The situation in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is in a mess. It is being said that while Pakistanis refuse to see or accept the reality, a civil war is underway in the region to all intents and purposes. And the Pakistani state is losing this civil war. The Pakistani military has no credibility with anyone in the country and many see the Taliban favorably as either anti-imperialist or pan-Islamist. All this leaves the following question on the table: What will this mean for Pakistan when the new US administration raises the ante in Afghanistan as expected?
Let us examine the various elements in this picture. It is impossible to deny that a civil war is underway and that the Pakistani state is on the losing end. Just the loss of control over territory makes this obvious. Less than five years ago residents of Islamabad could pack a picnic lunch and drive to Swat without a thought; there used to be a weekly train marketed to tourists through the Khyber pass from Peshawar to Landikotal. All this is history and today the civil war is on the outskirts of Peshawar whose elite is fleeing the city where they have lived for generations.
It is also impossible to deny that the gainers in the civil war are imposing their own writ in the ‘liberated’ territories. In Swat, which as a princely state had one of the most progressive infrastructures of education as far back as the 1930s, schools are being bombed, televisions smashed, women confined to the home, and men forbidden to shave. Whether this is good or bad depends on the side one favors but the point is that it defies the writ of the Pakistani state.
The Pakistani military, while remaining the most powerful player in the game, has put itself in the situation where it is trusted by neither friend nor foe and is intensely hated and despised by many. This has come about from its Machiavellian attempts to fool and double-cross all the people all the time in the service of its parochial interests, to contrive incidents to take over political power when deemed unavoidable, to ride roughshod over all other interests in the country, and to perceive itself clever enough to get away with biting the hand that feeds it. It is rogue elephant out of control.
And yes, there is either a deep-rooted ideological sympathy for the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies or an ambivalent support driven by gut resentment. The first comes from years of post-Zia religious indoctrination that began as a calculated strategy by the US-Saudi-Pakistani triumvirate and was never abandoned; the second, from a reaction to ham-handed, arrogant and hypocritical interventions by the US that delivered nothing to the suffering citizens while openly enriching their oppressors.
So it is indeed a vital question to ask at a point in time when the stakes could be raised significantly if the new US administration carries through with its planned ‘surge’ in Afghanistan: What ought to be the new strategy that should replace the failing one in FATA?
There are emerging voices asking Pakistanis to unequivocally oppose the military’s campaign in FATA and support its replacement by a social, economic and political mobilization that would transform the political and economic landscape in the area. But it is not made clear what such a mobilization would imply in concrete terms. Do the periodic attempts in the recent past to rely on peace talks and plan development schemes with US money constitute part of this mobilization that would transform the landscape? If so, one would need to figure out why these attempts have met with repeated failure.
We really have no solution to offer in a situation where sixty years of cynically neglected investments in social, economic and political development are coming back to bite in a vicious fury but there is one common-sense suggestion that can form the basis of a discussion of this vexing question.
It would seem to us that this battle cannot be waged by players that do not have credibility in the region or those who are seen as compromised by their past behaviors. There is need to seek and empower players who have a clear and unambiguous stake in the stability of the region. In our mind this can only be the legitimately elected government of the NWFP.
It is quite fortunate that the government of the religious groups shoehorned by the manipulative Musharraf rule has been thrown out by the citizens of the province to be replaced by one led by the ANP. It would seem, at least from a distance, that the ANP, given its entire history, would be the least affected by emotions sympathetic to the type of governance promised by the Taliban.
So turning over full control and responsibility of the conduct of the suggested mobilization to the ANP with the federal government taking a supportive backseat should make strategic sense. This would require the funding needed to support the social, economic and political dimensions of the mobilization but the mobilization would not rule out military action, if needed. However, this action would be at the discretion of the provincial government and the military would need to be clearly seen to be taking its orders from the former.
We are too far from the action to say whether this is feasible or not and if not, why not. It might still be useful to structure a discussion around the proposition to see if the barriers to its implementation can be surmounted by an effort mounted in support by domestic lobbies and external allies acting in concert.
For another perspective on this issue see Violence Without Limits and Pakistan’s Challenge by AH Nayyar and Zia Mian in the January 2009 issue of Himal Magazine.