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Pakistan tribal areas: what matters

Within Pakistan and internationally, there is a growing recognition that well-off tribesman will not become the tools of terrorist organizations. But will it come soon enough?

Muhammad Shakir Baccha
28 March 2012

Since the most recent phase of US involvement in Afghanistan began, Pakistan has been a witness to multiple terrorist attacks on its soil in one form or the other. It has been generally recognised that Pakistan has suffered grave consequences from this conflict. Unfortunately, media outlets and commentators consistently refer to terrorist activities taking place in Pakistan as being undertaken by the ‘Taliban’ or ‘Terrorist Organizations’.

It needs to be understood that every tribal man is not a terrorist. On analyzing tribal areas in Pakistan it is clear that there exist some traditional socio-political norms and values there which are understood as acts of terrorists by others. For instance, by the end of President Zia’s administration the majority of the population kept guns for self protection. Nowadays if an individual is armed they are termed as a terrorist by default.

There are a number of groups in tribal regions who are neither Taliban members nor terrorists but instead view them as criminals, to be despised by the majority of the population. The first such group is the country’s elite. These groups may have links with particular tribal regions in that they are involved in policy making or political representation for those regions. Unfortunately however, they are disconnected from the real issues facing the local population.

The second category is the middle class which makes up a substantial portion of society. This is an interesting group in that they want to be a part of progressive social developments and are equipped with some of the means to do so. However at the same time their progress is being hampered by a number of factors. They want to play a role in policy making and escape the influence of terrorism but are failing to do so, primarily due to the economic pressure under which they find themselves.

The third category consists of people living below the poverty line. These are the people who have actually suffered throughout. They essentially have no choice but to act according to the demands of external influences within their region. If they live in an area which is under the influence of the Taliban then they are compelled to adhere to their wishes, but if Taliban influence diminishes then this often precipitates a shift in the mindset of the local population.

The most pertinent example here is the operation that took place in the Swat region close to the Afghan-Pakistan border. Before the initiation of the operation in Swat the local populace was supportive of the Taliban and the majority of the young joined up with the Taliban in order to secure an income. The reason being that the poor run towards bread: that is to say they seek to grasp the maximum economic benefits from their actions.

After the army’s intervention in these areas people have become highly supportive of the state military forces. This is because they understand that state institutions are able to provide them with security. A man in uniform has rules to obey and is required to protect the interests of the state - he is answerable to the system because he is part of the system. The tribesmen feel that they are deprived of the basic necessities of life. They lead an isolated existence as no one is ready to bring them into the mainstream, in part because liberals are not ready to accommodate them within society.

President Musharraf ushered in change post 9/11 when he banned all jihadi organizations in Pakistan. Many jihadists fled to tribal areas and the relics of both Al-Qaeda and Afghani Taliban joined them in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). There they had initial success in recruiting members through economic rewards, and later through religious ideology. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban possess substantial strategic experience. They knew exactly how to deal with the tribesmen in order to use them for their own purposes. Initially, the tribesmen were committed to not attacking Pakistani state forces, but the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda successfully turned the them against the state. They accomplished this by launching terrorist attacks within Pakistan, in turn forcing the army to launch military operations in FATA, previously designated as no-go areas for them.

The United States are currently engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. They have also pushed Pakistan to continue its military operations in these areas, inadvertently providing new opportunities to radicalise elements within FATA. This is a wake up call for Pakistan. They should be making intensive use of non-military strategies and projects. Haqooq-e-Balochistan should be given to the tribal areas of Balochistan, and the needs of the tribes must be treated in the same way as those of other Pakistani citizens. Quality education, implementation of proper security measures and job opportunities can transform this region from an extremist to a moderate hub. The US has to realize that assisting the development of FATA will be a benefit to their own cause. So called ‘Reconstruction Opportunity Zones’ can be very helpful if implemented properly. There is a growing recognition that well-off tribesman will not become the tools of terrorist organizations. This approach will damage those terrorist activities around the globe that take place under the banner of “Global Jihad”.

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