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Pakistan’s Strategic Options and Choices


      Pakistan faces several challenges to its national security centred on its policies in FATA and NWFP as well as its strategic partnership with the United States. This paper explores the threat to national security as a result of this alliance and suggests certain options for Pakistan. The focus of the paper will be on FATA since its social and legal formulation is the epicentre of the problem that we face today.

       FATA is a specially administered part of Pakistan that is the focus of international anti terrorism efforts; it is considered by some as a safe haven from where the militants launch attacks against Afghanistan. US intelligence projections predict that if a future attack on the US or European soil occurs, it will more than likely have originated from FATA. Since March 2004, Pakistan’s military has been fighting the militants in an ever escalating brutal war which has now spread to the districts of NWFP province as well as into central and southern Punjab, which is the Pakistani heartland. Pakistanis are dying by the dozen every day and many of its citizens now numbering more than a million have become internal refugees who are drifting from place to place. However, despite the huge sacrifices made by Pakistan, her allies accuse her for not doing enough! It is a moot point whether it can do more? Pakistan’s military is overstretched and embroiled in a war that has gone on longer than World War II! Pakistan has suffered more military causalities than all the 35 Western allies fighting in Afghanistan put together; a fact not readily admitted by her allies.

       It may also be noted that despite criticism that Pakistan is facing from its own conservative Islamic hard core population, who constitute more than 50% of its population, the position of the government is made worse by the US drone attacks which have caused many deaths. In short Pakistan is fighting an unpopular war which is not supported by the majority of its population. It is indeed a remarkable feet that consecutive Pakistani governments have continued to support the war. However, the price paid by Pakistan is incalculable. Not only is the state becoming weaker every day from the challenges of its own people but it is rapidly losing its military capacity and treasure.

      If this trend continues the end result will be an implosion of the country with catastrophic consequences engulfing Central and South Asia and thus destroying all hopes of economic growth in the region. That is how serious is Pakistan’s predicament and the reason why the whole world has a stake in Pakistan’s survival. The sacrifice that Pakistan is rendering today is thus on behalf of the region and need to be recognized as such. However, it is apparent that changes in policy are needed as is recommended in this paper if Pakistan’s sacrifices mean anything.

Characteristics of FATA

      FATA is a separate geographic and administrative unit which is managed as a special tribal area under separate constitutional arrangements. It is situated midway along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan and is a wedge of rugged and difficult terrain, stretching some 450 kilometres.[1] It is the size of Massachusetts and has an area of 27,200 sq km.[2] FATA has a population of approximately 3.18 million Pushtuns who are divided into more than a dozen tribes.[3] They regulate themselves under a tribal code of laws called Riwaj, which is based on an honour system.

      The territories that together form FATA consist of seven political agencies-Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, North Waziristan, Orakzai and South Waziristan and six smaller zones, called frontier regions (FRs) which are attached with districts of Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat, Lakki Marwat, Peshawar and Tank. To the north and east, the tribal areas are bounded by the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), while on the south is the province ofBaluchistan. The Durand Line, which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, forms the western border of FATA.


System of Administration

      Pakistani tribal regions are managed through an indirect system of administration for execution of government policies. The pivot of this administration is the political agent who influences tribes indirectly through local notables called Maliks. In return for their services the Maliks receive allowances and are provided patronage. Such a system lays a narrow base of support for the government and is one of the main reasons for not generating a larger base of supporters for the state of Pakistan.

     It may also be noted that the government administers only a small portion of tribal areas directly and which is confined to roads, government installations like schools, hospitals, forts or other officially occupied space. The rest of the area is managed by the tribes and the political agent uses his diplomatic skills to further the purpose of government. This important fact is not known in many countries. It is assumed as if Pakistan has the total levers of control like the police and a bureaucracy to control FATA. Such a mistaken assumption has created a misconception in the minds of most who mistakenly think Pakistan is purposely not exerting in implementing anti-terrorism measures.

      Control over the administered portion of the tribal areas is exercised by a stringent law enacted in 1901 and called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). This basic law is used for settling disputes and exercising control. Barring some exceptions, disputes and complaints are handed over to Jirgas (tribal juries) for decision. An assistant political officer acts as a foreman of a Jirga. It may be noted that this system works best when the political agent is accepted as the unchallenged head of the agency administration. This has not been the case after October 2002 when the military began to influence decision making in FATA. As a result the tribal administration became dysfunctional and the political agent lost control over the tribes. As stated earlier the main cause of this outcome was the subordination of the political agent’s authority to the military commander and the military’s direct handling of tribal matters in contrast to the former practice of control through diplomacy.

      The eclipse of the political authority by the military occurred at a time when the militants in tribal areas were challenging the state. When the dysfunctionality reached a high level the Prime Minister ordered the creation of a Task Force In 2006. It recommended the revival of the political agent’s authority. However, despite the implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations it has not been possible to re-establish the political agent’s former writ due to the insurgency on the one hand and the repeated return of the military for anti-militant operations on the other. At the same time the political agent’s main instrument for extending the writ of state  the Maliks and notables – collapsed when the militants systematically executed more than 600 of them over the past four years. The militancy in FATA has in this respect taken the colour of a rebellion which has demolished administrative capacity in FATA.

     This description of administrative crippling is incomplete without reference to the loss of administrative capacity also in the NWFP border districts neighbouring the tribal areas. After the launching of military operations, militancy has spread into more than ten of the twenty four NWFP districts. One of the main reasons for this expansion of militancy was the local government reform which abolished the magisterial system controlled by the district magistrate. This method of control was established over 200 years ago by the British and had an established method of working which was very well known to the inhabitants. It is argued by many that the local government reforms could still have been carried out while retaining the magistracy system and making more judicious distribution of power between the various organs of the executive machinery.


Constitutional Position of FATA

     Pakistan was created on August 14, 1947. Before the formation of Pakistan, Britain practised an indirect system of rule over the tribal areas through the Secretary of State for India who was guided by the Governor General of India. The Governor NWFP acted as the tribal area’s advisor to the Governor General. The laws of India were not applicable to the tribal areas which were treated as a special case. Tribal areas were considered a part of India but not a part ofBritish India. Only a very small part of the tribal areas was administered directly by the British. Secondly, the British obtained the tribes consent to their rule based on agreements rather than forceful occupation. A violation of such agreements led to punishment or arrest or fine or the launching of military operations to effect restitution.

     According to the Indian Independence Act, Clause 7, and Paragraph c:

�There lapse also any treaties or agreements in force at the date of the passing of this act between His Majesty and any powers having authority in the tribal areas, and obligation of His Majesty existing at that date to any such persons or with respect to the tribal areas, and all powers, rights, authority, or jurisdiction exercisable at that date in or in relation to the tribal areas by treaty, grant, usage, sufferance, or otherwise. [4]   

      After declaration of Independence and the withdrawal of military forces from Fata there was an increase in lawlessness in Khyber and Kohat pass. Jirgas of all the important tribes were held by Sir George Cunningham the Governor NWFP, to reach agreement with the tribes to accept the new government of Pakistan as their suzerain on the same terms as had existed with the British. Finally an all tribal Jirga was held with Mr. Jinnah on April 17, 1948 at the Government House, Peshawar which was attended by 200 Maliks from all the tribes. The tribes pledged their allegiance to Pakistan and re-stated their determination to win Kashmir for their new country. They also requested that they be placed under the direct administration of the Central Government. The request was met when on July 6, 1948 the Governor General of Pakistan created the new Ministry of State & Frontier Regions and personally took over responsibility for the tribal areas.[5]

    The tribal areas have retained this special status under the direct control of the President of Pakistan. The agreements that the tribes had with the British are still under implementation and the same rules of interaction that were prevalent during the pre Independence days are by and large followed today.

      According to the 1973 Constitution Art 246 and 247 are applicable to FATA. Art 247 (3), (5), (6) and (7) provide the main principles underlying the relationship between FATA and the Federal Government. These are;

�         No act of Parliament will be enforced in FATA unless the President may so especially direct by a notification.

�         The President may make any regulation for the good governance of FATA

�         The President has the power to end the classification of FATA over any area provided that the President shall ascertain the views of the tribe through a Jirga first.

�         The jurisdiction of the Supreme and High Courts has been barred unless the Parliament so provides under a law.

Underdevelopment of FATA

     The table below provides a glimpse of the poor human development indicators from which this region has been suffering despite efforts made by the government:

 Table 1: Selected human development indicators for Pakistan, NWFP and FATA (2003)*[6]

Literacy (both sexes %)43.9235.4117.42
Male literacy (%)54.8151.3929.51
Female literacy (%)32.0218.823.00
Population per doctor1,2264,9167,670
Population per bed in health institutions1,3411,5942,179
Road (per sq km)
* Literacy rates according to 1998 census; all other figures for 2003.

       According to one estimate the unemployment rate in FATA is more than 60% of the population with about the same percentage of its population living on or below the poverty line of one $ or less p/day. Research has highlighted that where abject poverty is rampant and where the poor have lost hope of making good they do not lose much by selecting violence because there is little on offer to them anyway. Secondly, it has also been found that where there are lots of poor people with less opportunity for peaceable employment there is a greater likely hood that they will come out in favour of collective violence.[7] This explanation makes a lot of sense in the context of FATA and NWFP. The poverty in FATA is therefore a trigger for instigating violence and militancy.


Rise of Militancy

       FATA was exposed to militancy in the 1980s when this area was used for weapon storage and training of militants to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Most tribesmen were not actively involved in the fighting against the Soviets, although they supported Afghan resistance. However, the tribal equilibrium and internal tribal security situation aggravated when the arms and drug culture penetrated this region as a result of the war in Afghanistan. According to one expert, US $ 66 billion worth of weaponry was pumped into Afghanistan and the region from 1978 1992.[8] This included FATA and NWFP. Presence of so many weapons was bond to cause de-stabilization in any event.

      Since 1992 the different Mujahideen groups began fighting against each other for taking over power in Afghanistan. FATA remained relatively quiet but internally its social cohesion was eroding rapidly because the dynamics of tribal equilibrium which was adversely affected by the gun and drug culture. Even during the years of the Taliban rule (1994 – 2001) the tribal areas were not the primary source of militancy. These areas had linkages with the Taliban movement  as a transit route and a limited source of supply of manpower  but could not be described as the breeding ground of the Taliban movement.

       Militancy in the tribal areas and Afghanistan increased after the US invasion of Afghanistan in October-November 2001 which overthrew the Taliban government. This intervention which caused many collateral deaths mostly of the Pukhtuns at the hands of the Northern Alliance is the primary cause for fuelling militancy. After the US intervention many tribesmen and people from Malakand in NWFP joint the Taliban and assisted them. Many died or were injured as a result. This event created sympathy for the Taliban cause. Matters worsened when he US refused to accept the surrender of the Taliban forces in the north and instead handed their fate over to their enemies the Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance.[9] It has set in motion a chain of events that in the Pukhtun honour driven society of Fata can only be redeemed through revenge or restitution, this is the main reason that the Taliban are not willing to hold talks with the Afghan government.

        Another set of events fuelled militancy in the tribal areas. First was the escape of militant groups from Afghanistan following their ouster after the October 2001 attack by US forces, and it included the Al-Qaeda which subsequently re-grouped in Pakistan gaining support and volunteers from amongst the Wazir and Mahsud tribes in Waziristan. The second factor responsible for adding to militancy was the rise of local militants who mimicked the Afghan Taliban’s philosophy. They included mostly those tribesmen who had gone to Afghanistan to fight along with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and foreign forces. Local tribal hard-line Islamic groups in Pakistan also took to greater activism in reaction to the US attack on Afghanistan. The Kashmiri Mujahideen who were fighting in Kashmir shifted their focus and began re-engaging with this group of militants in FATA in 2005. Thus we find that all the elements discontented with US role in Afghanistan created a strong militant fighting group which sent some fighters to support the Taliban in Afghanistan and also began challenging the state in Pakistan which is a major cause of increasing state failure.

        The Pakistan based Islamic parties supported these groups in the tribal areas because they were equally opposed to American military action and presence in Afghanistan. This support was provided in the shape of protection from security surveillance because of the NWFP government of that period was sympathetic towards them. Thus favourable conditions were prevalent for the growth of militancy in NWFP and FATA. The presence of belief-driven transnational fighters and organisations like the al-Qaeda and the Uzbek IUM has strongly channelized this militancy movement towards violence against Pakistan. Their intent is to establish an Islamic Emirate. Their most recent attempt to achieve such an outcome was attempted in August 2008 in Bajaur Agency, which was prevented by the launching of a military operation which is still going on!

        One of the priorities of the US security policy in the war on terrorism has been to defeat the transnational belief-driven fighters led by Al-Qaeda and IUM. These warriors who are imbued with strong beliefs consider both the US intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s support to US as an abomination; they view both the US and Pakistan as religious enemies with whom there cannot be any settlement.

        The complex situation witnessed today in tribal areas is a cause of concern since there is a rapid take over of the leadership of the militant groups by the trans-national belief driven core. In Bajaur, Mohmand, South and North Waziristan as well as parts of Orakzai Agency these fighters have obtained dominance and the conventional method of tribal control through collective responsibility has collapsed. They are now attempting to create a Pakistani franchise of the Al-Qaeda under the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It is thus evident that in such a situation no purely civilian approach by itself will be enough to regain control.[10]

        To deal with this burgeoning insurgency as well as to deny the creation of sanctuaries and safe havens in FATA, Pakistan was urged by the US to induct the military into the tribal areas in October 2002. Serious consequences resulted after the introduction of the military which created its own negative dynamics that upset the administrative structure in tribal areas and weakened the writ of the state. Had there been a policy of rehabilitation of the Mujahideen it is very likely that the blow back could have been controlled. Neither Pakistan nor the US thought it essential to do so and allowed the warrior caste to multiply in an area of rising poverty and lack of opportunities.

Pakistani Society & its Impact on Militancy

         The militants have developed deep roots in Pakistani society through an absence of long term policies of the government to counteract negative trends and the growth of unregulated militant organizations. Some of the political parties act as a political front of the militant groups in the assemblies. Secondly, the groups and militants that took part in the Kashmir Jihad have joined the Taliban because they were looking for an alternate cause. There is now a constant supply of volunteers to FATA based militants groups from NWFP, the Punjab, and even Sindh.[11] The militants operate in Pakistani mainland and many have links with other such groups.

        As the government has been unable to rally public support for its counter-insurgency policy due to a divided national attitude, the widely shared perception at the peoples level is that Pakistan’s support and role in the on-going global war on terrorism is not in Pakistan’s interest. A large number of leaders of public opinion and political activists blame Pakistan for playing the American game in return for some economic aid which barely reaches the common man. It is also thought that that Pakistan Army is thus used in the killing of its own people at the behest of the U.S. Such an interpretation of the war on terrorism represents a major weakness of Pakistani policy to build public support for a major foreign and domestic policy plank. It is mostly due to a lack of clarity of policy and absence of a robust communication strategy.

        As the government shies away from discussing the war on terrorism and its alliance with the West because of the fear of a Rightist reaction, it is unable to implement an agreed strategy. The other aspect is that by avoiding debate on the matter, Pakistan is also unable to approve a counter insurgency or low conflict strategy which lays down the ground rules for the conduct of the war on terrorism. The presence of an approved strategy and guidelines to military will go a long way in winning the hearts and mind battle.  

        Pakistan’s official circles were initially not perturbed by the militant activities because the latter were concentrated in Afghanistan. As the militants began to target Pakistani territory for suicide attacks and bomb blasts in 2007-2008, many people became conscious of the threat. Other argued that the suicide attacks was a retaliation against Pakistan’s involvement in the US sponsored war on terrorism, especially Pakistan’s security operations in the tribal areas. It appears that such views also run deep in powerful security circles adversely affect their capacity to deal seriously with the militants challenge. This problem is further compounded when the ordinary soldiers are exposed to a constant barrage of evangelicalism preached by Islamic hardliners and the at the mosque pulpit. However, this view is now disappearing from amongst those who have been fighting the militants.

      The absence of credible popular support for Pakistan Government’s participation in the global war on terrorism and the divided official and non-official disposition towards the militant Islamic groups is the major reason for Pakistan’s inability to pursue counter insurgency with full commitment. This also gives ample space to the militants and other groups to pursue their partisan ideological agenda.

       On the strategic front, the Pakistan government faces another dilemma. The inability of the security forces to control militant activities in FATA and Swat give these groups a feeling of ascendancy while the security forces are perceived to be retreating, if not failing. As long as this perception persists, the militants and other Islamic groups will neither accommodate the government nor stop their efforts to expand their domain to the settled areas or dispatch suicide bombers to Pakistani cities. The recent operations in Bajaur against the militants although causing immense human suffering has dented the gains made by the militants so far and encouraged the communities to come out and challenge them; the state must regulate these initiatives however to prevent a blow-back latter.

      On the other hand as long as the Pakistani civilian and army authorities fail to assert their authority in the tribal areas and do not demonstrate that they have the capability to retaliate if the militants directly take on the government, no credible agreement will be possible between the militant and the government. Therefore, the government has to establish deterrence and authority in the tribal areas and show effectively that it has the capacity to contain the militants, only then the latter would feel the need of reaching an adjustment with the Pakistan government.

       It is feared by many experts that when the policy of increased troop deployment occurs in Afghanistan as is being promised by the new US administration, there will be a further increase of militancy and violence within Pakistan. It is foreseen that the additional US forces will be deployed in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan which are the strongholds of the militants. These are areas which are inhabited by the Pushtuns who live in FATA, NWFP, Baluchistan andKarachi. The pressure against the Taliban will force them to retreat into the weakly administered areas of Baluchistan and FATA. In the South they will retreat into Baluchistan and some will filter into Karachi. It is thus predictable that the surge, (as the increase in US forces is called) will shift the fighting into Baluchistan and the urban areas of Karachi.  In the event that such an occurrence takes place it will lead to an implosion of the Pakistani security structure and there is every likely hood of the country slipping into a horrendous civil war! This eventuality will then invite the warriors to cross over into India which in turn would be destabilized. In an ironic way it becomes apparent that Pakistan is the sentry at the citadel protecting India! Both the countries may not be always on the best of terms but paradoxically their destiny is intertwined with each other. In the survival and good health of Pakistan lies the security and growth ofIndia. This geo-strategic reality will thus call for a regional solution in dealing with the issue of militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.


            The analysis presented above provides grounds for making the following recommendations where the US must support Pakistan in the larger interest of securing peace in the region.

  1. The US should encourage and support a regional approach to the issue of militancy under the UN aegis and which will include the permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as the regional players like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India, The following sub issues would need to be resolved by such a UN led group between the parties;
  2. Promotion of dialogue between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute which is the only way that the animosity between the two countries can be ended
  3. Influencing Afghanistan and Pakistan to accept the Durand Line and end the unnecessary tension arising out of this problem.
  4. Seeking a long term solution for FATA to end its isolation and integrating it fully into Pakistan with all the opportunities of development and growth.
  5. Ending tension between the US and Iran
  6. Establishing parity for Pakistan to be included into a nuclear deal on the same pattern as between the US and India
  7. Establishing an intelligence working group between India and Pakistan under a US  NATO  China contact committee for resolving complaints of interference in each other’s countries.
  8. The US and the multilateral Banks like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as well as S. Arabia and the UAE to join hands to provide development assistance to FATA/NWFP/Afghanistan/Pakistan for employment generation and reduction of poverty.
  9. It is evident that much of the violence generated by transnational groups who are radicalizing the population in Afghanistan and Pakistan is generated by the imbalance in US policies in the Middle East relating to the Palestine-Israel issue. It is essential that the US should create a balanced approach otherwise the existing policy will threaten her national security as well as those of her friends.
  10. It is clear that the Afghan intervention by the US in Oct 2001 has arrayed her against the Pushtuns as an ethnic group. As suggested by the Asia Foundation Report on America’s Role in Asia,[12] The time has come for the US to engage the Pushtuns by having a specific policy to focus on them. It may also call for improvising new security policies for the stabilization of Afghanistan through other multilateral arrangements with US and Afghan support and backing. It could lead to talks with the militants under a regional contact group identified above. This will eventually lead to a political and power sharing solution in Afghanistan.
  11. Pakistan needs to strengthen its National Security institutions and also convert a portion of its military assets to fighting a counter insurgency war. This pre-supposes the formulation of a COIN Strategy for Pakistan which is presently lacking.
  12. Support and financial assistance needs to be provided by the US to build the capacity of the Police and Security Forces battling the militants in FATA and NWFP. At the same time we need to prevent a fall out into Baluchistan after the surge.
  13. It will be advisable that instead of the US investment in a policy of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan which will de-stabilize Pakistan, the US should adopt other means indicated in this paper for tackling the issue. She can ill afford to continue to spend more than $ 2 billion a month in its security operations in Afghanistan which do not have much chances of success.
  14. Pakistan needs to put in place a robust communication strategy to change perceptions so that the population begins to support government’s endeavours against militancy.



[2] Ibid 2

[3] Ibid 2, p. 9, this is population according to 1998 census. The annual population growth rate is slightly lower than 2.8%.

[4] Spain, W. James, The Pathan Borderland, Mouton & Co, Hague, 1963, p. 202-203

[5] Ibid 6, p. 204 – 205

[6] Ibid 2, P. 11

[7] Cramer, Christopher; Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing, Hurst & Co, London 2006, P. 126

[8] Coll, Steve; Ghost Wars, the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, Penguin Books, London, 2004,  P. 238

[9] Rashid, Ahmed; Descent into Chaos, Viking, New York, 2008, P. 90

[10] Recently communities have taken up the challenge against militants by raising Lashkars to contest their domination. The government has decided to support such initiatives.

[11] Some of the militant leaders of the Swat insurgency belong to Southern Punjab while the leader of the Bajaur militants Qari Ziaur Rehman belongs to Afghanistan.

[12] The Asia Foundation; America’s Role in Asia , 2008, San Francisco, USA, 2008, Pp. 63-64.

1 thought on “Pakistan’s Strategic Options and Choices”

  1. Syed Asad Ali Shah. Peshawar based Journalist

    This article undoubtedly a strong effort to understand the world community about the plite of FATA which is facing the entire country of Pakistan. The effort which has been made through this article, will prove a massive change in the hearts and behavior of western courntries people towards the Pakistanis and Afghanis. Thanks Syed Asad Ali Shah [email protected]

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