ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Out in the wilds of Waziristan, the Pakistani Army has moved in force, bringing in thousands of troops to seal off roads in an area that may be Osama bin Laden’s last stand.
By all accounts, the massive operation has the makings of a protracted siege carried out among fiercely independent mountain villages along the Afghan border. Saturday, Pakistani troops fired on a minibus full of civilians at a checkpoint near Wana, killing 14. Pakistan’s government offered compensation to victims’ families Monday.
But as difficult as this operation is on a military level, observers here say the political implications of the spring offensive against Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas may be even greater and more far-reaching. By putting Pakistani troops into the once-autonomous region of ethnic Pashtun tribes – an area never conquered by the British, the Persians, or even Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes – Pakistan risks a wider Pashtun rebellion that the Pakistani Army could find difficult to control.
“Waziristan is the last place you should be mucking around, because of the nature of the people,” says Mohammad Yahya Effendi, an ethnic Pashtun and retired Pakistani Army colonel who served in the Waziristan region. “Afghans aren’t like dogs. You kick a dog, and he’ll come back to you. They’re like cats. You make one small little mistake, you just annoy him, and he’ll never forgive you. He’s your enemy forever.”
Even so, mucking around the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) appears to be precisely what the Pakistani Army is determined to do. In a televised interview, President Pervez Musharraf boasted, “We have a very effective intelligence network now in our tribal areas…. We have a very swift and mobile and hard-hitting quick reaction force. So there is no chance whatsoever of a strategic threat of Al Qaeda and Taliban joining for any strategic effect across the border.”
Of course, Pakistan’s approach to the Pashtuns has not been all stick and no carrot. Over the past year, the Pakistani Army has spent nearly $11.7 million building new roads in the Khyber Pass, the hashish-growing region of Tirah, and Kurram Agency; and new wells are being dug to bring drinking water and irrigation to the tribes of the Mohmand Agency. Fifteen new primary and secondary schools have been built throughout the tribal belt, and 38 schools have been reopened.
But the bulk of Pakistan’s efforts have been thrown into patroling the Afghan-Pakistani border, which had long been left to tribal militia groups and Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, both of which rely on local tribe members for recruits.
The major deployment of Pakistani troops in Waziristan is a sign that Pakistan believes Mr. bin Laden is on Pakistani soil, says Rifaat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e Azam University in Islamabad. Noting that a mishandled Pakistan Army operation in Wana last year left 14 Pakistani troops dead, he suggests that the Army would not move in unless it had hard intelligence. “The Army is not willing to take casualties unless they know Osama is there,” he notes.
“We might be moving into the endgame now,” Mr. Hussein adds, but it’s an endgame where guns may not be as effective a weapon as money.
“I don’t think the Pakistani Army can scare the tribals to withdraw their support from Al Qaeda,” he continues. “You have to throw a lot of money at them – convince them of the futility of protecting this guy. You’re trying to break the tribal solidarity. Not everyone supports Osama bin Laden, especially when the consequences of that support become clear.”
What is certain is that the springtime offensive, the much publicized joint operation of US and Pakistani forces, has begun in earnest. Pakistani military sources, along with local residents, say that Pakistan’s military has moved in thousands of troops and hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment, including armored vehicles and helicopters. Pakistan’s top officials deny that any US or foreign troops are involved in the operation, but military analysts say that any operation would probably have at least the tactical coordination of US special-operations forces, along with the British Special Air Services.
With all this Pakistani fighting power digging in for the long haul, the good old autonomous days of the FATA have come to an end, says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, former corps commander of the Pakistani Army and now a military analyst in Islamabad. “The time for the FATA is over. But it is not like instant coffee. It has to go through a process,” Mr. Masood says. “The Americans, they’re seeking a military solution. But this is a very political, social problem, and a cultural problem. It has to be tackled with all dimensions.”
Tackling that problem will not be simple. The same conditions that made the tribal areas so autonomous – the dry mountainous terrain, the insular and xenophobic culture of the people, the monetary benefits of a smuggling economy outside state control – remain just as true today as they were 200 years ago, when the British first encountered the Pashtun tribes.
Even before their earliest periods of outright colonization, beginning in the mid 1850s, the British made distinctions between the “settled” Pashtuns of the plains around Peshawar and the more troublesome “hill” Pashtuns of the Khyber Pass and Waziristan.
In the end, the British ruled both groups, collecting taxes from the entire 38,000 square-mile region of the Northwest Frontier Province, but allowing the hill Pashtuns to govern themselves on 25,000 square miles of tribal area.
If a murder, robbery, or rape took place in the tribal areas, the British let tribal elders handle it themselves, according to their own brutal and swift custom. It’s an arrangement that continues today. Even now, statistics for murder are not kept in the tribal areas, since murder is not considered a crime. It is merely a matter to be dealt with by the victim’s family, usually through vendetta, revenge, blood feud, or in some cases, monetary compensation.
The British rarely launched military operations of the sort being run by the Pakistanis in Waziristan, preferring instead negotiations with the tribes, then fines and blockades.
Brian Cloughley, a British military historian who specializes in South Asia, says that America’s and Pakistan’s current operations could backfire.
“The Americans do not realize that to the Pashtun tribesman, the average Pakistani Army soldiers are just as foreign as the British and the Americans,” he says. “The way of modifying the approach is simple: Go slowly. You can’t expect in places like this to have results overnight. Don’t announce you’re going to do something like capture Osama bin Laden, because if you don’t do it, you’re going to look silly. And if you do do it, you’re going to offend lots of people. I don’t know whether any of this has been thought through.”