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A Strategy for the Tribal Areas

What are the next president's options for dealing with the isolated, lawless region that's become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban?

  • People
  • Dexter Filkins
  • Henry Crumpton
  • Robert D. Kaplan
  • Steve Coll
  • Richard Armitage
  • Adm. William Fallon (Ret.)
  • Husain Haqqani
  • Related Links
  • Inside the Tribal Areas
    From FRONTLINE's 2006 report Return of the Taliban -- exclusive video of the rarely seen region, a map, excerpts from Winston Churchill's 1897 dispatches from the area and analysis of the Pakistani government's attempts to cut deals with the Taliban.
  • Right at the Edge
    New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins traveled inside Pakistan's tribal areas during the summer of 2008 and reported on some astonishing clashes in the region -- leading him to ask which side of the war on terror Pakistan is really on. (Sept. 5, 2008)
  • In the Land of the Taliban
    Elizabeth Rubin travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan "to understand how and why the Taliban were making a comeback five years after American and Afghan forces drove them from power." (The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2006)
  • In the Hiding Zone
    Eliza Griswold wrote this detailed portrait of life in Waziristan for The New Yorker. Although Westerners are typically banned from this part of Pakistan, she gains access with the accompaniment of a tribal chief whose family she had befriended on an earlier visit. She travels to several villages, speaks to local tribesmen and finds that improving their way of life could be the key to ending the influence of the Taliban, but the local madrassas seem always to be one step ahead. (July 26, 2004)
  • The Lawless Frontier
    The Atlantic published this story on the tribal areas and the Taliban a year before the Sept. 11 attacks. Robert D. Kaplan describes his journey through the border region and explains how the Taliban gained power with the help of the Pakistani government. (September 2000)

Dexter Filkins The New York Times; author, The Forever War

Dexter Filkins

You have this border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that the local people don't really recognize. … It's Pashtunistan -- 45 million people on both sides of the border -- so it's enormous and they've all been linked for generations. So they don't really see the border in the same way that we do. This is just a line that was drawn by the Brits in the 19th century.

What's happening along that border is that the Americans and the Afghans are routinely getting into firefights with the Pakistani soldiers [and] with Taliban on the other side. Some of [the Taliban] come over and then go back into Pakistan, which they use for a sanctuary. So it's happening in many, many different ways. But the border's extremely violent. There's exchanges of gunfire there almost every day.

But why these exchanges between Pakistani soldiers and American soldiers? …

… When push comes to shove and the Pakistani soldiers are right on the border, and they're watching a firefight unfold between the Taliban and the Americans, they side with the Taliban. That's what's happening. …

[What happened in Suran Dara, a village in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border?]

… Running basically right through the village are a series of Pakistani military checkpoints. This was in mid-June. There was a big firefight there between the Taliban and the Americans in Afghanistan, right on the border. And somehow, a bunch of Pakistani soldiers ended up dead. …

The Americans put out a statement saying: "We're sorry. It's a terrible accident." The Pakistanis were very, very angry about it. They were indignant about it. They said: "This is terrible. This isn't the way allies are supposed to act." They had a joint investigation that didn't determine anything.

I got to talk to some villagers who live in Suran Dara. … What they told me was fascinating. Essentially what they said was that yes, there was a firefight between the Americans and the Taliban that began inside Afghanistan.

And as this firefight started, and as the American soldiers started calling in air strikes on the Taliban, the Pakistani soldiers saw their Taliban brethren getting killed. They started firing on the Americans.

How common is that?

Apparently, that happens a lot. … According to officials that I talked to in Washington, it's happened dozens and dozens of times. …

[Pakistan says it's] mounting operations in the tribal areas, in Khyber Agency, in Bajaur. Are they turning it around?

No. Not at all. I had one experience that was absolutely extraordinary. I happened to be in Peshawar ... just as one of these military operations began in Khyber Agency, which is part of the tribal areas. Big headlines in the newspaper. It was all over television -- the Pakistani military launches decisive operation against the Taliban.

I drove into the tribal areas as this military operation was unfolding. I drove all the way to the Afghan border. I spent the whole day there. I met with a very senior Taliban commander. I went to his house. I was all over the place. I didn't see a single member of the Pakistani military or police the entire time I was there.

Did the Taliban commander tell you that he was engaged with Pakistani forces?

No. His name was Haji Namdar -- a Taliban commander, controlled a big piece of territory in the tribal areas. I said to him, "Where is the Pakistani operation?" And he laughed. He said to me: "Don't you understand? This is theater. This is drama." And I said, "Theater for who?" And he said, "America." And then he left.

And Pakistan gets credit for having taken on the militants?

Yeah. This was typical.

Henry Crumpton State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, 2005-'07; CIA, 1981-2005

[In] South Waziristan, North Waziristan, you get this tribal collection. Many are allied with the Taliban; view themselves as Pakistani Taliban. And others, who have resisted, have faced some pretty harsh retaliation. Perhaps as many as 200 tribal leaders have been assassinated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

How does it work that they can be so brutal with the population and maintain a kind of indigenous support?

They've been able to rally support because they've been able to focus them on an external threat, whether it's the Pakistani government or the U.S. government or the Afghan government or NATO. And they've been able to influence them through many years of residence, in some cases intermarriage, money and intimidation. …

What is Al Qaeda's capability at this point?

Al Qaeda's capability was severely diminished after 9/11, not only in their former safe haven of Afghanistan -- and, sadly, they've reclaimed some of that safe haven -- but worldwide.

Now, in the intervening years, especially the last two years now, when Pakistan cut a very bad deal with some of the local actors in the tribal areas, it enabled Al Qaeda to establish more of a secure safe haven, and expand it within Pakistan, overlapping into Afghanistan. …

Tell me about the "bad deal" the Pakistani government cut with the militants.

The Pakistani government, bear in mind that they have waged war in the tribal area now for years. They've lost hundreds of people. They were trying to find the right solution. And they went from more of a conventional response to negotiating a settlement that afforded the local tribal leaders, and in turn, Al Qaeda, much greater latitude in their movements -- really affording them freedom. From that perspective, it was a pretty bad deal.

The terms of the deal were what, exactly?

It was that they would not attack Pakistan, in terms of Pakistan military installations, or the Frontier Corps. In return, they would be given some degree of autonomy.

This is the Pakistani Taliban?

The local tribal leaders. The other variable in that deal, which was not adhered to by the local tribal leaders, was that foreign fighters, Al Qaeda, could not stay there. … They ignored that part of the deal. And not only did Al Qaeda leadership and rank and file stay, they've grown stronger and expanded their safe haven. …

There were several peace deals, right?

Right. …

Where were we vis-à-vis the Pakistani government during this process?

There was consultation. There were discussions. But for the most part, these were deals struck by the Pakistani government with the tribes.

And dealmaking is a part of what can be a successful counterinsurgency campaign, because some tribal leaders, they want to make a deal and they don't want Al Qaeda there. … But it needs to be … the kind of deals that will deny Al Qaeda that opportunity to plot and plan and attack. …

Robert D. Kaplan The Atlantic; author, Soldiers of God

What's happening with cross-border raids is the more of them that you have, the more likely you can have one or two or three really spectacular raids where a significantly large number of American or NATO troops could be killed. And that immediately becomes a morale booster for the Taliban. The more that the Taliban can use Pakistan as a rear base, the more likely you're going to have spectacular cross-border raids.

The key to this is breaking off some Taliban from others, not launching a war against the Taliban in general. We won't win that. …

What is the history of Pakistani forces going into the tribal areas to assert control?

… The idea of getting Pakistani forces to engage against the Taliban in the tribal areas is a few years old, and it hasn't gone well. It hasn't gone well because, first of all, Pakistani troops have been trained for the most part in the most staid, conventional, World War II-style tactics, not in counterinsurgency. … So they tend to move around in large numbers, and they don't do well fighting tribal warriors who are literally part of the landscape. …

They've tended to get very bloodied, and then they've tended to make deals with these people rather than get bloodied a second time. And the deals tend to open up more strategic space for these guerrillas.

What do you say to the argument that the Pakistani army can't get it done; American troops should be pushed forward?

The problem is if the United States troops get it done, it will be a temporary solution only. What we have to do is increase the capacity of the Pakistani military by not just giving them money and asking them to add troops, but to give them the kind of training in counterinsurgency that they need. Ultimately it has to be self-sustaining. And that gets into the whole question of the viability of the Pakistani state. …

Steve Coll The New Yorker; author, Ghost Wars

So what's brewing here is a showdown, eventually, between NATO, the Americans and this Taliban state, if you will.

The problem is that … Al Qaeda … is located primarily on the Pakistan side of [the] border, where NATO and American forces cannot operate openly and where the Pakistani army is ambivalent, at best, about fighting the Americans' war. …

Now, the United States has made it plain … that this stalemate cannot long endure. It is not acceptable.

On the other hand, there is no easy fix. The Pakistani Army, even if it had the will, lacks the capacity to defeat the Taliban along the border anytime soon. And it lacks the will to do so. …

And the Pakistani army is correct when it argues that there is no military solution to the problem of the tribal areas. There is no purely military solution. The only way Al Qaeda can be marginalized, the only way that the Taliban can be subdued in the long run is to change the conditions in which they thrive by incorporating the tribal areas into a modernizing, successful Pakistani state. But like the revival of Afghanistan, that is a daunting and, by any realistic measure, long-term project.

What progress has been made since 9/11 to bring the tribal areas into Pakistani society?

Very little. By and large, since 9/11, the tribal areas have gone in the other direction. They have, essentially, separated themselves from Pakistan through a Taliban takeover. …

What's required now -- and what the Pakistani government, by and large, has in mind -- is a different project, of … economic development and political change that would gradually change the constitutional status and the economic circumstances of these tribal agencies. There is a national consensus, more or less, in Pakistan -- including among residents of the tribal agencies -- to change their relationship with the government of Pakistan, to eliminate this special status that's a hangover from [the] British colonial period.

But that's a 10- to 15-year project. And right now, the Taliban are in control of this territory and they're not about to hand it over to Pakistani political parties or to some new system of constitutional commissioners who are there to reincorporate the tribal areas into Pakistani national life. …

Richard Armitage Deputy secretary of state, 2001-'05

Richard Armitage

I think, for once, we have to determine what our strategy is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). We haven't decided, as a nation, whether to support the federal agencies or whether to try to empower the tribal leaders.

I'm more inclined myself to take a look at empowering the tribal leaders -- a more traditional way of doing business [in] Pakistan -- to bring down the extremism. …

You say, "Empower the tribal leaders in the tribal areas." Scores of those tribal leaders have been assassinated by Pakistani Taliban. Who's left for you to deal with?

The leadership steps up in flat organizations. There's always someone who follows on. The very fact that the tribal areas are flat and they're not hierarchical in terms of their associations with each other would lead me to believe that you can start picking them off one by one in terms of bringing them into a better way of life and a less extreme form of life.

The Musharraf government has made deals with the Taliban in the area, delivered money to them. … Are those deals a good strategy? …

I don't think the deals have held up very well. … The fact of the matter is those who practice extreme violence can be rented for a short period of time, but they can't be bought. And that's what the government of Pakistan is finding out. …

If you were going to sit down with the next president of the United States, what should the policy in the tribal areas look like?

I think if we're talking about a strategy, you have to have an entire one for Pakistan. So, part of it would be the FATA. Part of it would be, in my view, empowering tribal leaders and attempting to separate them away from the foreign fighters.

Secondarily, one of the big problems of Pakistan is … it's not really a country; it's four different regions. The second part of my strategy would be try to find those development products that would span regions and give the Sindhis and the Baluchis, for instance, or the Punjab, reasons to depend on each other rather than seeing themselves as separate.

The third element of this has to be in Afghanistan, and that has to be a rigorous prosecution of the Taliban who come across the border from the no-man's land into Afghanistan, combined with, I think, a rigorous prosecution of development in the country of Afghanistan. So this is a multi-pronged strategy that I'm suggesting.

What about just putting some troops into those areas and going after the Taliban that are mounting those cross-border raids?

My view is we have enough enemies in the region. We don't need to encourage other enemies by sticking foreign forces down in an area in which we're not welcome. We've got enough problems. So I'd be opposed to that unless I was absolutely sure I was going to get Osama bin Laden or [Ayman al-] Zawahiri.

Adm. William Fallon (Ret.) Commander, U.S. Central Command, 2007-'08

Adm. William Fallon (Ret.)

I can give you an anecdote that I heard about last year in South Waziristan. You may recall that the Pakistani government decided that they'd had enough trouble from this area and went in to try to push the outside instigators out and to try to pacify this region.

I was told by folks, including President Musharraf, that the problem in this area was made a little easier because of the behavior of the outsiders. In this case, the Al Qaeda folks were from Uzbekistan and for whatever reason they didn't deport themselves particularly well with the locals. And so when offered an opportunity to switch allegiances and to side with the government in moving these guys out, the locals voted pretty quickly to say, "Yeah, we'll do it."

I'm told that in other areas, the Arabs have been a little more clever about this and have taken great pains not to alienate the locals, to stay to themselves, to pay whatever the going rate is for their isolation. …

How many of these Arab fighters are in these regions? …

We have no census. We don't have an ability to get in there and count noses. We can see where people have gone and we can listen to some communications.

What's your guess?

Thousands. Maybe several thousand. I don't think it's any huge number. …

So if it's just a few thousand Arab soldiers, what's the real threat of that safe haven?

The problem is … we have not yet gotten the leadership of Al Qaeda. We believe that they're somewhere ensconced in this region, protected by the locals and however many folks they have up there.

There's a tremendous amplification of activity. Every single incident in Afghanistan [is] like a pebble in a pond. The broadcast of that goes around the world and it's another impression of more fighting, more instability, more bad guys. … So they get a lot of leverage from their activity.

More importantly, they're destabilizing. They're importing terror and fear in the hearts of people. You don't necessarily have to have 10,000- or 50,000- or 100,000-man armies, in my opinion, to do that.

Husain Haqqani Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.

How will the situation on the ground in the tribal areas change [under the new government in Pakistan]?

Two things will happen. They are already happening. Pakistan's own political leadership will engage -- and has engaged -- with its own tribal leaders to be able to assert who are the reconcilable elements, and who are the irreconcilable elements. There are certainly people who have become extremist or violent because they felt they were under attack. They are not necessarily supporters of Osama bin Laden. …

But then there are the irreconcilable elements -- Al Qaeda, people who protect Al Qaeda, people who support Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban.

The elected government has now declared the Pakistani Taliban movement as a terrorist group. Gen. Musharraf had never done that. …

Doesn't Washington want to get on with getting across the border and going after the targets that they have long hoped you would go after?

Now here's my point: If these were legitimate targets I think at least the U.S. government would be able to claim: "You know what? We sent in an expedition and we got Osama bin Laden." … But when they go in and what they get is 11 people dead who are just older men or people hanging around, nine women, four children and seven goats, then, with due respect, that doesn't win them anything in the war against terror, and it doesn't bring them any support in Pakistan.

So what I'm asking for is a more intelligent and smart approach, a cooperative approach in which the U.S., NATO, Pakistan and Afghanistan can work together. Look, President [Hamid] Karzai gets it. Why did he come to the inauguration of President [Asif Ali] Zardari? Because he understands that the way forward is for him to strengthen the hands of the new civilian leadership. If the U.S. administration did exactly the same thing -- strengthen the hands of the civilian leadership; enable the civilian leadership to exercise control over all elements of national power and use those elements to protect Pakistan, but to protect Pakistan against terrorism as well as against external aggression -- then I think that we would get the transformation of Pakistan that we all want. …

We're seeing cross-border raids now. The United States government is talking about how it has every right to go across the border. All the candidates are saying it. What's going on?

First of all, the United States does not have the right to go into a sovereign country that is its ally without permission and approval and consent of that ally. …

The reason that they want to now go in and do these incursions into Pakistan is the hope is that by doing this they will create some kind of apprehension and fear and then make Pakistan act. My response to that is that when you have a government in Pakistan that wants to act responsibly anyway, give that government a break. …

In the past, the government has made deals with the Taliban in the tribal areas. … Would your government be open to those kinds of arrangements? Will those work?

The elected government engaged with various tribal groups but laid down very clear terms that the purpose of negotiating is to ensure that all foreign fighters are excluded, that any groups that are fighting the state of Pakistan lay down their weapons, etc., etc.

With the exception of one or two arrangements that were worked out and that broke down because the other side did not keep its promises, we did not get the treaties. And therefore having demonstrated that these people were irreconcilable, we now have convinced the Pakistani public that there is a legitimate reason for us to go after them militarily.

So we will certainly not have half-baked agreements that undermine the war against terror. We will not have agreements that will weaken the state of Pakistan. But if people are willing to decommission their weapons, get out of the business of militancy, then I think there is always a case to be made for bringing people on board.

posted october 28, 2008

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