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Countering the Taliban’s Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

New America Media, News Analysis, The International Crisis Group Posted: Oct 22, 2009

Editor’s Note: As Pakistan's military continues its campaign against Taliban forces in the tribal regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced by the violence, and the effectiveness of the strategy remains in doubt, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group, an independent nongovernmental research and analysis organization. This article is adapted from the report, Countering the Taliban’s Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

The military operation in South Waziristan is unlikely to succeed in curbing the spread of religious militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA), unless the government implements political reforms in that part of the country. Pakistani Taliban groups have gained significant power in the tribal agencies, seven administrative districts bordering on Afghanistan. While state institutions in FATA are increasingly dysfunctional, the militants have dismantled or assumed control of an already fragile tribal structure.

This encroaching Talibanization is not the product of tribal traditions or resistance. It is the result of short-sighted military policies and a colonial-era body of law that isolates the region from the rest of the country, giving it an ambiguous constitutional status and denying political freedoms and economic opportunity to the population. While the militants’ hold over FATA can be broken, the longer the state delays implementing political, administrative, judicial and economic reforms, the more difficult it will be to stabilize the region.

Badly planned and poorly coordinated military operations, followed by appeasement deals, have accommodated militant recruitment and actions, enabling Pakistani Taliban groups to expand their control over the region. Many militants, including commanders fleeing military operations in Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)’s Malakand division, have also relocated to FATA. Instead of a sustained attempt to dismantle and destroy the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) network – led by Baitullah Mehsud until his death on August 5, 2009 in a U.S. drone attack and now by his deputy Hakimullah Mehsud – the military continues to rely on a two-pronged approach of sporadic strikes and negotiations with militant groups. Given that such operations are, by the military’s own admission, restricted, militant networks are ultimately able to absorb the blows even as indiscriminate damage alienates the local population caught in the crossfire.

The current military operation may well be a more extensive attempt to root out the Baitullah Mehsud network in South Waziristan, but it remains an incomplete effort and could even prove counterproductive because of parallel efforts to reach or consolidate peace deals with rival TTP groups. It has yet to show that it will be directed at the Afghanistan Taliban or al-Qaeda strongholds. It has also already spurred a new round of internally displaced persons with little to show that the country has planned for that eventuality.

More than a million FATA residents already have been displaced by the conflict, mostly from Bajaur agency in the north and Waziristan in the south. Ongoing military operations in Khyber agency have forced as many as 100,000 to flee to safer locations in NWFP. While the military restricts domestic and international humanitarian access to FATA’s conflict zones, neither the Pakistan government nor the international community has addressed the full costs of the conflict to civilians. Malakand’s displaced have justifiably received considerable domestic and international attention, but the needs of FATA’s displaced population are yet to be addressed.

Militant violence and military operations have also undermined any prospect of economic development in the tribal agencies. FATA was severely underdeveloped even before the rise of militancy due to government neglect, legal barriers and structural impediments to investment and private enterprise. With no economic regulation or proper courts, an underground arms and drugs trade has flourished. Violence is now contributing to poverty, with the lack of jobs making FATA’s residents vulnerable to militant recruitment.

The military’s resort to indiscriminate force, economic blockades and appeasement deals is only helping the Taliban cause. The Pakistan government could win hearts and minds and curb extremism through broad institutional, political and economic changes to FATA’s governance. The government should dismantle the existing undemocratic system of patronage driven by political agents – FATA’s senior-most civilian bureaucrats – as well as tribal maliks (elders) who are increasingly dependent on militants for protection. It must enact and the international community, particularly the U.S., should support a reform agenda that would encourage political diversity and competition, enhance economic opportunity, and extend constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights and the protection of the courts. Earlier attempts to counter extremism in the tribal areas had failed because they prioritized short-term gain over fundamental changes to the political and administrative set-up.

On August 14, 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari announced a reform package lifting restrictions on political party activity; curtailing the bureaucracy’s arbitrary powers of arrest and detention; excluding women and minors from collective responsibility under the law; establishing an appellate tribunal; and envisaging audits of funds received and disbursed by the auditor general. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government has described this reform package as the first step towards mainstreaming FATA, and much remains to be done. It must now swiftly implement these measures and, more importantly, take steps to fully incorporate the tribal areas into the federal constitutional framework, with provincial representation, legal protections under the Criminal Procedure Code and the national and provincial courts.

Donors, particularly the U.S., have allocated significant money for FATA’s development, but most is channeled through unaccountable local institutions and offices. This severely limits aid effectiveness and may even impede rather than encourage democratization. The international community should recognize that the opponents of reform are not the people of FATA but the military and civil bureaucracies and the local elite, all of whom would lose significant powers if the government were to extend full constitutional and political rights to FATA.

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