Dialogue in the tribal areas

Analysis: Dialogue in the tribal areas — Najmuddin A Shaikh
Daily Times, April 27, 2008

The release of Maulvi Sufi Mohammad of the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM) after 6 years of self-requested incarceration has been the first step taken by the new ANP government in the NWFP to commence a dialogue with “reconcilable” elements among those in the tribal areas who have hitherto followed the extremist path. The ISPR spokesman has made it clear that the armed forces were not involved in the negotiation of the agreement that led to the release and which apparently commits Sufi Mohammad to a renunciation of violence and the pursuit of his objectives through peaceful means.

There are of course questions about the degree of influence that Sufi Mohammad can exercise in today’s Swat or Malakand Division. He sought incarceration because following his disastrous effort to help the Taliban by sending thousands of callow impressionable youths from Pakistan to their death in Afghanistan, grief-stricken parents wanted to lynch him. His movement, which should have died out after this tragedy, was inexplicably allowed to resurrect itself possibly because of benign or malevolent neglect on the part of the MMA government in the Frontier.

Maulana Fazlullah, the estranged son in law of Sufi Mohammad, popularly known as Maulana Radio, managed to build a considerable following before the army moved against him Now the army claims that more than 90 percent of Swat is peaceful but the army is continuing to look for the remaining militant holdouts. Whether Sufi Mohammad will be able to break Fazlullah’s hold on the militants of the TNSM is certainly not clear though there are indications that after the army action, he has been left only with a ragtag band of followers.

I believe that Sufi Mohammad is genuinely a changed man, is genuinely desirous of peace and that he will, despite his infirmities, be able to rally the people of Swat who are clearly even more tired of Fazlullah’s antics than they are of the endemic corruption and inequities of the administrative system.

There is news today that the ANP government in Peshawar is close to finalising an agreement with the Mehsud tribes in North and South Waziristan. If the report is accurate it would provide, in return for the phased withdrawal of the army from the Agencies, for a renunciation of violence by the Mehsuds, for the expulsion of all foreign militants from the area within a month or at best two months, and for an acceptance of the writ of the government without any effort on the part of the tribesmen to set up a parallel administration.

Can the Mehsud tribesmen deliver on this sort of agreement? We have had one example in the past of a government-sponsored tribal effort to rid the region of foreign militants but after some initial success it seems that the foreign militants have returned. The American commander in Afghanistan says that he has seen intelligence reports about fresh batches of foreigners arriving in the tribal areas.

Earlier in an exclusive interview with Newsweek, our new prime minister had laid out his government’s policy saying in part: “We are not in favour of talking to the militants and hardliners. We want to only talk to people who have laid down and decommissioned their arms...We will not be blackmailed by them.”

When asked if they would be required to put down their arms only against Pakistan or against Afghanistan also, the prime minister said, “This [extremism] is a war against humanity, the world community. How can we separate the others [allies and neighbours] from us?”

Are the agreements being reached in conflict with the policy enunciated by the prime minister? Clearly in both cases, agreements are not being reached with the militants but with a leader who has renounced violence in one case and with tribal leaders in the other. The Mehsud agreement has not explicitly ruled out support for cross border activity but if foreigners are expelled this would automatically happen.

Be that as it may, there is really no way that even with the best of intentions these agreements will be sustained unless the underlying issues that give rise to extremism — the absence of political voices other than those of the Mullah in the mosque and the high rate of unemployment among disaffected youth — are addressed. It is the latter issue that I want to address.

The new government has apparently spoken in the proposed agreement with the Mehsuds about the tribesmen providing safe working conditions for local and foreign contractors doing development work in the region but nothing seems to have been spelt out with regard to the volume of work that the political administration will be undertaking.

And yet that is where we must focus. If I recall correctly the government of Pakistan has set aside Rs10 billion for development work in the tribal areas and I assume that this allocation will be maintained irrespective of the problems that the economy may face elsewhere. The Americans have promised to provide the equivalent of Rs9 billion a year for the next five years and already there is talk in the American Senate of tripling American economic assistance to Pakistan, of which it is safe to assume a substantial amount will be earmarked for the tribal areas.

The FATA Secretariat, created some 18 months ago in Peshawar, has, I am sure, been working on identifying development projects in the area and these would include schools, hospitals roads, small dams etc. Would the employment generated by these projects be for the tribal youth? This may be difficult given their present lack of skills.

I would therefore argue that every agreement with the tribal maliks and elders must include a provision under which every malik or elder will, in consultation with his tribesmen, be authorised to nominate 500 to 1000 youth to whom the government would offer training in vocational schools to be set up in the settled districts. These youth, who could be offered a stipend during the period of training, would then return to their homes in a year’s time to secure employment in these development projects for which contracts should be allotted as far as possible to locals.

It will be argued that vocational schools are far and few between and setting up new schools would take time. I would recommend that we can if necessary set up tent cities in Kohat, Bannu Charsadda etc. to cater to these aspiring carpenters, masons, bulldozer operators etc. Even if a billion rupees were to be spent annually on this exercise to train some 30,000 skilled workers, it would be a worthwhile exercise and perhaps be the best antidote to the fever of extremism that is raging in the region.

Another reason for doing so to my mind is that some 24 months after the proposal was first made, the legislation for allowing duty free entry into the United States for products made in the “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones”, that are to be set up in the Pak-Afghan border area, has reached the American Congress in March this year. One assumes that the FATA Secretariat is in discussions with Pakistani and foreign industrialists on what industries are to be set up and as a logical corollary to determine the skills that locals will have to acquire to work in these factories.

With the help of tribal elders and in consultation with the industrialists the administration should select young men who can be sent to existing factories in Sindh and Punjab to learn the skills they will need to operate these factories. The local youth and their elders must be able to see in this industrialisation process, immediate and long-term opportunities to be more than the drawers of water and the hewers of wood.

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

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