Is there a way out of the Fata quicksand?
By Ismail Khan: Dawn, September 26, 2007
BARRING the Balochistan insurgency in the 1970s, Pakistan’s history has never witnessed such a staggering number of security officials slain in such a short span of time as in the tribal badlands of Waziristan. In fact, in many respects, say some analysts, the Waziristan insurgency has proven to be more violent and lethal and has far exceeded its boundaries to manifest itself in far-off places.
Figures corroborate the assessment. According to unofficial, published figures, since July 15, security forces have lost close to 229 people in clashes, roadside explosions, sting operations and suicide attacks. These include military, paramilitary, rangers and the police. On an average, three law-enforcement personnel are being killed a day. Since Pakistan allied itself with the United States in its war on terror, official figures put the overall death toll of military and paramilitary personnel at 730. The figures of those maimed and wounded run into thousands.
This rather alarming increase in losses by security forces in Pakistan is in sharp contrast to the losses suffered by US-led coalition forces whose casualty figures in Afghanistan since July 15 stand at a mere 69.
With tenacity, militants have been able to expand the theatre to transcend tribal borders and infiltrate settled districts and high security zones, including the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Targeted killings, once confined to the tribal region and claiming hundreds of pro-government tribal elders, have now come to haunt major cities and settled districts. The killing of widely respected cleric Maulana Hassan Jan and the attempt on the life of former federal minister and Pushtun nationalist leader Mohammad Afzal Khan Lala are cases in point.
These do not appear to be one-off incidents but seem to be part of a trend that first plagued the tribal region and is now spilling over into other areas.
The unprecedented number of security forces taken hostage by militants in the restive South Waziristan since August 30 has added a new dimension to the raging insurgency in the tribal areas. It is not only causing a domino effect, but is also casting a demoralising shadow on other law-enforcement agencies.
Little wonder then that a cleric in the tourist destination of Swat, better known as ‘Maulana Radio’ for his sermons on the illegally operated FM radio, has threatened to take law-enforcers hostage if the government does not release his comrades.
The dramatic escalation in violence and attacks on security forces has once again sparked a debate on whether the government’s strategy in the tribal region was getting anywhere and whether it is time to reassess the situation and take immediate corrective measures.
Ironically, though, while the situation continues to be explosive, the country’s leadership remains mired in politicking, a classic example of Rome burning and Nero playing the fiddle.
Four years ago, when Pakistan sent its forces into the semi-autonomous tribal region in support of the US war on terror, it had two objectives: to stop cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan; and remove Al Qaeda and its affiliates believed to be hiding in the tribal regions.
Some analysts now wonder whether the government’s strategy has paid off. Pakistan says it has set up over a hundred checkposts along the porous Pak-Afghan border to stop cross-border infiltration but, the demand on Islamabad “to do more”, continues.
A UN report released earlier this month said 80 per cent of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan had come from Waziristan. The recent US Intelligence Estimates followed this and a statement by President Bush’s Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend that “nothing is off the table” as far as direct US intervention in Waziristan is concerned casts a dark shadow of conflict and only compounds the problem.
There is some debate now on whether Pakistan should keep its military forces in the tribal region. Even in the fight against foreign militants, the military has yet to achieve a major victory. The only senior Al Qaeda operative killed in the tribal areas in the last four years was Hamza Rabia, eliminated in a missile strike in December 2005. Militant commander Nek Muhammad also fell to a missile strike in June 2004.
Analysts say that such instances hit home the fact that the military should either be deployed on the borders to further reinforce border security in order to halt cross-border infiltration or withdraw into adjoining districts to provide elbowroom for small, sharp and precise action in the tribal areas.
Nevertheless, say analysts, such a decision should not come as a quid pro quo with any group but as part of an overall national strategy on Fata. However, analysts warn that any Fata policy exclusive of Pakistan’s Afghan policy within the framework of Pak-US relations would not work.
For this to happen, they say, Islamabad would have to work to offer itself as an ‘honest broker’, mediate between the warring sides in Afghanistan, instead of taking sides which will also have a salutary effect on the tribal region. The two policies are inter-twined.
Duly-equipped and supported by air and ground cover, Frontier Corps, Levies and the Khasadars be left to deal with the law and order in the tribal areas and all operations should be coordinated under the political administration. All forces should be at the command of the Political Agent, who should be the lead player for all practical purposes and should have the last say in matters relating to the tribal regions.
It is also important that the NWFP governor as agent to the president for Fata should have full charge and responsibility and take his team into confidence instead of playing his cards too close to his chest.
Last but not the least, there needs to be an invigorated effort to emphasise on the delivery of justice, social service and security to the tribal people to inculcate a sense of ownership in them. There is need for some out-of-the-box thinking which requires brilliant and intelligent officers.
Ironically, while the government has been talking about Fata reforms, it has done little for it. President Musharraf inaugurated agency councils and addressed 467 largely elected tribal councillors in Peshawar on December 21, 2004, referring to them as his ‘unit.’
The main philosophy behind setting up elected tribal councils was to involve tribal people in development work and create a sense of participation. To the contrary, those agency councils were made redundant and political agents continued to dole out funds to handpicked people, often in an attempt to buy peace.
There is a need for elected development jirgas with elections held on nikat basis that is, the number of seats up for elections should be in ratio to the respective population of tribes and sub-tribes.
Funds allocations to these tribes and sub-tribes should be done by the political agents on the basis of their cooperation in implementing government policy.
However, expenditure of funds once allocated to a tribe or sub-tribe should be at the discretion of the elected members of the jirga. This would not only give a role to the tribal people through their elected representatives in identifying and executing schemes at the micro level, thus reducing favouritism of government functionaries, but would also help maintain the control of the political agents at the macro level over these tribes and sub-tribes.The same model could be used to set up elected judicial jirgas to decide civil and criminal matters between tribes and sub-tribes by amending the Frontier Crimes Regulations that should also extend the jurisdiction of the high court to the tribal regions.
Analysts say that the tribal councils cannot only play an important role in the delivery of community-based social services but can also provide dispensation of justice with elected judicial councils to adjudicate matters. Indeed, says one tribal elder, the hundreds of agency councillors could be galvanised to work as a grand jirga with a few other prominent tribal elders and clerics in it to restore peace in the tribal region.
However, with 750 million dollars worth of US aid for the uplift of Fata in the pipeline, there is a sense in some circles that differences between the Fata secretariat and the US on how to channelise these enormous funds could hugely affect the overall strategy for the tribal region.
Analysts say that the idea of entrusting Non Governmental Organisations to carry out work contracts could face stiff resistance in the tribal areas where these organisations are perceived negatively.
A via media could be found if agency councils are reactivated and mechanisms set up to ensure transparency and accountability in providing service to people at large.
In the absence of a national or political consensus and lack of a strategy on how best to sell the war on terror to the people and deal with the problem in the tribal regions, analysts say, it is all the more important to build an institutional consensus and mechanism. This will entail bringing all the key players and stakeholders on board to formulate a concerted and coordinated plan instead of the present ham-handed, reactionary ad-hoc strategy, if there is one at all.