America's Opportunity in Pakistan’s Tribal Belt

America's Opportunity in Pakistan’s Tribal Belt
By Ziad Haider

Lahore, July 28: When Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gillani, visits Washington today, he will face tough questions about securing Pakistan ’s federally administered tribal areas (FATA) along its border with Afghanistan . So will his hosts in Congress. For a key question on Islamabad ’s mind is the fate of stalled legislation creating reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) to spur development and combat militancy in FATA.

Today FATA is the alleged epicenter of the war on terror. A 2008 DNI assessment states that Al Qaeda is finalizing its next plan of attack against America in FATA. The Taliban is using these areas to launch attacks in Afghanistan where last month more troops were killed than in Iraq . FATA-based militants have also turned their guns inward. The CIA has accused Baitullah Mehsud’s network of assassinating Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto while security forces continue to be brazenly attacked in Pakistan ’s frontier.

The Government of Pakistan has adopted a three-pronged strategy to combat this threat: negotiating with tribesmen who cease combat; withdrawing the army from these areas and only using it when peaceful alternatives are exhausted; and promoting development.

The third prong is crucial as FATA is among Pakistan ’s most underdeveloped areas and thus ripe for militancy. Government estimates show that 60% of households live beneath the poverty line; only 17.42% of the population is literate.

In 2006, President Bush announced he would seek legislation creating ROZs in Afghanistan and Pakistan ’s border and earth-quake affected areas. Select goods produced in ROZ-based industries would have duty-free access to the US , spurring investment and employment. Now Congress must translate this initiative into reality for three reasons.

First, as Pakistan ’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmud Qureshi stated in Washington recently, ROZs “will go a long way in helping expand economic opportunities and weaning innocent people off extremism.” Lack of jobs is a key factor cited for FATA’s Talibanization, according to a 2008 FATA survey sponsored by the British Government.

Recognizing the role ROZs can play, Pakistani officials consistently raise them with their US counterparts and Congressional delegations; politicians touted them during the parliamentary elections held earlier this year; and bureaucrats are identifying potential sites while navigating security concerns.

Second, US development aid has neither been sufficient nor always trickled down in FATA. The Government Accountability Office estimates that only 1% of aid for FATA between 2002 and 2007 was spent on development. Even as Congress increases this fund, ROZs will help FATA’s people stand on their feet and directly reap gains from faceless American consumers instead of only reaping losses from faceless American Predators.

Third, increasing market access will decrease America ’s credibility deficit. Three-fourths of Pakistanis believe the war on terror’s purpose is to dominate the Muslim world, according to a recent Terror Free Tomorrow poll. Incidents like the US strike that killed 11 Pakistani troops, statements regarding entering FATA, and images of US drones in FATA are fueling fears of a unilateral strike and weakening a fledging elected government.

Without the Pakistani people’s support, however, neither government can tackle their shared threat. In addition to resolving deep institutional divisions over combating versus patronizing the Taliban, Islamabad must convince the public it is not fighting America ’s war but an existential internal threat which will require partnering with the US . It must further demonstrate that this partnership can yield not just short-term aid but also long-term gains like market access.

Indeed, over two-thirds of Pakistanis who favorably view Al Qaeda stated in the Terror Free Tomorrow poll that alternate US policies such as those promoting investment and trade would change their opinion of America . ROZs are thus precisely the type of initiative America must deliver on and publicly spotlight while privately addressing its legitimate differences with Pakistani officials.

Yet despite the clear dividend, it has taken two years for enabling bills to be introduced in Congress. Now in an election year with competing trade priorities and domestic labor concerns hampering the bill’s progress, the window to pass legislation is fast closing.

ROZs are not just an opportunity for FATA’s people. They are also an opportunity for Congress to use American soft power to promote US credibility and stability in a pivotal region. The sooner Congress passes this bill, the sooner it provides a gainful alternative to joining Al Qaeda and the Taliban and killing Americans, Pakistanis, and Afghans among others. That is a goal worthy of Congress’s immediate attention.


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