Owen Bennett Jones, journalist BBC online: Paper provided for the WSN-RCDS FATA Workshop

Posted in Other | 16-Feb-09


Journalist BBC online
Owen Bennett Jones is a regular visitor to Pakistan who has interviewed many Pakistani military and political leaders. He is the author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. Published by Yale University Press, a second edition is coming out this year.


The June 2008 paper “Pakistan: A new GCC-EU FATA Friendship Fund and Double Strategy to Contain Terrorism and the Taliban” has already raised many of the dilemmas facing policy makers confronted with FATA. The issues it raised included: Can NATO achieve anything in Afghanistan? Can the Pakistan army achieve anything in FATA? Is the use of predator air strikes in FATA counterproductive? If force is not going to work, is there any evidence that negotiations will produce better results? Should more emphasis be put on education and social development? Are NGOs capable of delivering aid programmes?

Developments on the ground since June 2008 have rendered these questions yet more urgent. The radical Islamists are gaining ground both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the Afghan Taliban inflict ever greater damage on foreign and Afghan government forces, the radical Islamists in FATA and NWFP and even Balochistan control increasing amounts of territory. It is no longer ridiculous to think in terms of a possible encirclement or siege of Peshawar.

Western policy makers are often tempted to hope for the best. They might conjecture, for example, that if the Pakistan army continues to fight harder, if the social and economic development programmes begin in earnest and if people tire of Taliban style rule, then the situation in NWFP could improve. It is not impossible. But it is not likely. Indeed, the situation in NWFP is getting worse so rapidly that that the governments in Pakistan and the West would do well to take a more pessimistic view and consider the real possibility that the militants could open up another front – most likely in Southern Punjab or Karachi.

The security situation in FATA and large parts of NWFP means it is no longer realistic to talk in terms of implementing effective social development programmes. The authorities lack control and the police in many areas are unable to provide protection to the staff of development projects. Westerners can no longer operate in these areas and even Pakistanis associated with NGOs are taking considerable risks. Even the Pakistani government is unable to deploy personnel in large parts of FATA. This is a crucial point. All the papers that have been written (including one of my own) calling for social and, especially, education programmes in FATA are now out of date. It is no longer possible to implement such programmes. Indeed, the time may have come for donors to try to get ahead of the curve by diverting the development funds earmarked for FATA into Southern Punjab instead.

Many of the best informed commentators on FATA recommend abolishing the Frontier Crimes Regulations. Again, this desirable goal may need to be postponed. To regain control of FATA, the central authorities are going to need all possible levers of power. To give them up at this point would be reckless. Abolition of the FCR would be popular in FATA, but it is not in itself going to lead people to pledge their loyalty to the Pakistani state. Western officials argue that abolition of the FCR should be combined with effective reform of the police in FATA – a wholly desirable goal which is simply impossible to achieve in the short term. The Political Agents in FATA are clear: to lose the FCR would make it far more difficult for them to operate.

Of course, any effective counterinsurgency campaign will depend on the US and Pakistani forces significantly reducing the number of civilians they kill in the course of their operations. They will also need to improve their ability to rapidly disburse funds to civilians and create law and order in areas where there has been fighting. To date this has not happened meaning that hard won military gains, for example in Swat, have been thrown away. Is the same going to happen in Bajur?

Radical Islamists have long posed a challenge to traditional tribal leaders. Many Maliks are now trying to reassert their authority. Encouraged by the seriousness of the Pakistani army’s offensive in Bajur, the Maliks led lashkars in support of the military. Western governments, however, failed to back the lashkars preferring to talk about democratisation providing the only long term solution in FATA. As a result the lashkar movement has weakened. It is a significant loss. Consider what would happen if there was another attack on the West originating in FATA. At that point any anti Taliban tribal leader would be paid huge sums to oppose the Islamists and the previous failure to give more backing to the lashkars would be seen as a missed opportunity,

The choice today is not between democracy and chaos. It is between regressive, tribal leaders who want to be left alone to live according to their traditions and regressive, radical Islamists many of whom want to target Pakistan and the West.

The Pakistanis, and the British before them, should have introduced more democratic procedures long ago. The opportunity to do so may arise again in the future and, if so, it should be grasped. But for the moment the urgent need is to secure Pakistan and to prevent attacks on the West (and the disastrous consequences that would follow).

The militants in Pakistan may be increasingly united but the TTP remains a coalition of groups with distinct leaderships, varying objectives and different constituencies. Al Qaeda predominates in North Waziristan, while the Pakistani Taliban is strongest in South Waziristan and Mohmand. The sectarian groups hold sway in Kurram. In Khyber there is a violent struggle between two groups, Lashkar i-Islam and Ansar ul-Islam, which reflect religious divisions (between Deobandis and Barelvis) as well as a business dispute about carving up the local drugs trade. In Swat, meanwhile, the TNSM is imposing sharia law.

The differences between the various groups present one of the few opportunities for making progress against the Islamists. Al Qaeda’s central leadership is using FATA as a sanctuary where it can make propaganda and plan global jihad. The Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar, meanwhile, seeks only the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. In January 2007 Omar made it clear that he did not have a formal relationship with Al Qaeda: ‘We have never felt the need for a permanent relationship in the present circumstances. They [Al Qaeda] have set jihad as their goal while we have set the expulsion of American troops from Afghanistan as our target.’

There are also differences between the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban was formed to bring various militant groups together. While each local Taliban group was free to undertake operations against the security forces as it saw fit, no single group was to enter negotiations with the authorities without the approval of the Tehrik i-Taliban leadership as a whole. Most of its initial demands were couched in defensive terms and involved resisting the presence of the Pakistan army in their areas although with their growing strength has come greater ambition. The tribal areas are now also home to many former Kashmir groups looking for a new role. Fighters from Harakat ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar e-Toiba (now renamed Jamaat al-Dawat) and Jaish e-Mohammed (now Khudam ul-Islam), for example, have been active in battles against the Pakistan army near Peshawar and in Swat. Banned sectarian groups such as Lashkar e-Jhangvi have also made the move from Punjab to NWFP.

By the start of 2009, however, the possibility of weakening the Islamists by dividing them was diminishing. The American air strikes may have killed some of the US’s high value targets but they have also had the effect of unifying the various militant groups.

There is now widespread acknowledgment that the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be seen as a part of regional problem. Some are overlooking, however, that the region includes India. Richard Holbrooke’s new job title includes only Pakistan and Afghanistan. Presumably India was reluctant to be associated with such unstable countries. And yet many in the leadership of the Pakistan army and the ISI fear India more than the Islamic militants. Indeed, even today, despite all the violence, some senior officers still do not see the Islamic militants as a serious threat to Pakistan.

American leadership on the Kashmir issue could make a genuine contribution. For decades Kashmir has been ignored by Western policy makers as simply too difficult to deal with. India’s growing economic strength had given it the ability to resist any outside ‘interference’ on the issue. The neglect has been disastrous. Pakistan’s support for militant Islamist organisations first began because of Kashmir. In the Muslim world the undeniable suffering of the Kashmiris is felt just as acutely as the suffering of the Palestinians. Effective US leadership on Kashmir could make a serious dent in the extraordinary levels of anti Americanism in Pakistan. Under General Musharraf, Pakistan made major concessions on Kashmir. He not only stopped the flow of militants but also signalled he was prepared to drop the demand for a plebiscite. India gave nothing in return. Given the pressure he is under in NWFP President Zardari could be forgiven for wondering whether he wouldn’t be better to divert the militants back to Kashmir. A US initiative on Kashmir would win many Muslim hearts and minds: it would also show a genuine commitment to a regional solution.

London, February 19, 2009