John Leech: Paper provided for the WSN-RCDS FATA Workshop

Posted in Other | 20-Feb-09


John Leech is European Coordinator of the West-West Agenda in the United Kingdom

John Leech is a senior member of organisations specialising in international affairs, including the Federal Trust for Education and Research, and of bodies involved in the Arts. He was European Co-ordinator of the European-American political and security circle West-West Agenda and is the author of books on the NATO Parliamentarians Conference, whose Deputy Director he was during the formative period of the Atlantic Congress, on the future of NATO (Halt! Who Goes Where?, 1991), on alternatives to warfare (Asymmetries of Conflict: War Without Death, 2002) and on European integration (Whole and Free: NATO, EU Enlargement and Transatlantic Relations (Ed), 2002 and earlier works). He is a member of the IISS and of Chatham House.

He had a long association with the Commonwealth Development Corporation, serving in East Africa, on missions to the Caribbean and responsible for the extension of operations to much of Asia and Africa. He is founder and Chairman of the Keyboard Charitable Trust for Young Professional Performers and served on the Advisory Committee of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Court of the Worshipful Company of Paviors.



Halt! Who Goes Where?

The hallmark of any conflict is a compulsion to respond to the last card dealt - the latest crisis to erupt. Each time this obscures further the original causes of the conflict, distorts its rationale and allows time for attrition to erode support. The sequence becomes reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm story of the poor couple granted three wishes: the first is wasted with an oath, the second with a curse, the third in correcting the error.

Throughout this process, it remains paramount to recall its cause. In Afghanistan and the FATA, the first principles are not, What should we do to achieve victory, to resolve the present crisis, or to extract ourselves from a worsening situation? The fundamental question is not even, Why are we there? It is, What are we doing there?

Throughout history, it seems, men are drawn to revisit old battlefields. The locations of Mesopotamia and the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Horn, the Mekong and Flanders are the military equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Some represent the gnawing of great tidal forces at the meeting points of differing faiths and civilisations, others of long cycles of revenge and retribution. Among them rank the killing fields of Verdun - and the jousting fields of the Khyber Pass.

Lawlessness has been endemic in the tribal areas of the North West Frontier since records began. Even Alexander the Great had his beloved horse Bucephalus stolen there and had to pay a ransom to retrieve it. Lawlessness linked to Taliban fundamentalism has today become a lethal force.

The first chronicles of the tribal people go back to the founder of the Moghul dynasty, Babur, beginning in 1526. He conquered India with the aid of tribesmen, yet his most implacable enemies were the same tribes on their home ground. Their domination of the supply routes between Central Asia and the subcontinent have brought them into conflict with all invaders seeking to extend their dominion. Not even the conciliatory Akbar the Great in the second half of the 16th Century was able to subdue the Bangash, Turis or Wazirs. The Persian Kings fared no better. Today's FATA remained the source of unlimited fighting men but no one was able to infringe their independence.

Two centuries after Babur, a 12,000 strong British-Indian army was cut down by the tribesmen on its retreat from Kabul, ending the First Afghan War. With the addition of Sindh and the Punjab to the Indian Empire, its borders came to abut the tribal areas, and systems needed to be invented to stem tribal marauders and attempt their pacification. The first to be tested, the 'Sandeman System', relied on a somewhat medieval form of fortified strong points within the tribal areas, but leaving general administration in the hands of tribal chiefs pledged to keep order in return for handsome subsidies. More successful was the 'Masterly Inactivity' policy which kept a relative peace for close on 30 years. It was based on non-aggression on tribal territory and non-interference in tribal affairs, but with effective border defences against incursions.

Sadly, by 1878 the pressure exerted by Russia from Central Asia was seen as a greater threat and the policy was abandoned in favour of a new territorial definition, the Durand Line, secured with a 'Hit-and-Run' policy. This relied on imposition of fines, blockades and punitive expeditions reminiscent of current US air strikes on targets in FATA (= Pakistan) territory. The result was a general tribal uprising, with destruction of British forward garrisons. One more attempt, Lord Curzon's 'Withdrawal and Concentration' system came to be tried before the British left for (almost) the final time. It meant withdrawal from advanced positions, deployment of tribal forces for defence of their territories and, as a second line of defence, the concentration of British forces on British-held territory.

Two major strands therefore run strongly through the history of Afghanistan and the FATA: one is the indissoluble ethnic link of the 42 million Pashtuns on either side of the borders, and their fierce resistance to foreign occupation; the other is the ungovernability of the tribal people. The Taliban, an essentially Pashtun-based phenomenon, is now repeating what all past pretenders have done: to recruit their fighters within the FATA but - this time contrary to precedent - operating also within the Tribal Areas. It remains to be seen how successfully they can continue this in the face of resistance to both 'occupation' and Sharia fundamentalism.

And now?

This history offers a rich menu of formulas for relations with the FATA. As so often in the past, the current campaign is based on meeting violence with violence. But an insurgency will always be able to inflict greater harm than those who counter it - harm through its strikes as well as through the responses they provoke. Counter-insurgency in the classic mould can therefore be only a short-term phase. By contrast, efforts at pacification must begin by envisaging the end state and working backwards from there to define the right path towards it. This is likely to show that 'boots on the ground' need soon to be replaced by 'sandals on the ground'. It is the local population, the impartial majority, that will have to carry the fight.

Nor should we forget that, to the tribal people, warfare is an honourable estate. From that flow two possible consequences. The negative one is that the use of force easily awakens the call for revenge, delivering new and angry recruits to the insurgents. We are then left with Martin van Creveld's analogy of fighting a child, with sympathy always on its side, and his conclusion that, 'The core of the difficulty is neither military nor political but moral.' The positive consequence is that, if pointed in the right direction, there is an effective fighting force to be mobilised against our common adversaries. What is needed are Scouts, trainers and a latterday T.E. Lawrence (or, in modern parlance, Psyops).

How then do we separate the peaceful majority from the radical minority? I suggest it is not for us to attempt that: our task is to encourage the local populations to do it, helping to grow that majority and giving them every support short of overtly setting foot and fighting on their soil. Our only viable strategy is to nurture the growth of a civil consciousness among the tribal people, until they themselves recognise the truly alien presence in their realm, are no longer dazzled by its call to arms, and are strong enough to expel it from their midst. In the words of Sir Michael Howard, 'Terrorists can be successfully destroyed only if public opinion supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes.' (A corollary is that they do not also regard that authority as being in the hands of criminals.)

It is the same lesson as with Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic in Former Yugoslavia. Patience has yielded us one and will no doubt bring forth the other. Patience, alas, is in short supply. The insurgents' best friend, attrition, is taking its toll whilst casualties are eroding political muscle. Warfare, by definition, is based upon violence, retribution and coercion; its final aim to face an enemy with the alternatives of submission or annihilation. Can that be a realistic war aim for the Region? Is it a viable prelude to the eventual peace, to leaving the battlefield with honour and the satisfaction of a job well done? Warfare in this context clearly includes air strikes and their collateral casualties, however excellent the intelligence, however surgical the strike.

This option seems to coincide best with the policy of 'Masterly Inactivity' which so effectively kept a 30-year peace in the later 19th Century. Also known as the 'Closed Door Policy', it proved the least bloody episode in tribal relations and might more accurately have been described as 'Live and Let Live'. A policy of 'Enhanced Masterly Inactivity' would today rely also on closing the door and -

  • Refraining from setting foot or launching air strikes behind it
  • Identifying the natural tribal leaders, training them in the techniques of political operations and of providing for their own security
  • Copying the Al Qaeda method of 'training camps' in the West to prepare them as civic leaders able to reduce the influence of the Taliban and replace it with movements developing the authority to oust them
  • Relying on border controls, mainly through surveillance aircraft, to arrest incursions and the flow of arms.and drugs
  • Enlisting the help of the greatly larger, more prosperous and less radicalised Pashtun populations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in this endeavour, for they have most to lose.

Economic and social Development

The factors that continue to aid talibanisation are many. The absence of an orderly economy means that the main and often only employer is the soldiery; whilst lack of education and literacy foster an inability to judge the cause to which they enlist. Few madrassas teach anything beyond the Koran and impart no skills for self-employment.

Economic development is wholly essential in the long run but, sadly, offers only limited alleviation in the short term. The Taliban oppose 'infidel policies' promoted even by indigenous aid agencies, whilst significant investment in, for instance, mineral extraction is equally excluded. Security of persons and installations is a prime concern.

Long-term solutions must eventually be based on the development of a spirit of community which will strengthen the 'sinews of peace'. 'Pashtunship' may well be its fundament. Structures will then be needed to prevent teenagers being driven into the arms of the Taliban, more out of boredom than conviction. Youth projects should range from civc education for children of all ages (and, without endangering them, gender) to counselling and preparing the way for alternative careers.

Above all, the 'Closed Door Policy' would end identification of these efforts with a foreign presence. Instead, that would provide opportunities for the huge and more affluent Pashtun diaspora in Afghanistan and Pakistan to support economic initiatives which can stabilise the area.

The bigger picture

The entire history of the Tribal Areas shows them less as the trouble makers than as powerful irritants to the legions that sought to sweep over them. From ancient times onwards, the drive towards the Indus had become a compulsion for successive civilisations. Already Greek scholars of antiquity believed that the world was one great continuum from Greece to India, exemplified by the worship of common gods. Today it is clear that the area continues as the epicentre of episodic convulsions involving the projection of power and influences from even farther afield. Iran, the magma of the Middle East, Russia, now Europe and the USA have been drawn into the maelstrom. Simplifying it as a little local difficulty will do nothing that can help us towards a solution.

Western impulses remain deeply rooted in the 19th Century - if not the Old Testament - in meeting force with force. The 'smarter' our weapons become, the more we are convinced that our superiority must win. Yet history is beginning to reveal that most of the campaigns we won - often after gruelling fighting - were only skirmishes in a much wider political conflict. The Indian Mutiny, the much vaunted counter-insurgency victories against communists in Malaya and Mau Mau in Kenya, served to hide the political reality of the swelling tide of independence movements.. Ironically, they even became the agents that hastened it.

Newtonian physics already told us that action and reaction are equal and opposite. His Third Law has significant application in military affairs. But it took Einstein to prepare us for the phenomenon of asymmetric warfare, by showing that there are circumstances that make old laws no more than relative. Even more appropriate to the FATA is his demonstration that the presence of the observer changes the nature of the experiment: it is the foreign presence that creates the observed conditions. Force is now spread across a wider palette, and wars are fought on strange territory: politics, human rights, communications and public opinion all become both instruments and battlegrounds of modern warfare. And pure force faces defeat on all of them.

Thus the wise general will ask, not just How many battallions does the enemy have? but rather, What is his political objective, and how much support does it enjoy?. For it is his dream and those motivated by it that one will be fighting. And in the end, if it proves compelling enough, an accommodation with it will need to be sought and negotiated.

Decades ago, Henry Kissinger faced the uneasy truth that outright victory is rare. Instead, he said, "The fulfilment of America's ideals will have to be sought in the patient accumulation of partial successes."

London February 19, 2009