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A Wild Frontier
A Wild Frontier
By Lakki Marwat | The Economist
It will take more than American missiles to bring order to Pakistan’s north-western border region
AMERICA and Pakistan both deny it; but it appears that on September 15th they fought a short war. America started it. Local reports suggest that, under cover of darkness, two helicopter-loads of its soldiers crossed on foot from Afghanistan into the Pakistani tribal area—and terrorist haven—of South Waziristan. This followed an American policy, allegedly authorised by President George Bush in July, of launching raids into Pakistan without its government’s approval. But, on this occasion, Pakistani border troops responded as to the act of aggression that it constituted: shooting over the heads of the advancing Americans, forcing them back.
Pakistan has, since 2001, been a vital American ally, which makes American policy towards it confused. So, for related reasons, is Pakistan’s towards its own north-west tribal areas; and the ramifications could hardly be greater. A ruggedly inaccessible region, the tribal areas form a hinge between Pakistan and Afghanistan. By manipulating the sentiments of the 3.5m Pushtun tribesfolk who live there, past rulers, including British colonial administrators and Pakistani dictators, have sought to influence events in Afghanistan, where Pushtuns also predominate. In this way, the Soviet army was driven from Afghanistan in 1989—by American-armed mujahideen. But now, in a sadly predictable repetition, it is America and its allies that attract the tribesmen’s wrath.
North-west Pakistan, and the seven, semi-autonomous tribal “agencies” in particular, has emerged as the main refuge and supply-route for Taliban insurgents on both sides of the border. The leaders of al-Qaeda, displaced from Afghanistan, are also there. And so are other stray Islamists, including Pakistani jihadist groups trained by the army to fight in Indian-held Kashmir, and lately discouraged from doing so.
Most of these fighters are probably drawn to the region to kill NATO troops and their local allies in Afghanistan. Indeed this is a big reason why the reconstruction effort there may be failing. Some 1,500 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan this year—roughly half of them by Western troops. In a bleak assessment of the progress of the war, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, this month suggested that “time is running out” to turn things around.
Hence Mr Bush’s new policy. Hitherto, America had launched just a few missile attacks on suspected al-Qaeda targets in north-west Pakistan, in consultation with the government; three were reported in 2007. Meanwhile, since soon after America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it has paid the Pakistani army to wage a counter-insurgency campaign in the tribal areas. To sustain 120,000 Pakistani troops in the field, at the latest count, including a 60,000-strong locally-raised frontier corps, America has given some $12 billion.
It has not got value for money. The border remains a militant thoroughfare. And in Pakistan, Taliban-style militancy has spread deep into the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and beyond. In the past year some 1,500 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorism and insurgency, mostly in or emanating from the north-west. On September 6th, as an electoral college chose Asif Zardari as Pakistan’s president, a suicide-bomber drove into a police check-post in Peshawar, NWFP’s capital, killing 37. A few days earlier bearded gunmen ambushed an American diplomat in the city, spraying her car with bullets.
No wonder Mr Zardari, Pakistan’s first civilian leader in nine years, says the Taliban have the “upper hand” in Pakistan. Mr Bush seems to agree. By ordering unilateral American action, he presumably hoped to goad the Pakistani army to do better, and also to kill a few al-Qaeda types, including Osama bin Laden, the most famous of all supposed frontier tourists, before his presidency ends in January.
Mr Bush’s new aggression was first unveiled on September 3rd with an American airborne assault on the village of Jala Khel, in South Waziristan, which, American officials claimed, killed a score of al-Qaeda militants. The army and journalists in Pakistan said the victims were civilians. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani—hand-picked and American-approved successor in that job of America’s former ally, Pervez Musharraf—denounced the attack and vowed to defend Pakistan’s territory “at all cost”, and an army spokesman said American invaders would be shot. Mr Zardari’s government also vowed to defend Pakistan’s borders. It had little choice: one recent poll showed that four-fifths of Pakistanis oppose America’s striking al-Qaeda within their territory.
But neither Mr Zardari’s government nor Mr Bush’s can afford an out-and-out rift. Visiting Islamabad this week, Admiral Mullen struck a more conciliatory note. Both sides talked up the prospects for co-operation. But Pakistan’s foreign minister said his government had not been forewarned of an attack by an American drone in South Waziristan on September 17th that killed some militants.
Alas, one reason why Pakistan has failed to bring order to its side of the frontier does seem to be its reluctance to abandon its jihadist proxies. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why Pakistan has captured more fugitive leaders of al-Qaeda than of the Taliban, its former clients. To outsiders, this policy looks contradictory at a time when the Pakistani army is fighting a war against the Taliban and its affiliates, in which over 1,500 soldiers have been killed. But the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, masters of strategic doublethink, might call it “selective”—a policy of squashing the militants at home, but still employing them abroad.
Afghanistan and India have always subscribed to this analysis of the ISI. Adding weight to it, Pakistan’s army has increasingly come to blame its failures at the frontier on foreign support for the militants there, chiefly from India and Russia. The suicide-bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July was allegedly the army’s response to this. The suspected culprits were led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan jihadist, sometime resident in the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan and an ISI “asset”. American and Indian officials accused the ISI of involvement in the bombing, which killed over 40 people.
Even if they tried
Yet a devious Pakistani strategy of failing to crack down on cross-border violence is not the only reason it persists, nor the main one. A better explanation, given the fraught, radicalised and ungoverned state of north-western Pakistan, and the many dead soldiers there, is that the army could not make a much better fist of controlling the border, even if it did its damnedest. And moreover, it may be afraid to pursue its campaign more vigorously, for two reasons. Pakistani officials suggest that, despite battling the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, the army is reluctant to attack the Afghan Taliban, allegedly led from Peshawar and from Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, for fear of worsening security problems in those places. Secondly, the campaign is unpopular, in the army and elsewhere, precisely because Pakistanis think it is being waged for America.
An opinion poll last year found only 48% of Pakistanis backed military action against the Taliban. The army may be just as divided. Several hundred demoralised soldiers surrendered last year to militants in South Waziristan and Swat, a mountainous region of NWFP north of the tribal areas; some said they refused to fight their brother Muslims. Many Pakistani leaders espouse similar views.
From within the cool colonnades of his office in Peshawar, Owais Ghani, NWFP’s governor, says America should reach an accommodation with Mr Haqqani and Afghanistan’s other main rebel leaders: the Taliban’s Mullah Omar; and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, another sometime Pakistan-backed, American-financed, jihadist. This would mimic Pakistan’s own strategy. In a time-honoured fashion, the army has tried to batter mutinous tribals; then secure deals with them on its terms. The results have been at best mixed.
In the western part of South Waziristan, by exploiting existing tribal animosities, the ISI has found a friend in Mujammad Nazir. The army claims that his Wazir clansmen killed around 250 Uzbek militants in their midst last year. In North Waziristan, after several abject failures, the army claims to have a deal with the dominant Daoud clan. This, says the army, binds the tribesmen not to conduct raids into Afghanistan, or harbour foreign militants, on pain of having their houses demolished. As a sweetener, the army promises to build them roads, schools and clinics. America has cast grave doubt on the efficacy of this deal in particular.
Elsewhere, by the army’s own admission, its strategy has failed. It has made a string of failed deals with South Waziristan’s most powerful warlord, Baitullah Mehsud, a former fitness instructor and enemy of Mr Nazir. Mr Mehsud violated the last of these after the army invaded a jihadist mosque in Islamabad last year. He has since emerged as the Pakistan Taliban’s strongest leader, and is accused of masterminding much jihadist violence, including the assassination of Mr Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December. But despite an army attack on his fief in January, pitting 40,000 troops against a few thousand militants, Mr Mehsud remains in control of it. In May he held a press conference there.
Pakistan’s army spokesman, General Athar Abbas, concedes that this was embarrassing. He says the army’s error was to cut deals with the militants themselves; it should have made them instead with tribal elders. But it would have been hard-pressed to do so in South Waziristan, where the militants have murdered 120 pro-government elders. That may be why Mr Abbas adds that the army hopes to forge yet another pact with Mr Mehsud.
For now, it cannot fight him, partly because it has its hands full elsewhere. In the past month the army has taken its campaign to Bajaur agency, an alleged hideout of Mr bin Laden’s right hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri. It claims to have killed over 700 militants, including foreign fighters fleeing newly-inhospitable North Waziristan. “It is time to give the militants a proper thrashing,” says Ghulam Qadir, a senior official in Bajaur. But many locals, who include some 300,000 displaced by the fighting, accuse the army of killing civilians and often behaving no better than the militants. “There is a perception that the government and the militants are the same,” said Akhunzada Chattan, a local politician.
Meanwhile in Swat, formerly popular with honeymooning couples, the army is waging a bigger assault—against an affiliate of Mr Mehsud’s, a former ski-lift operator called Mullah Fazalullah. He is another former beneficiary of a peace deal; it did not deter his followers from burning 130 girls’ schools to ashes. Mingora, Swat’s regional capital, is now under siege, its official buildings pocked by bullets and blackened by suicide blasts. Some 15,000 soldiers are bunkered there, while Mr Fazalullah’s men hold the surrounding hills. A local newspaper editor rubbishes the army’s claims to have killed many militants. Wearily, he proffers a letter sent by the Taliban: “Those without beards, those who drive on the left like the British, those who sell shaving kits, make-up or bras will be killed.”
Perhaps only a minority, in Swat and elsewhere, support such edicts. In the few places where tribal elders have resisted the militants, the Islamists have been shown to have little support. In Lakki Marwat, home to Pakistan’s second-biggest Pushtun clan, a florid-faced hereditary ruler called Anwar Kamal has maintained a firm and secular grip. By way of explanation, he said: “I told the Taliban, in traditional language, that the next time I see a Talib on my land I am going to screw him as hard I can.” But alas, leaders like Mr Kamal are rare.