December Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

The abiding US interest in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are geographically part of the NWFP but are administered by the federal government, became evident once again recently when a Pentagon spokesman said a plan was being drawn up to train and expand the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) to counter the growing strength of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Additionally, another Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the Tampa, Florida-based US Special Operations Command was preparing separate plans for ways to increase counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan’s armed forces and to boost their capabilities. Whitman said the plans involved “capabilities that would help pursue the type of disruptive influences that are in Pakistan…without going into specifics.” He said these plans have not yet been sent up the military chain of command for approval.

According to the influential US newspaper, The New York Times, the plans were part of intensified efforts to enlist tribal leaders in the “war against terror.” It said there were at present 50 US soldiers in Pakistan, but many more would be required to execute the plan. Regarding the Pentagon plan to train and expand the FC, press secretary Geoff Morrell said it had been in the pipeline for months, but was not yet underway. He said the plan had been discussed and issues such as its launch were debated in meetings.

It is worth noting that General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf, on different occasions in the past, had conceded the presence of only 12 to 15 US military personnel in Pakistan. He had said these Americans were assisting the Pakistan military with technical expertise to track down wanted foreign militants and intercept and disrupt their means of communication. The general never admitted that 50 US soldiers were stationed in Pakistan. In fact, Musharraf and his military regime have seldom bothered to take the nation into confidence about Pakistan’s specific role in the so-called “war on terror” and the parameters of its cooperation with the US in fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Islamabad’s open-ended and almost limitless cooperation with the US in fighting this endless “war on terror” has destabilised Pakistan and polarised its society. Some of the military tactics applied in fighting this war have caused so much “collateral damage” that the civilian casualties and displacement of communities have fuelled militancy, created suicide bombers and contributed to spreading extremism to Swat and other places outside the tribal areas.

Pentagon spokesman Whitman said US military assistance to Pakistan’s armed forces until now was limited to air assault training, for which American funding fell from $27 million in the fiscal year 2006 to $5.3 million in fiscal 2007.

The NWFP in general and FATA in particular became the focus of attention following the post-9/11 US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in October 2001. After years of neglect, the Pakistan government substantially increased allocation of funds for the under-developed tribal borderland and foreign donors also chipped in with money for special projects. The military operations that began there in 2003-2004 to hunt down militants suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are also continuing and could go on for years due to the fact that the “war on terror” appears unwinnable.

The US-assisted military operations in FATA, particularly in the troubled North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal agencies, have achieved mixed results. The foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks aligned to the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a sprinkling of Arabs, Afghans and others, have found it increasingly difficult to hide in sanctuaries provided by Pakistani tribesmen. The Uzbeks, led by IMU leader Tahir Yuldachev, had to quit the Wana area in South Waziristan during the spring of 2007 when local Taliban rose against them and evicted them with help from the Pakistan Army. Tribes in Mir Ali of North Waziristan have also formed tribal lashkars to force them to leave the area and punish tribesmen sheltering them in their homes. The few Arab nationals hiding in Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban have kept a low profile and largely refrained from fighting the Pakistan Army, which until now has lost more than 1,000 soldiers in the “war on terror.” Their priority appears to be to fight the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

It is interesting to note that the military operations were launched in Waziristan to tackle foreign militants, but the fighting now taking place there is largely between Pakistani troops and their own countrymen drawn from the tribes, collectively and commonly known as the Taliban. The issue of the presence of foreigners, sometimes referred to as “guest fighters” by their Pakistani hosts, seems to have been almost forgotten. No killing or capture of foreign militants has been claimed by the government for a long time now. As the situation stands, Pakistanis are now dying on both sides while the wanted foreign militants have almost vanished from the scene.

Until now, most of the US funding for FATA had been spent on military operations and the future Pentagon plans for the region also focus primarily on the training and expansion of the troops taking part in the “war on terror.” The plan to enlist tribal elders to fight Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants is also geared towards the same objective. The same strategy was adopted in Afghanistan by devoting the bulk of US aid to security needs in the hope of militarily defeating the Taliban. It didn’t work as the Taliban remain undefeated even six years after the fall of their regime in Kabul, and their strength and influence, according to most western accounts, has increased during this period. There has been some rethinking of this strategy following demands for more funding for development projects and political initiatives aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Some western analysts and leaders, including the British defense secretary, have also argued that no peace in Afghanistan is possible without involving the Taliban in the political process.

As the situation in Afghanistan and FATA is inter-linked, there is a need to rethink the existing, military-driven policy in FATA. Government functionaries from Musharraf down to the military commanders in the field have been saying for quite some time now that no military solution to the conflict in Waziristan and FATA was possible. That was the reason that every military operation was followed by a peace accord. Also, more resources were allocated for the development of FATA and foreign donors, too, were wooed to provide resources for undertaking projects in the socio-economic sectors. There was a feeling that tackling poverty and illiteracy would help fight extremism. This indeed should be the policy because FATA has been lagging far behind the rest of the country in terms of development. The US government had also promised to help set up special economic opportunity zones in the tribal areas to facilitate activities to jump-start the economy, but this hasn’t been finalised yet. There is no timeline for setting up these zones and further delays look inevitable due to a lack of urgency on the part of the US authorities.

The Pentagon’s plan to train and expand the FC is a long-term activity and it again focuses on militarily resolving the conflict in FATA. The FC would surely benefit from US financial support and could, in time, become a better trained and equipped force. In fact, the FC has already received vehicles from the US and some funds from Washington have gone into setting up new border posts and for training purposes.

The FC, an 80,000-strong force drawn from Pakhtun tribes, was raised by the British colonial rulers to maintain law and order in the tribal areas and patrol the long border with Afghanistan. However, it is now being asked to fight fellow tribesmen who were either part of the Taliban or joined them after their villages became a target in military operations. The FC personnel, in some cases, have surrendered to the Taliban in Waziristan and Swat and many among them gave media interviews to explain that they don’t want to fight fellow Muslims and Pakhtuns. There have been desertions from FC ranks and even jobless young men no longer appear keen to be recruited in the force.

However, the Pentagon plan to enlist tribal leaders in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is fraught with risks and such a strategy could fuel further bloodshed in the tribal areas. Enlisting would mean arming and equipping the tribal chiefs and giving them money. Up to 250 tribesmen, including tribal elders, and many Afghans have been killed in the two Waziristans and in Bajaur Agency on charges of spying for the US and there will be more such killings if tribal leaders are suspected to have received money from the Americans

There has been talk in the US about replicating the model of Iraq’s Al Anbar province, where tribally based Sunni militias were recruited as allies against Al-Qaeda, and implementing it in the Pakistani tribal region. This could be a recipe for disaster in FATA where, unlike Iraq, the militants are overwhelmingly Pakistani tribesmen and not foreigners as is the case with Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Al Anbar. In our tribal areas, funding for the tribal leaders would mean they would be fighting Pakistani Taliban and destabilising the whole tribal belt. Blood-feuds continue for generations among Pakhtun tribes and pitting one group of tribesmen against another would mean triggering perpetual battles between the two sides. The Pakistan government has tried this strategy in certain areas, but it isn’t the best way to tackle the problem of militancy and extremism.

Pakistan should adopt policies that are in the national interest and are acceptable and workable in keeping with time-honoured tribal traditions and customs. Allowing the US to dictate policies in Pakistan or to experiment with anti-terror strategies that could further destabilise the tribal belt are hardly sound solutions for Pakistan’s profound problems.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.