by Hassan Abbas
The National Interest, August 13, 2008
The growing Taliban insurgency in the Afghan-Pakistan border area increasingly threatens the geography of the region. Continuation of this crisis could derail the India-Pakistan peace process, undermine democratic gains in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, and jeopardize U.S. interests in the region.
Despite the explosive nature of the crisis and apparent consensus between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees about the need for additional focus on the area—as well as military forces there—the popular analysis of the situation often fails to appreciate the very basic facts of the issue.
At the core of this insurgency is Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which encompasses about 27,220 square kilometers of mountainous terrain and is home to approximately 3.5 million Pashtuns. Ethnic Pashtuns not only strongly dominate FATA and the adjoining North-West Frontier Province, they also straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border, demarcated by the British in 1893.
This border, which separated Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan from their brethren in Pakistan, created deep resentment among Pashtun, and has never been treated as if it had any real significance. At the same time, the British, and the various outside powers that followed them into the area, believed more in the border than in the links that continued to unite this community across it. This misunderstanding was inherited by the NATO forces operating in the area today.
Besides ethnic affinity and tribal ethos, Pashtuns have a great sense of history. They cherish the fact that they provided a platform for the Pakistan army, its intelligence services and the West (especially the United States) to train, arm and finance the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They also opened their arms to thousands of radicals from the Arab world, who joined them in the Afghan resistance-turned-“jihad” project.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, many of these warriors drifted back into FATA. The madrassa network established in the area by Pakistan with Saudi financing to produce these zealots, however, continued to operate. The intolerant Taliban, with their dogmatic worldview, were a product of these years. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were also the beneficiaries of all this. Strong U.S. military action after 9/11 drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan—but little has been done since then to defeat the mindset that produced the organization.
Ethnic divisions, lack of investment in developing infrastructure, failure to eradicate opium production and poor governance in Afghanistan have reignited Taliban fervor. On the Pakistani side, political instability and criminal neglect of the area led to a significant transition, as influential tribal elders were replaced by young militants—Pashtuns as well as Uzbeks and Arabs who had migrated to the area since the mid-1980s. Three hundred tribal elders have been beheaded by young radicals, while more than one thousand Pakistani soldiers have been killed in clashes with local Taliban. A variety of thugs, including religious fanatics, smugglers and drug dealers have also joined in the local mayhem.
Hardly a day goes by in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province without a girls’ school or video shop being bombed. Within the Kurram Agency in FATA, there have been brutal killings of Shia Muslims, sparking sectarian unrest. Suicide bombings in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have become routine.
The trust deficit among stakeholders creates further problems. For instance, Pakistan is skeptical about the long-term U.S. agenda in the region, while Washington in turn doubts the Pakistani army’s willingness to confront radical elements or stop Pakistan-based insurgents from crossing the border to fight in Afghanistan.
Regional politics also complicate the situation. Pakistan suspects that both India and Afghanistan are supporting Baluch insurgents inside Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized Pakistan for creating instability in his country. Additionally, India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan is causing friction with Pakistan.
There is no shortcut solution to these problems. The 1,200-mile mountain border between Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot be completely sealed. Neither can the Pashtuns be convinced to remain aloof from their kith and kin across the border.
Talibanization can be defeated by establishing modern schools and closing down those madrassas that support violence and extremism. Militancy can be eliminated by well-planned law enforcement. Unfortunately, local police and paramilitary outfits have not received their due share of the foreign—mostly American—counterterrorism aid given to Pakistan. As a recent RAND study titled “How Terrorist Groups End” shows, law-enforcement capacity is critical for fighting terrorism.
The new Pakistani government must hurry up and put its house in order so it can face the challenge. Restoration of the popular and independent judiciary will certainly enhance Pakistan’s capacity to function as a modern state and fight radicalism effectively. Supporting discredited leadership and investing primarily in the region’s war machines will not be fruitful.
Within Afghanistan, eliminating poppy production must be attempted at war footing. There too, modern education and good governance hold the key to a brighter future. A perpetual international presence is no durable solution, especially when it hurts local sensitivities.
The flames of conflict will continue to burn across the region until all the parties involved take concerted steps to help local people build a better future. Recent events across the Afghan-Pakistan border show that conflict only begets greater conflict.
Dr. Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, is author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror.
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