Mangal Bagh and the fragmenting state

The tribal areas and NWFP are again in the forefront of attention. This time it is caused by the federal government’s decision to challenge the writ of Mangal Bagh, a local war lord of Khyber Agency and who has become a threat to the adjoining villages lying on Peshawar’s outskirts. His men have threatened people by raiding villages and killing opponents.  His group has also been seen in Hayatbad, which is Peshawar’s Gulberg. He has crafted tactics based on mobility and the use of armed pick-up trucks reminiscent of technicals, which were immortalized in a Hollywood block-buster, Black-Hawk Down.

Pakistani media has rightly become ballistic and the people of Peshawar are terrified. Mangal Bagh and other similar groups, who have proliferated; they indulge in kidnapping of citizens and murder of police on a regular basis. Everyone in Peshawar is wondering how long will the country exist as a viable entity? Their concerns are justified because the province is littered with similar pockets of illegal groups in every locality. The resemblance of the districts to tribal areas becomes more pronounced with each passing day.

The economic and financial consequences of this phenomenon are akin to the growth of cancer in the human body. If Pakistan fails to treat this menace it will begin to fade away since it will gradually lose the capacity to raise money for running its services, maintaining the military and undertaking development. The militants are bad for businesses and taxes. Peshawar’s industrial estate is partially shut because of the presence of the police and Frontier Constabulary within factories. These preventive measures are necessary but at what cost.

The rise of these war-lords is not an overnight occurrence. They are the creation of a flawed policy adopted in the aftermath of the U.S led invasion of Afghanistan when the Taliban government disintegrated and many of its supporters fled to Pakistan. The government policy was to capture and hand over foreign fighters including Arabs and Uzbeks to the U.S. However, the Pukhtun Talibans were not arrested and on the contrary the Pakistani tribes in Waziristan were encouraged to provide them refuge. The Afghan Talibans were similarly welcomed and protected in Quetta.

The assumption behind this high risk policy was that one day the Afghans would form a government in Kabul and it would thus be friendly towards Pakistan. No one thought what would be the fall out of such an approach? The final price that Pakistan and its people would have to pay for such truancy is likely to be substantial. It is a mute point if such a flawed decision would have been made had the policy makers been better in handling tribal policy.  

Another poor decision taken was to induct the military into tribal areas in 2003. The objective was to deny sanctuaries and prevent the spread of militancy in tribal areas. This decision was against the principles of counter insurgency doctrine. According to it the best method of fighting insurgents was to use either proxy forces or local forces composed of individuals belonging to the region. Pakistan already has the Frontier Corp for the policing of tribal areas, yet this force was marginalized in the fight against the militants who were in the tribal areas. It is arguable whether the Scouts could have fought the militants. But the doctrine does not change. In the event of force weakness we should have opted for strengthening the capacity of the frontier corp and by developing a military back up model based on the use of heliborne special forces.

Simultaneously when the military entered the tribal areas it paralyzed the tribal system of administration based upon the pre eminence of the political agent and his tribal influentials. The military began developing a parallel horizontal hierarchy amply strengthened by the support of shadowy intelligence agencies thus subverting the dynamics of tribal administration. Even the Governor of the period, who is supposed to be the principal political manager of Fata, rubbished the political agent by calling him a commission agent, derogatively. Such colorful infantilism was unknown in the corridors of political administration before this period. It showed the utter ignorance and lack of sophistication in handling this once powerful system of administration. It also underlined the fact that political management required a professional approach rather than the distribution of the governor’s office as a patronage.

While Pakistan was adding to the witches brew by commission and omission, Afghanistan’s narcotic production became the catalyst which provided the most dangerous concoction which has become the python devouring state institutions at a rapid pace. Drug money supplied from $ 100 to $ 150 million a year to the Afghan and Pakistani militants to fight the organized military. It is the single biggest embarrassment of the war on terrorism. There is no state institution in Afghanistan which has not been penetrated by this evil. The Governor NWFP has calculated that the Waziristan militants alone spend from Rs. 2 to Rs. 2.5 billion a year on salaries and equipment for the non-state warriors. Such huge sums of money cannot be provided through religious donations  perhaps only a fraction comes from them.

In 2001 Afghanistan had 8,000 hectares of poppy; in 2007 it increased to almost 200,000 hectares. Today, Afghanistan controls 93% of the world’s opiates market. Drugs are more than 60% of the Afgan GDP. It puts to shame 19th century China’s image of abuse under a drug economy. Many social scientists in the US give the spurious argument that stern action against plantation of poppy will fuel the insurgency. I think this argument is flawed. A recent study has found that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty. On the contrary, the most fertile and richest provinces in Afghanistan are also its biggest poppy producers!

I foresee that the militancy in Pakistan will continue to degrade institutions as long as financial assistance continues to be received from across the border. One unconfirmed report suggests that a major cause of the spread of recent lawlessness through armed groups is to degrade the security structure so that new markets and trafficking routes are established in the region. It is further alleged that one new route is being planned from Kunar in Afghanistan into Bajaur and onwards to Xinkiang through the northern areas. Is this then the reason for so much militancy in Swat?

So where does the present operation against Mangal Bagh fit in? Those who have remained in contact with tribal areas remember that there also used to be operations in Fata on a recurring basis and punishment was meted by the normal method, which was the destruction of the wanted man’s home. The current operation is focused on Mangal Bagh. A few months ago he and his warriors had cleared Bara tehsil of all administrative personnel and the tehsil became non-functional. Managal Bagh began administering it and also dispensed justice. He also collected taxes from goods reaching Peshawar from the unfrequented routes from Afghanistan. Although he based his militancy on religious ground  providing peace under an Islamic system yet the result has been the establishment of a parallel system which is challenging the state.

It is clear that as long as the security force remains in Khyber the administration will hold sway. However, as soon as it leaves we can surely expect Mangal Bagh’s retaliation both against the political and the district police administration. It is also likely that his criminal activities like kidnapping and robberies will increase. Therefore clearly the answer lies in strategizing a totally new method of policing based on community support and equipping the security forces to fight mobile gangs rather than ordinary criminals. Internationally, Afghanistan must prevent the cultivation of opium or this war will never end since the drugs fuel it.

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