Hope and fear in NWFP

FATA and the NWFP are in the midst of “interesting times.” According to the Chinese such periods are unstable and bring a whirlpool of difficulties. Pakistan has entered a sinkhole of problems and will need adroit handling to prevent a further slide.

When Pakistan joined the war on terrorism in 2001 it conceived an impractical game plan of trying to play two contradictions against each other. Gen Musharraf had prevailed on the US to accept a policy of more lenient handling of the Afghan Taliban by military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan, compared to a more coercive treatment of foreigners and al-Qaeda. This policy was implemented by Gen Musharraf to keep intact the goodwill of the Pakhtun political forces in Afghanistan as an asset to balance the increasing influence of India, as well to avert the ethnic backlash of the Pakhtuns in FATA and the NWFP in sympathy for Afghan Pakhtuns.

As the US pressure increased on the Afghan Taliban inside Afghanistan they needed to create a new centre of gravity to prevent their movement from falling apart. Pakistan’s duality regarding the Taliban came in handy and they turned the Pakistani strategy on its head and entered the political and military space in FATA, the NWFP and Balochistan from 2002. This was the period when many Taliban who fled the war in Afghanistan found refuge inside Pakistan. Pakistani ambivalence in dealing with this problem within its territory has come in for a lot of criticism from the US; this soft policy has been considered collusive and used as a proof of secret dealings between the militants and Pakistani intelligence services.

The controversial Pakistani policy of creating strategic depth in Afghanistan has now become a noose around our neck. The giving of refuge to the Afghan militants in FATA allowed them to quickly recruit a following amongst marginalised Pakhtuns who inhabited these isolated regions and they were quickly radicalised. The presence of Afghan Taliban elements in FATA permitted an easy resurrection of their militant ideology. Training camps were established in the isolated region outside the control of the military. Gradually militant bands began to launch raids into Afghanistan. However, owing to the tribalism prevalent in the region it did not permit such bands to make a major difference in the pattern of the overall fighting inside Afghanistan. The reason for this is plain; FATA warriors could not venture further than about an hour’s distance from the Durand Line. This limit on their area of operation was forced by the aerial and artillery reaction by NATO or US forces; it normally took about an hour for the Western reaction to occur and that was the limit of the depth of operations from FATA. After 2007 the region opposite Waziristan was thickly populated by Afghan intelligence that quickly reported incursions, reducing attacks from this source. Previously the contribution of violence by FATA tribesmen could not be more than five percent of the total insurgent attacks inside Afghanistan. However, the availability of a bolt hole for escaping Afghan Taliban leaders to Pakistani territory remains an area of criticism.

Where Pakistan was hurt most by its policy of ambivalence was the radicalisation of the NWFP’s population, especially in Malakand and some other parts of the province. It has been suggested that the MMA government, which ruled the NWFP from 2002 to 2007, was complicit. It is true that during this period there was a reduction of violence in the NWFP, but not in FATA. Apparently, FATA was chosen as the centre of fighting to divert charges of collusion against the MMA government.

The increased level of violence in FATA and the NWFP has created a security crisis, as well as a humanitarian one, with a large displacement of people from the area of operations. Local populations condemn both the government and the militants for their miseries. Such discontent will generate future challenges and needs to be handled immediately within a framework of assistance, protection and early return to original locations. However, this can only happen after stability has been assured in the disturbed regions.

At the macro level the economy is generating another set of challenges that include increase in prices, inflation and rising unemployment in the NWFP. Apparently the worsening of this triad will add to the ranks of the discontented that may join the militants. This view of Pakistan’s economic woes suggests that Pakistan’s friends must loosen up their purse strings to assist, or prepare to spend on more fighting which would then become a never-ending litany of death and destruction.

If one remained fixed within this narrative one would think that nothing good was happening in Pakistan. That’s not true. The resolution passed by Parliament regarding terrorism is truly remarkable. This for the first time provides a basis for the long-term strategising of efforts against terrorism. Secondly, through the resolution the Pakistani people have given their consent to a definite policy of dealing with terrorism in a holistic manner. Thirdly, the government has accepted the sanctity of Afghan territory and has thus condemned the provision of safe havens within Pakistani territory.

It is now for the government to use this opportunity to create strategies and supporting legislation to make the resolution meaningful. A resolution is not law and thus not binding. But it provides a direction to the government. If Pakistan now fails to build on the principles laid down by the resolution the fault will lie with the government. While Pakistan has been trying in the National Assembly to get to grips with the problems related to terrorism, the US policy related to drone attacks is a cause of concern and creates a lot of ill will against the US – each attack reduces the good will for the US. The drone attack near Miranshah only six hours after the passage of the resolution clearly challenged the principle laid in paragraph four of the resolution that condemns violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. This attack is not a good sign and the US must reconsider its drones policy, because it is not winning the Americans any friends. It also embarrasses an ally which has begun to shape events in a better manner than before.

As Gen Petraeus takes over at the end of October, Pakistani security establishment needs to game-plan the strategy of “surge” which would very likely be brought into play by the US in Afghanistan and perhaps in FATA. Higher casualties and displacement of large numbers of people has been a by-product of the surge in Iraq. It is not the best policy for this region. A surge in diplomatic handling of the militants will bring higher dividends and greater stability. Militancy cannot be ended but can definitely be brought to a minimal level. Thus, the situation in Pakistan shows areas of hope. But at the same time there are other areas of concern that create fear in the mind; there is therefore a need for prudence and careful planning in the days to come.

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