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.

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.

Particularly in comparison to other ethnic groups, the Pashtuns can hardly be considered uniquely prone to militancy. In the Balochistan province, the Balochi have been waging a low-intensity resistance movement against Islamabad ever since they discovered vast deposits of natural gas. And the Sindhi have faced an urban insurgency in Karachi for many years as well. Moreover, the recent influx of foreigners – whether Arab, Uzbek, or Chechen – has further ratcheted up internal violence in Pakistan. Affixing the blame for militancy on Pashtuns alone oversimplifies the situation.

Contrary to another myth, the Pakistani tribal areas do have an established system of order. Historically, the FATA has been ruled either through bribery from a foreign power or by their own village elders. Many central governments have had productive relationships with local elders, albeit on local terms. Furthermore, although Pashtunwali – the unwritten code of conduct similar to medieval chivalry – receives much attention for being capricious and violent, it is nonetheless a stable method of self-rule that has long governed the area.

Most destructive of conventional thinking is the notion that targeted assassinations of militant leaders in the FATA is an effective counterterrorism tactic. In fact, this strategy has not deterred Islamic militancy.

In 2004, directly after the signing of the first peace accord in Waziristan, the prominent militant Nek Muhammed was killed by a US strike. But his successor-to-be, Mehsud, was not cowed, vowing to continue hostilities.

Other strikes, such as those against Abu Laith al-Libi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, have been similarly ineffective in undercutting Islamic militancy. The deaths of militant leaders rarely discourage additional violence; on the contrary, there is always a successor willing to step up. Just as NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan have bolstered popular support for the Taliban, targeted assassinations in Pakistan – with the inevitable deaths of civilians that result – lead to greater sympathy for radicalism and increase grass-roots support for violence.

Karzai's threat – to initiate cross-border operations against FATA-based militants – may be just talk. But international focus is increasingly looking at this small stretch of land as a formidable problem. As a result, a range of policy options – from the reactionary and simplistic to the thoughtful and nuanced – are being debated in Western capitals.

Moving beyond the myths, toward analysis based on historical and cultural realities, is a critical step in thinking pragmatically about the Pakistani tribal areas.

Joshua Foust is a defense consultant with TSI Executive Consulting. He blogs about Central Asia and US foreign policy at Jeb Koogler is a research associate at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He is also editor of the international affairs blog

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