, both in terms of drawing support from the country and engaging in political dialogue with the militants, due to its democratic credentials.

If Pakistan were a democracy and the government had greater legitimacy it would not have found the public to be as indifferent and opposed to the government’s policies in Fata as it is today. The lack of involvement of the people obviously has its impact on the morale and motivation of the armed forces.

Despite the deployment of 100,000 troops in Fata and the use of bombs, precision guided weapons and limited air power we have not been able to achieve any of our stated political objectives. The reason is that we are organised to fight conventional wars with guns, missiles, mortars and armoured vehicles. This is a war that has to be fought amongst the people, where there is no clear battleground. The state is fighting against non-state actors who are both indigenous and foreign and operate in a sympathetic and supportive milieu.

There is no concrete object to capture nor can the state suppress the will of its foes through the application of brute force. The government has to devise policies to win over the “hearts and minds” of the people.

In fact, there has to be only limited use of force and that too for creating conditions in which economic development, political evolution and social awareness can take place. Conventional wars and the use of nuclear forces have well-defined strategic objectives, and the “war on terror” is a more complex phenomenon.

The Americans are waging this “war” in Afghanistan and Iraq to create conditions which facilitate the emergence of governments that are friendly towards them and conform to their broad strategic objectives. Moreover, they also want to ensure that the state is functional to the extent that there are no sanctuaries to assist the operations of hostile forces.

Unlike past conventional wars, there is no desire to hold territory as long as these conditions are fulfilled. Apart from one or two major offensives, the US and the International Security Assistance Force have conducted mostly low-level tactical operations in Afghanistan.

So far, the use of military force has failed to achieve any of the stated goals. On the contrary, militant forces have gained considerable strength in the south and western provinces of Afghanistan, with adverse repercussions on the stability of Fata.The reason for the current resurgence of militancy is that the people are not supportive of US policies in Afghanistan and consider its presence there as foreign occupation. Moreover, President Karzai is perceived as an American protégé.

Besides, domestic factors, terrorism and insurgency are spreading in our region due to an unbalanced world order and the rapid diffusion of technology. The Pakistani establishment cannot afford to remain in a state of denial regarding the situation in the tribal belt. We have to accept the reality that there exist training camps and there are a large number of foreigners — call them Al Qaeda or fugitives from Central Asian and the Arab countries — operating from there. And these groups are supporting the Taliban across the border.

The government needs to develop a more coherent policy to counter them. The NWFP governor is all for peace jirgas and peace deals. But they have not helped and the militants are gaining ground. It is also obvious that the military operations are not succeeding and our forces are suffering maximum casualties.The foreign office has its own policy and the NWFP government takes an adversarial position on these issues. Lack of trust between Afghanistan and the Pakistani leadership is another factor that strengthens the militants. One only hopes that the follow-up of the joint jirga would help in building trust and developing a common vision for the two countries.

There are important structural factors too that are influencing the rise of militancy in the tribal belt. The fallout from the Afghan jihad and 9/11 have weakened the state structures. In addition, poor governance, deprivation and the drug economy have destabilised the region. The glorification of the militants by a section of the media is another factor that is promoting radicalism.

All this clearly illustrates that fighting the challenge of extremism and terrorism would require a sustained effort spread over years in multiple directions. Although international support is helpful, the struggle is essentially ours, and needs to be backed by a strong national consensus. Despite these efforts in the short term, militancy and terrorism can be expected to increase.

The writer is a retired lieutenant-general of the Pakistan army.

Also See: Permanent military bases in FATA planned: Dawn, September 18, 2007


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