Pakistani Army must go through the Pashtuns

This spring, the dry mountains of Shikai were showered with rose petals to celebrate a truce between the Pakistani military and local pro-Al Qaeda militants. Together, they pledged to cleanse the tribal area of South Waziristan of all foreign militants.

Two months later, the floral confetti has turned to bullets and bombs. Jets and helicopter gunships circle in the sky, and militants on the ground vow to fight a jihad against the "traitorous" Pakistani Army.

Once a fight between Western democratic values and militant Islam, the war on terror along the Afghan-Pakistani border has become something murkier, complex, and ancient. Now, it's tribal.

The rules of this war are a far cry from the easy slogans of "you're either with us or against us." Indeed, Pashtun history is filled with heroes who played both sides for the benefit of tribe, family, and honor.

The latest such figure is tribal leader Naik Mohammad. Before being killed this month, Mr. Mohammad had cut deals with both his Al Qaeda guests and the Pakistani military trying to evict them. That it was the military who ultimately got double-crossed displays how much the antiterror coalition still must learn about how to influence the tribes who shelter top Al Qaeda leaders.

"The Army thinks they can give an order and people will just obey it," says a former Pakistani intelligence officer. "They should have paid more attention to history. The Pashtuns don't take orders from anybody."

Following a bruising fight with tribesmen in March, Pakistan opted to negotiate. Through the mediation of local mullahs and legislators, military officials and five local militant leaders struck a truce. The five chiefs, including Mr. Mohammad, pledged to stop using Pakistani territory for terrorist activity.

But the settlement quickly soured when Mohammad refused to help register foreigners with the authorities, disputing with officials who said that had been agreed. What Pakistan was asking was the impossible: handing over guests in a culture that demands protection of those who seek refuge. Amid the recriminations, Mohammad announced he would continue jihad and fighting erupted again (see timeline).

Tribal insiders say it was easy for the militants to break their deal with the Pakistani government, because the deal was perceived to be conducted through local mullahs - not through an assembly of tribal elders, called a jirga. In Pashtun society, form is everything.

"Nobody was sincere," says Mohammad Noor, an educated tribal member. "It was a deal with knives hidden under sleeves. Both sides are here to fight, not negotiate."

Tribal elders, however, dispute that. Even now, they say, there's room to negotiate. "The military demonstrated impatience in launching their operation," says Maulvi Mairajuddin, a cleric who helped mediate the deal. "The cannons and bombings cannot go side by side with negotiations in a tribal system. We still believe that talks can work better than guns."

Tribal elder Malik Behram Khan agrees: "The more you bomb, the stronger will become the sentiments against the Army. It is difficult for tribesmen to throw their guests out of their homes.... Our culture does not allow us, and we are taunted for generations if we violate our customs."

But if Pashtun tradition forbids a host from handing over his own guest, history is full of instances where rivals managed to do it for him, often to dishonor enemies. Where honor is all, dishonor is the ultimate weapon.

"For arresting a major Taliban commander, or even Osama or [his No. 2, Ayman] al-Zawahiri, the intelligence officer should find out who he has a relationship with," says a senior Afghan intelligence officer in Kabul. "These are people who are trusted. They can tell you what the plans are, where these people are located."

Every major figure in tribal politics has enemies, this intelligence officer adds, even within his own family. And to bring down a rival, all methods are fair game.

"If you give money to somebody from a tribe, you can get information about a Taliban commander from that tribe," says this intelligence officer. "For an outsider, you can't get that information, because there is no trust. But from inside the tribe, we can get information, no problem."

Setting off intertribal rivalries is a risky game - part of the reason why Pashtuns themselves are reluctant to do it. In a culture where every violent act is followed by an equal and opposite attack, most Pashtuns adopt a surprisingly nonviolent ethos.

"Tribal lashkars [militias] cannot be effective, because tribals are threatened with dire consequences if they take any action," says a tribal elder and former legislator, Malik Waris Khan Afridi. Pakistan encouraged tribesmen to form posses to round up the foreigners and their supporters, but the lashkars caught no one.

Yet US pressure is clearly mounting on Pakistan to quash the militants. In April, US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, stated in a speech that if Pakistan didn't remove the foreign fighters, US troops would cross over from Afghanistan and do it themselves.

Pakistan's recent offensive and killing of Naik Mohammad should buy Islamabad some time, but the fight is far from over. Al Qaeda maintains support in the tribal belt through a mixture of ideology, shared history fighting the Soviets, and money.

Following the deal with the military, Al Qaeda issued an ultimatum, described by one aide to Naik Mohammad this way: "We are born to sacrifice our lives in the name of Allah, not to indulge in tricks and deals to save our lives. Either be a mujahid [holy warrior] or join the Americans and their supporters."

However, Al Qaeda threats are accompanied with gifts. Al Qaeda purchased local property for training camps at handsome prices.

"It is the economics of jihad playing its role in Waziristan," says Dilawar Khan, an educated tribesman. "Some sold the foreigners tomatoes for 500 rupees, some sold their houses for 500,000 rupees, charging 10 times the price. Why would they kill the hen when they get golden eggs from it?"

Such a deal becomes even more attractive to those who consider supporting Al Qaeda's to be a service to Islam.

Islamabad, for its part, has also dangled monetary carrots, including million-dollar development projects to construct roads and schools. But development is a longer term pay off than cash handouts from Al Qaeda. And Pakistani incentives may not involve a wide enough group.

"Prior to this, development projects were just to bribe pro-government tribal elders or influential chieftains," says analyst Behroz Khan in Peshawar. "The effective way of governance in the tribal areas is jirga [and] development projects should rout through it to give the locals a sense of participation."

The government since British times has largely left the Pashtun tribes to rule themselves.Military operations were left for extraordinary circumstances. Today, the Pakistan is using many of the same British tactics of old. In Wana, the market has been closed down as collective punishment.

Apparently feeling the heat, tribesmen Wednesday insisted that authorities lift the economic sanctions and release detainees. The government countered by reiterating its demand for the handover of the remaining four pro-Al Qaeda leaders.

Opinions are divided on whether Naik Mohammad's demise will ultimately advance Islamabad's agenda.

"Killing Naik Mohammad is not going to stop anything," says Milt Beardon, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad. "Ultimately, [Al Qaeda] will find a new guy to take his place."

But his death has temporarily stunned the tribes, and deprived the foreign fighters of a key backer and main liaison with the local population. "He was the strongest link between Al Qaeda and local militants and cannot be replaced easily," says Mr. Noor, the educated tribesman.

An interim successor has been chosen named Haji Mohammad Umer, who is believed to be more flexible than Naik Mohammad. The timing may be right for another round of negotiations.

"The militants will want to buy time and the authorities will not want to lose this opportunity to further weaken the nexus [between foreigners and locals] by using a carrot and stick policy against the tribesmen," says Mr. Noor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Pakistani Army must go through the Pashtuns
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today