Pakistan's tribal strategy

Pakistan's Prime Minister met with Bush Tuesday to discuss the war on terror.

With CIA missiles firing on Pakistani homes, and reports surfacing that the Taliban have taken over large tracts of the country's tribal zone, analysts of the war on terror here say Pakistan's military strategy is in need of a paradigm shift. Intelligence remains too weak, and even pitched battles flexing the military's muscle have shown little effect against an enemy that remains largely unknown, they say.

The question of whether Islamabad is effectively eradicating Al Qaeda elements in the semiautonomous border region has become a constant - and touchy - refrain in relations with the United States, and was expected to be discussed in Tuesday's meeting in Washington between President Bush and Pakistan's prime minister.

The CIA's recent missile strike in Bajaur Agency has emboldened criticism at home, both among street protesters angry at the US intrusion and among opposition figures and other observers who say that the attacks signal waning US confidence in Pakistan's approach and resolve.

"The American missile strikes show that they are not satisfied with what Pakistan is doing," says Afrasiab Khattak, an opposition party leader. "The results [the Army has] yielded in the last two years have been negligible."

The Pakistani military, however, has repeatedly denied such claims, insisting that 70,000 troops and paramilitary forces continue to strike at the heart of militant enclaves. "The Pakistan Army has never let off. We are still continuing with the same vigor and effort," says Brigadier Shahjehan Ali Khan, acting spokesperson of the Pakistan military.

But that same vigor and effort may be the problem. Those familiar with the tribal areas say recent events underscore the need to rethink the strategies for combating terrorism there. "The strategy is not working and you can see the results. The Taliban is more organized than they were," cautions retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood.

Unleashing the full fury of Pakistan's military - helicopter gunships, ground troops, and artillery - was supposed to prevent this. "It was like a war between two countries, not a fight with militants," describes Shaukat Khattak, who has covered the operations for Pakistan's GEO TV.

That fighting has proven costly to the Army, which has lost as many as 200 soldiers in battles with militants throughout Waziristan. Some analysts marvel that with such a large force the results have been so paltry. "So far, not a single important man has been captured," points out Behroz Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief of The News, a Pakistani newspaper.

The death of innocent civilians during operations - numbering more than 50 by some accounts - has damaged trust and fueled resentment, pushing some into the arms of terrorists, according to observers. "Today we have lost the confidence of the tribal people," argues Sameen Mehmood Jan, an opposition party member of the Provincial Assembly from the North West Frontier Province.

There is a growing perception that the Army, having seen its strategies fail, has largely retreated to its barracks. "It has become more of a reactive force, mostly hitting when fired upon," says General Masood. The region remains closed to foreign journalists. But local journalists describe Army personnel as captives in their own barracks, unable to leave for fear of being shot at or kidnapped. It is an accusation that ruling party officials and the Army strongly deny.

"They are not confined to their barracks, they are actively patrolling the area," says Muazzam Butt, central media coordinator of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the ruling party.

Outside the tribal belt, news of the CIA strike touched off protests in a number of cities. However, except in Karachi where 10,000 people reportedly gathered, the size of the protests remained confined to several thousand.

Despite their relatively small size, such protests do serve as a reminder to Washington that they can nudge President Pervez Musharraf only so far without undermining his position. Bush praised Pakistan as a close ally in fighting terrorism Tuesday and announced he would visit in March.

Masood and other observers here emphasize the need for better intelligence gathering in the tribal zone, particularly since many of the troops deployed to fight are not familiar with the area. Their local contacts are weak, their knowledge of the terrain inadequate - precisely the opposite of the enemy they are fighting, many of whom are part of the society or deeply integrated into it. "If their intelligence improves, then the best thing would be to do rapid deployments in specific areas," says Masood, meaning more precise strikes, less collateral damage.

Boosting intelligence requires mending political relationships with tribal and religious leaders who can provide information and build support. "The strategy is not working because locals are not cooperating," says Behroz Khan.

But intelligence assets are merely a short-term fix, many analysts also emphasize. Combating terrorism requires engagement with the broader conditions fanning the fires of militancy: stark poverty and political vacuums - conditions that cannot be uprooted by narrow strikes.

"People don't see a bright future for themselves. The poverty, the underdevelopment, are a potential threat," says Mohammed Amin, who has worked on development projects there for years.

Tribal elders say they are neglected by the state, robbed of opportunities for education and employment. "[Tribal people] have native attachments but they feel compelled to move," explains Muzaffar Sayat, a leader from Mohmand Agency near Bajaur, who now lives in Peshawar. "Personally I also moved because there is no school for my children."

Lawlessness is also rampant, says Amin, noting that the judiciary and police, are virtually absent. Add to this vacuum a mix of religious fervor and a large deposit of arms and it is not surprising the area is volatile, Amin explains.

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