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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The unique geopolitics of Pakistan

A story this week in the Wall Street Journal detailing an attempt to make the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan more sustainable suggests an intriguing evolution in American policy. President Obama’s expansion of the drones campaign has led to public outcry from the Pakistani government and people but the policy seems to be here to stay at least for now.

To understand why drone use is obligatory to stem the infiltration of terrorists in northwest Pakistan, it is critical to understand the unique circumstances of the area. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region where most drone strikes occur, is often referred to as “ungoverned”- a misleading depiction as there is governance in the FATA, just not from Islamabad.

An unmanned Predator drone. Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay

It’s not that the FATA is non-compliant. It’s that the Pakistani government chooses not to include it as a recognized part of the state. This arrangement is a holdover from the days of British colonialism, when the region was governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations. These regulations deny residents of the FATA participation in Pakistan’s parliament — and in turn, laws passed by parliament do not apply to the FATA. The President of Pakistan can choose whether to impose laws, which are enforced through viceroy-like figures called Political Agents.

In other words, a whole region of Pakistan is still ruled like a colonial wasteland: no real rule of law, no police, no justice system. Tribal codes have filled in some of these gaps (with varying degrees of success) but so too have militias and terrorists. This is not a localized phenomenon: during the Waziristan War in the 1930’s, a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist leader, Hajji Mirza Ali Khan, or the Faqir of Ipi, launched a rolling insurgency that lasted for years. The British Empire never could stamp it out; they had to settle an uneasy negotiated peace and constant counterterrorism campaigns in the mountains near Afghanistan.

Without any kind of institutionalized state, there are few methods available for countering militancy and terrorism within the FATA. One technique is operating through the Pakistani Army, whose army campaigns have been incredibly violent. The results have been tangible: thousands of dead Pakistani soldiers (including two generals), devastation to villages and towns in the area, collective retribution against entire communities, and millions of displaced peoples who fled the fighting.

Another possibility is drone strikes. Strikes may seem like a good option — next to the Pakistani Army, who have displaced people from their homes by the million, or the Pakistani Taliban who violently impose harsh and radical religious rules on the local population. However, the use of drones does not come without cost.

The Journal reports communications between the CIA and ISI over drone strikes have largely broken down. Breaking this impasse between the U.S. and Pakistan is vital to building a sustainable program for counter terrorism in Pakistan — but how to do that is far from clear. Both the U.S. and Pakistan are angry over perceived slights and betrayals. Pakistan is still irate about the American military destroying a border outpost last November in a move that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. is upset over the ISI’s open support of terror groups and resents the ISI for criticizing U.S. policy in the Pakistani media.

Despite such bad blood, there is still room for constructive engagement— from explicit collaboration on targeting decisions to agreement on target lists to more public clarity about the nature of the collaboration between the two countries.

A long-term solution to stemming the tide of militancy in the region would be to fully integrate the FATA politically into the rest of Pakistan. Allowing a customary government to exist, with police and courts and schools and political representation, just might provide a non-violent way for residents of the FATA to secure their interests.

The U.S. cannot force Pakistan to fully integrate its politics, and the Pakistani government has shown little movement toward folding in the residents of Waziristan. Without more substantial political reform, greater collaboration between the governments shows the most promise to take on terrorists in the region.