What has gone wrong with FATA? And why is the tribal area in such deep trouble and in the grip of an insurgency? Unless we address these issues sincerely and find answers to these troubling questions, we will be only dealing with the implications of the situation and not resolving the problem.
In 2001, Pakistan took a somersault and a complete U-turn by aligning itself totally and unconditionally with the US led war on terror. Since this was a one man decision, there was no national consensus and no civil society input into this new approach or policy. It consequently lacked strength and substance and did not reflect the aspirations of the people of this country. Because there was no consensus on this policy, no thought was given on how to deal with the consequences that would flow from its execution and what would be the reaction generally and in FATA to a policy of complete submission and subservience to the US dictates and demands. The rules of engagement with the US were thus not settled. It was not realised that the decision would create an unwholesome disconnect between the government and the people. It was also beyond comprehension of the policy-makers to have visualised the convulsive effects of this policy on the tribal areas. No counter insurgency measures were, therefore, worked out to deal with any large-scale resistance.
To make matters worse, the army was inducted in the interior of the tribal areas in 2003. To deploy troops on the border to block infiltration is understandable and would not have produced any sharp and intense reaction. But instead of doing just that, the troops were deployed in the interior of tribal areas in many causes substituting for the Frontier Corps personnel. This was an affront to the traditions and honour of the tribesmen who clearly began to see a connection between American policy and Pakistan’s role in promoting America’s agenda.
As if the deployment of the troops in the hinterland of FATA was not enough provocation, the local administration and the political agent was totally sidelined. Shots were being called from Peshawar and all major decisions with regard to the deployment, role, duties of the troops and their interaction with the tribes were taken at the provincial HQ without involving the civil administration. This led to a profound distortion in the assessment of the situation, because the ground realities were totally ignored in the absence of the valuable advice that political agent alone was competent in providing. Soon it became common practice to send helicopter gunships or airforce jets to bomb the militants’ positions. Collateral damage would follow, driving more people into the lap of the militants.
In any such emergency, governments and administrations have throughout used the tribes to promote a certain policy and deliver a defined outcome. But for that to happen there would be no credibility gap between the tribes and the government. But in our euphoria and enthusiasm to win US support, we allowed the credibility gap to widen. This resulted in the tribesmen becoming totally disenchanted with the government. The only institution that they have known and respected i.e. the institution of the political agent was being demolished creating on administrative vacuum at a time of a great crisis. In such period of crisis, invigorated institutions can only deliver. Regrettably, on the one hand, we helped create a divergence of perception between the people and the government and on the other hand, began to demolish the institution which could have played a role in containing the damage. Sadly, this gruesome spectacle was being played while all the major actors were completely oblivious to the appalling rise of hatred and hostility that this policy was engendering. The folly began to perpetuate itself.
As time passed, we were being sucked into a vortex of self-perpetuating violence which our ill-conceived and badly execution policy was helping to breed and nurture. The stage was set for the emergence on the tribal landscape of groups of militants. Even when it became apparent that insurgency is sweeping the tribal areas, no effort was made to comprehend the dynamics of the situation objectively. Half hearted attempts were made to conclude peace agreement. Lopsided measures tended to spread confusion and contributed to the growing loss of faith amongst tribesmen in the ability of the government to redress their grievances and help resolve the conflict.
Now that the problem has assumed ominous proportions, yet another shortcut solution is envisaged to be put in practice: military operations based on actionable intelligence. Military operations would achieve quick results leaving many people to believe that the problem would soon be over. But once again, we would be unmindful of the long term damage that may be caused to the body politic of the tribal area and its awful implications for peace and tranquillity.
A long-term approach would take into account the resurrection of the systems and institutions. It would focus on working through the tribes. With that end in view, the image of the tribal elders would be restored. The decision making process would have to be decentralised. The institution of the political agent would have to be equipped, strengthened and more importantly its image restored in the eyes of the tribesmen. Each tribe and section of the tribe would have to be engaged in meaningful, purpose oriented talks leading to tangible agreements. This would automatically insolate the Al Qaeda militants. The ‘Riwaj’ provides quick and comprehensive solution to persons of undesirable credentials and foreign militants on the soil of ‘Quam’ or tribe. This is feasible because it represents as institutionalised approach to deal with any group of people who are regarded by the political agent as unwelcome settlers in his area of jurisdiction.
The government cannot cede its territory to any militant group nor can it allow any parallel administration to emerge and take hold in any pocket of any tribal area. But this will be brought about by working through the systems, through the tribes. The credibility gap will be removed if the government were to decide, after agreements have been reached with different tribes, to withdraw the troops from the tribal area and allow the Frontier Corps and Khasadars to assume the duties that the law requires them to perform. The government at the same time, in order to make Pakistan’s sovereignty meaningful, will have to revisit and reappraise its policy of supporting the war on terror. While the support can continue, Pakistan should not be expected to underwrite the security of the Afghan government or accept internal instability as a cost of such participation.
The writer is former chief secretary of NWFP