Gathering Storm On The Western Frontier

This Article appeared in DAWN on March 11, 2007.

American intrusions into Pakistan from Afghanistan, which until now have been occasional, are about to become frequent territorial violations. These inroads, be they in the form of targeted missile/air strikes or “enter-operate-leave” incursions are a rapidly approaching reality. What this entails for Pakistan is worth some thoughts.

All signals emanating from American centres of influence indicate a perception that Pakistan lacks the will or capability or both to prevent militants based inside its territorial jurisdiction from aiding the Taliban in their attacks against US/Afghan troops in Afghanistan. The US and the Karzai government are failing in their stated mission and American domestic and international opinion requires a scapegoat to justify this protracted conflict. The most conveniently available scapegoat is Pakistan.

The US cannot afford escalation of hostilities and its troops being bogged down in Afghanistan. This would be disastrous for its global strategy in terms of prestige, authority and supremacy. It is poised to take direct action and seems to be contemplating a “spring offensive” of its own inside Pakistan.

The militants would welcome such an escalation. The more Americans enlarge their area of operations, the more they would expose themselves to militant attacks. If it becomes unbearable for the militants in FATA, they would shift their bases and operations down country to the NWFP, thereby drawing in more US-led counter-insurgency measures.

Already we are witnessing Talibanisation in most of the southern districts of the NWFP and even up north. If latest trends are anything to go by, the days to come would show deeper cooperation and coordination among pro-Taliban militants, pro-Kashmiri and other jihadi groups and sectarian outfits. The statistics and analyses of recent suicide attacks in Pakistan show that there has been some interaction amongst the groups. This, coupled with political unrest in Balochistan, would have more than a destabilising effect throughout the country.

The army in FATA cannot afford to assume the role of a silent spectator. With local public opinion being what it is, neither can it fight alongside American troops against its own people. Having entered the tribal belt and taken over administrative command for all practical purposes, it cannot simply pack up and leave. It has to show a modicum of success vis-à-vis its goals.

A way out from this gathering storm can be found based on a relevant analysis of how and why we have managed to land ourselves in this situation.

It seems that the army entered the tribal areas for the first time since independence without realising the intensity of the problem and, therefore, lacking any tangible short-, mid- or long-term plan. Its action at the time was meant to show the world that the government was serious about tackling terrorism.

The history of the area repeated itself. Every operation mired the military forces deeper into the quagmire that is Waziristan. With US pressure building and militants unrelenting, the army realised that the task was not simple. It, therefore, embarked on a simultaneous policy of negotiations with the tribal populace and the use of force, but with a disjointed approach.

There was complete lack of coordination and trust amongst those responsible for negotiations (political authorities), the users of force (military authorities) and those dealing with information (intelligence agencies). It was simply not realised that the use of force is always subservient and not parallel to the negotiation process. It frequently happened that while the political authorities were negotiating a deal, simultaneous military operations were taking place without the knowledge of the political authorities.

Military authorities acting against the advice of the political administration opted for negotiated settlements with militants through the clergy and retired army officers, bypassing the tribal elders. This was done at a time when in the public view the militants had the upper hand.

In the tribal belt, where perceptions carry more weight than reality, while the government was perceived to have negotiated a settlement from a position of weakness, the militants went about creating a parallel administration and eliminating pro-government tribal leaders (more than 100).

When such ill-conceived agreements (Wana and Baitullah Mehsud etc) unravelled, the military went for indiscriminate use of force in North Waziristan alienating the local population further. Daily attacks on government and military installations/personnel became the order of the day and parallel administration by the militants started functioning in North Waziristan too.

The government faced with the loss of writ in Waziristan opted for the North Waziristan peace agreement brokered by the new governor. This agreement gave de jure authentication to the de facto situation in the area, its basic flaw being that while the responsibilities assigned to the government were tangibly verifiable (dismantling of check posts, no operations etc), those assigned to militants were not (expulsion of foreigners, no cross border attacks etc).

The US/Afghans are perturbed and continue to tell Pakistan “to do more”. To pacify them and fearing direct American intervention the military either went for or owned up to the indiscriminate use of force in South Waziristan and Bajaur. The militants retaliated and the result was a spate of suicide attacks not only in FATA, but also in the NWFP and even in Islamabad.

The solution lies in revisiting both the Pak-US understanding on the extent of cooperation keeping in view the national ethos and peace agreements with the militants. The government should put in all its efforts to convince the Americans that although their mutual strategic understanding (anti-Taliban drive) would stay as it is in the individual interest of both countries, tactics to achieve this objective would differ. Each country, be it Pakistan, Afghanistan or the US, would have to devise and implement tactics keeping its own internal situation and national ethos in mind. Once the US elephant is off our backs, we can start handling the issue from the viewpoint of our own interest.

The tactics that Pakistan needs to curb pro-Taliban militancy must be based on the realisation that a fast-track approach under US pressure won’t work. The militancy problem is a complex multi-dimensional issue dating back nearly four decades to the US-sponsored jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Any long-term solution would need to take into account this factor in conjunction with the dynamics of the area and its people.

Foremost would be winning over FATA again by ensuring that that the people see tangible benefits in the desired objective. Our policies in the area should be devised and adapted to the goal of what the Americans term as “winning hearts and minds”. This would require a delicate balancing act aiming at giving a stake to the people without weakening the current administrative system in FATA in the short- and mid-term.

Having extended adult franchise to the people of FATA in 1997 thereby diluting the hold of the tribal maliks, it is unrealistic to expect the same elders to have a hold over the people of their respective tribes vis-à-vis implementing government policies. Neither would it be wise to extend the civil/criminal procedural laws of the settled areas to FATA because the working of our courts, police and patwar systems are nothing to be proud of.

In this scenario what needs to be done can only be mentioned briefly here.

1. Relevant provisions of FCR be made appealable to a special bench of the high court constituted for the purpose.

2. Political parties be allowed to operate in FATA to counter the ideological thrust of pro-Taliban elements.

3. In order to ensure that only those maliks who have confidence of their respective tribes are assigned responsibilities, the institution of malak be made elected. An elected judicial jirga and an elected development jirga would be formed of such maliks. Elections to these bodies would be for a period of two years on the basis of adult franchise while distribution of seats would be according to “nikaat” (system of inter/intra tribal shares). The political agent would have the prerogative to distribute the quantum of funds amongst the tribes keeping in view their level of cooperation with the government. Funds utilisation once assigned to a particular tribe would be the prerogative of the development jirga. This would give internal autonomy and a participatory role to the elected people at the micro level and keep a leverage of the administration over the tribes at the macro level.

4. Levies as opposed to khasadars be raised in the Waziristans, thereby not only generating employment but also creating a disciplined force with roots amongst the tribes.

5. Operationally countering current militant tactics (especially the suicide bombers) is mainly the domain of intelligence agencies. Their efforts need to be coordinated at the field level with them giving real time information to the political authorities to devise plans.

6. A system of regional coordination between the tribal belt and adjacent settled districts needs to be put in place as both these areas have interlinked issues. At present, no such linkage is available between their respective law enforcement and intelligence networks. Previously, the regional commissioners and home secretaries performed this role.

7. Its time the main clauses of the North Waziristan peace agreement were revisited with the consent of the people. Checkposts to be manned jointly by the military, paramilitary and tribal representatives should be re-established at crucial points. The army has to take a backseat, while giving effective back-up to the political authorities as and when required. The use of force and cordon and search operations under the political authorities and tribal elders may not achieve the desired results in one go, but would keep the militants on the run.

8. The most effective check against the setting up of parallel administrations is service delivery by the government in terms of justice, fair play, development, security and giving a sense of identification, ownership and tangible benefits to the people. Government representatives need to reach out to the people on these terms.

Any strategic idea needs deliberate and diligent tactical implementation based on conviction, motivation and drive of the man behind the gun. Halfhearted measures by self-serving people would not do in these crucial times.

FATA’s The Present Imbroglio

The Bajaur incident will cast its shadow not only on the future of the Federal Administrated Tribal Area (FATA) but also on the politics of NWFP in particular and the rest of the country in general. The political price the Government will pay for this misadventure notwithstanding, its impact on the relationship and interaction of the people vis-à-vis the national army seems ominous. The resultant Dargai incident is a case in point. What effect this has on the rank and file of the army, its internal discipline and morale needs careful consideration and delicate handling.

This incident has dealt a major blow to the credibility of the Government. In days to come the law and order situation in the province is likely to deteriorate and sense of insecurity will increase many folds. The politico-religious parties will take definite advantage of this incident and the resultant increased anti American sentiments.

It is time the Government goes back to the drawing board and rechecks its policy on the war on terror as a so-called frontline state for USA. The Government has to see whether it will continue to fight this war on terror on its soil as dictated by the US as is the case at present, or on its own terms and conditions, keeping in view the internal situation.

Pakistan has a fair share of responsibility in creating this jehadi culture, but others like US have contributed considerably too. Now that this “genie” of jehadism is out of the bottle it has to be put back in. This is a tall order and not an easy task. Pakistan must do all to fight religious extremism very deliberately and carefully keeping in view the religious sensitivities of this issue in our country.

Only when Pakistan really takes on religious extremism in its own interest and convinces its people of the same rather than at the behest of the Americans (a task it has failed in as of now), it can plan and execute various options keeping in view its own strengths and weaknesses. It will then not only find local support but also active cooperation from its populace. The people in Washington may not understand this but we in Pakistan cannot afford to be fool hardy and careless as we have demonstrated in Bajaur.

Basically North Waziristan pact is defective from the point of view that the Government has conceded too much to the militants/religious extremists. The two operative clauses of the agreement are that the militants would not attack the security forces and the security forces would not carry out any operations against the militants. Thus being at peace vis-à-vis the government, the so called Pakistani Talibans are running a parallel government, collecting taxes and dispensing justice. People are killed on charges of being government and US spies. The pro government maliks are being intimidated and killed. People including government servants are being kidnapped.

The fact that the US/Afghan Government does not like this pact is irrelevant. The government of Pakistan must consider that whether such an agreement for a temporary peace is in the long term interest of Pakistan. Is it not the responsibility of the Government of Pakistan to find solutions to its own problems? The explanation to US government and convincing them on the merits is secondary. The futility of this agreement is evident from the fact that militants in Bajaur still want to have a similar agreement even after Bajaur incident because it will give them a free license. The American ire and pre emption to sabotage this agreement in Bajaur further proves the point.

It is unbelievable that the Government of Pakistan who conceded so much to religious extremist in one agency and had started negotiating in another agency on similar lines, suddenly let hell loose on a madrassa and killed 83 people without confirming the intelligence on ground. Pakistan army is not a high tech army where it only acts on aerial photography on its own soil without confirming this technical information on ground. The strong point of Pakistan army vis-à-vis US army in Afghanistan is that Pakistan army has huge human intelligence organizations and the people on ground are its own people. The US army can afford to bomb and rocket wedding ceremonies in Afghanistan whereas Pakistan army cannot afford to do so. Mentioning correct ages to the parents of those who were killed amounts to rubbing salt over their wounds. If the Government cannot apologize to these people out of hubris, then at least they should keep quiet. Bajaur agency is the softest agency in the tribal areas. The people no longer carry arms and regular traffic plies between Swat, Dir and Peshawar via Minchin, Ghalanai, Mohammad Ghat, Khar, and Chakdara instead of the main artery of Peshawar, Mardan, and Chakdara due to the good condition of the road. This ill fated madrassa is 1or 2 km off this road.

Since the government was already negotiating a deal with militants on the lines of Waziristan and a ceremony was scheduled next day therefore the people find it hard to believe that the Government would bomb this madrassa suddenly. People no longer trust that the government is calling the shots and believe that it has compromised on its sovereignty over the tribal areas.

Negotiations and the use of force do not go together. Use of force is desirable only when negotiations fail and negotiators feel that such use of force would help in reaching a desired goal. The Government needs to demonstrate that we make our own decisions and implement them. We don’t have to be apologetic either towards US or the militants. That means we have to get tough both with US and the extremists in our own national interest if we have to survive as a nation.

US may be the sole super power but Pakistan with its military and nuclear arsenal should also be not considered a push over. We should not be so scared of the US might. Our lack of faith in Allah and our abilities has to account for it in a large way. The government just needs to have support of its own people and that support is either lacking or fast diminishing with Bajaur like incidents. Gone are the days of the Armitage warning of bombing us into the stone age. US ability to expand this war is now limited. The policies of Iran and Syria, brinkmanship of North Korea and the ensuing American responses, defeat of Republicans and the falling from grace of neo cons are all relevant in this regard.

This of course does not mean that we should wage a war against America but the least we can do is some straight talking. The Coalition has to take the blame for its own flawed policies. Instead of concentrating on their fight inside Afghanistan they find an easy scapegoat in Pakistan. Hamid Karzai will always see Mullah Umar in Quetta and Osama bin Laden in North Waziristan or Bajaur Agency. Wait for his next statement.

Last but not the least the Government of Pakistan need to have better coordination amongst its various agencies like the political administration, Army, ISI, MI and IB. The Government has no option other than working under the present administrative dispensation to work with political administration in the lead. All other agencies must be subordinated to the political administration which has not happened on ground as yet despite verbal claims to the contrary. At the same time it must continue to reform the present administrative structure as per reform agenda worked out.