Myths in Al Qaeda's 'home'
Policymakers need to grasp cultural realities in Pakistan's tribal area.
With continuous cross-border attacks from Pakistan fueling a resilient insurgency, Afghan President Hamid Karzai finally snapped. If Islamabad did not move more forcefully against Islamic militants in the country's tribal region, he declared recently, Afghan forces would enter Pakistan and do it themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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While the remark shocked Pakistani authorities and sparked a brief diplomatic row, it is not just President Karzai who is concerned about militancy in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Policymakers in London, New Delhi, and Washington are also worried about a territory increasingly referred to as Al Qaeda's new home.
Given the growing reach of FATA-affiliated militants, it is becoming clear that developments in the tribal areas are central to NATO's success in Afghanistan, as well as an important factor in the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan and the security of both Europe and the United States. Yet many Western policymakers and pundits misread current events, espousing views and prescribing policies that are based more on stereotypes than on a solid grasp of the region's history and culture.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Pakistani Taliban pose a unique and insurmountable threat, that the Pashtuns are the problem, that the tribal areas are lawless and chaotic, and that the targeted assassinations are an effective deterrent against Islamic militancy. But none of these assertions are accurate.
Although the conventional thinking holds that the Pakistani Taliban and their leader Baitullah Mehsud are a formidable and unprecedented threat to the region, the movement is neither historically unique nor overwhelmingly powerful.
FATA's history shows many charismatic, Islamic fundamentalist tribal leaders waging war against foreign powers – and none of them successfully. In 1672, Khushal Khan Khattak led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor, but was undermined as his tribal alliance crumbled. In 1936, the Faqir of Ipi led an insurgency against the British; he was eventually marginalized through political attrition. As for Mr. Mehsud, reports indicate that he commands fewer than 1,000 fighters, even taking into account the other fractious tribes that have pledged support to his umbrella group.
Mainstream beliefs about the Pashtuns are also based on inaccuracies. While the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in the FATA, are often portrayed as rebellious and violent, scant attention is paid to the overwhelming majority of them who live peacefully. As militants have swarmed tourist paradises such as the Swat Valley, the contrast between the small number of militants and the vastly larger number of nonmilitant Pashtuns who oppose them is striking.