The FATA challenge — Imtiaz Ali

Local people have taken up arms and it’s high time to isolate terrorists through winning the hearts and minds of common Pashtuns. That’s the only way to undermine Al Qaeda and ensure security for Pakistan, as well as its neighbours, and ultimately for the US and her allies

Gul Mohmmand Jan, a middle-aged man from Bajaur Agency in Pakistan’s tribal region, works odd jobs as a day labourer to support his six children. The tribal belt’s economy is based primarily on agriculture, but with effectively no private sector, work is scarce and compensation low. Jan sent two older sons to a local public school — a room in a mosque — but as Jan’s health failed, his sons were forced to leave school and work to cover the family’s cost of living.

Both boys started as day labourers like their father, but employment was inconsistent. They soon found the only regular work was as paid fighters with the Pakistani Taliban. It’s now two years since they joined the militia, a path all too common in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Once dormant in Pakistan’s tribal areas, militants are stronger than ever, largely due to economic desperation and a failure of both Pakistan’s government and the international community to provide viable alternatives.

One of the groups currently absorbing legions of young Pashtun tribesman is the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or the Pakistani Taliban Movement), an umbrella organisation of Pakistani militants with ties to Al Qaeda, operating in Pakistan’s tribal belt — the treacherous stretch of 1,800 miles that President Bush recently described as a potential place for planning of 9/11-type attacks.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas saw an influx of foreign militants, mostly Tajiks, Chechens and Arabs, who slipped across the Pakistani border to escape the US invasion of the Taliban regime in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. For a generation raised on legends of Afghan resistance against the Soviets and the mythologised Afghan-Arab Mujahideen, many in the region saw the foreign fighters as noble, and their struggle resonating with the stories of their upbringing. When combined with the hospitality prescribed by Pashtunwali, the traditional code of conduct, this proved impetus enough to take the foreign fighters in, and in some cases, join them.

Suddenly Pakistan had Taliban of its own spreading throughout the tribal belt. With local fighters like Jan’s two sons in their ranks, Al Qaeda fighters felt more secure in a foreign environment, sabotaging government installations and staging daring cross-border attacks on the US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Emboldened by swelling numbers and repeated successes, they no longer relied solely on the “hit-and-run” guerrilla warfare of the past, but began “capture-and-stay” operations. Today, the Pakistani Taliban, led by commander Baitullah Mehsud, for the first time ventures out of the tribal areas, eyeing cities like Lahore and Karachi, the cultural and financial hubs of the country, respectively.

If this trend is not checked immediately, Talibanisation in Pakistan will pose an immutable threat to the country’s long-term stability. An unstable Pakistan would spill over into Afghanistan, compounding security challenges there and drawing more resources from the forces of the US, NATO and Afghan National Army. A nuclear country controlled by the Taliban with ties to Al Qaeda is, of course, a nightmare scenario.

The paramount question is why the Talibanisation of Pakistan has not been tamed despite the deployment of close to 100,000 troops and dozens of military operations, aided by US forces just across the border in Afghanistan. The answer’s simple: The Taliban knows the people and the terrain; both provide cover.

Meanwhile, a closer look into Pakistan’s counterinsurgency strategy since the launch of operations in 2003 reveals a policy focused entirely on a military approach, wholly ignoring the prospect of winning hearts and minds of local Pashtun tribesmen. For that reason more than any other, the seven-year-long counterinsurgency strategy pushed single-handedly by former President Pervez Musharraf has proved ineffective, if not downright disastrous.

To end FATA’s role as a breeding ground for terrorists, Pakistan must first isolate militants — local as well as foreign — from native tribesmen, by rebuilding the traditional Pashtun society in a region where it’s been exploited. Only the Pashtun themselves can counter the march of Taliban.

The leadership of the Al Qaeda network has been on the run since late 2001, after escaping the US invasion of Afghanistan and taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal region. However, they successfully exploited two phenomena after settling on the Pakistani side of the border: the faith of the people and economic disparity.

Home to about 5 million people, the tribal belt is one of the most impoverished parts of Pakistan. About 60 percent of people have limited or no access to basic necessities like clean drinking water; infant and child mortality rates are higher than in the rest of the country; education facilities are deficient in most villages, practically non-existent for girls; health facilities are substandard at best.

Between 800 and 1000 madrassas have sprung up to fill the gap created by the state’s failure to accommodate educational needs. They provide free education, food and clothing to students. Many madrassas are affiliated with the hard-line Deobandi sect of Islam, which provides the ideological base to the Taliban. With hardly any competition from government schools, the madrassas provide ideological priming for radicalisation; even moderate families are compelled to send children to madrassas because it’s the only way to feed and shelter them.

Conspicuously absent from the counterinsurgency strategy is a concerted effort to isolate Taliban militants from the local tribesmen by turning the tide of opinion against them.

Of the $10.8 billion in US aid sent to Pakistan since 9/11, 80 percent has gone to the military — a blank cheque with no conditionality. The US also earmarked $750 million in development funds for FATA. However, money is not getting to the people in the remote areas. During meetings and interviews in the region, hundreds of tribesmen asked me the same question: “Where is the money we have been hearing of? Where are the development projects?”

Most tribesmen are suspicious of lofty rhetoric put forth by US officials in the region. The US must be more discerning in where its money goes and how it’s spent, not merely channel it towards a nebulous concept of a war on terror.

One option worth exploring: The new civilian set-up of the Pakistan’s People Party provides opportunity to negotiate with the tribesmen to bring them into mainstream Pakistan, either by merging FATA with the NWFP or making it a separate province. That would allow judicial systems and political parties to function in the region, making it easier to build schools and offer jobs to compete with madrassas and militias. Aside from providing alternative to the indoctrination, trade and interface with the rest of the world breaks the Taliban’s monopoly on ideas.

The overwhelming majority of Pashtuns realised that Talibanisation has tarnished their liberal and progressive image, posing a threat to their identity. Recent formation of indigenous tribal lashkars against Taliban militants throughout the tribal areas and the NWFP is one sign of this realisation.

Local people have taken up arms and it’s high time to isolate terrorists through winning the hearts and minds of common Pashtuns. That’s the only way to undermine Al Qaeda and ensure security for Pakistan, as well as its neighbours, and ultimately for the US and her allies. (Daily Times)

Imtiaz Ali is a Pakistani journalist reporting on Al Qaeda, Taliban and militancy in the country’s lawless Tribal areas along Afghanistan’s border and North West Frontier Province. He is working as a special correspondent for the Washington Post and also contributes to other international publications. Currently, he is a World Fellow at Yale University.