April issue 2004

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 16 years ago

Each time the Pakistani media wrote about the existence of the Al-Qaeda network in the country’s tribal belt, General Musharraf and his spokespersons vehemently denied it and denounced the press for spreading false rumours. It was only when Washington cracked the whip that the Pakistan army got cracking.

But if Mr. Bush had hoped that either Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri would be delivered on a silver platter, well in time for his re-entry into the White House, that didn’t happen.

The “high-value” target Musharraf talked about in his NBC interview, either got away or was not there in the first place, and the Pakistan army ended up with a bloody nose — 46 military and paramilitary personnel lost their lives in a fortnight of combat, in which the government claimed to have killed 63 militants and captured166, among them 73 foreigners. And that’s not all. Several innocent civilians were killed in the crossfire, around 100 houses of ‘errant’ tribesmen were demolished and 100,000 of a population of 160,000 tribesmen were displaced, provoking the wrath of the tribesmen.

Mr. Bush may be in a tearing hurry to garner votes, but does that mean that we should show the same kind of haste and impatience in operating in what is essentially uncharted territory? Our state of preparedness, and the calibre of our intelligence network can be gauged from the remarks of an ISPR spokesperson: “The army was taken aback at the extent of the firepower at the militants’ disposal — rocket launchers, missiles, artillery.”

What exactly did the army expect from a bunch of battle-hardened militants — among them Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs and Afghans — who were trained in the tricks of the trade by the CIA and our very own ISI, and stationed in South Waziristan, the launching pad of the offensive against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Abandoned by their erstwhile masters and unwanted in their respective countries, these militants are fighting a battle for their survival, and they will use all the firepower at their command. Moreover, having lived in this terrain for years and married, in certain instances, to local women, they obviously enjoy the support of the local tribesmen. The army is being presumptuous if it marches in and expects the locals to hand over the militants or betray them. Especially since the country’s rulers have failed to engage with the inhabitants of this region in any manner whatsoever.

Fifty-seven years down the road, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) remain the most backward in the region. Devoid of any infrastructure, schools, colleges and medical facilities, FATA is frozen in time. It conjures up visions of the Wild West, as every tribesman brandishes a weapon as a matter of pride and honour, and tribal chieftains call the shots. Inhuman and unjust practices prevail: women are rarely to be seen in public places, revenge-killing is common practice and there is no recourse to any law other than the decision of the Jirga.

Stories are legion of how the British in the 200 years of their rule here, could not rein in the Frontier tribesmen. That, however, does not mean that they be allowed to continue in the same fashion by the Pakistan government, for another 200 years.

If FATA harbours terrorists who want to destabilise the region and are involved in insurgencies within and outside the country, an effective strategy needs to be evolved to strike at the root of this lawlessness.

The time has arrived for FATA to be integrated into the state of Pakistan and the country’s writ to be extended to its wild frontiers. Concurrently, a massive socio-economic development package needs to be put in place to pull this area out of the medieval ages and into the 21st century.

All of this requires time and money. Law and order cannot be imposed in the region with a show of the American fist. It has to be introduced through a show of understanding of the sensitivities and the needs of the region.

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.