by Dr Magnus Norell, Infosphere AB
In 1990 D.S Richards wrote in his book “In ten years of fighting the mujahiddin have never won a setpiece battle,…..should they be successful…..it will only be at the expense of a prolonged civil war with its inevitable prospects of devastation and starvation”. Already at the time it was possible for a writer, knowledgeable about Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Pashtu tribes along what is today the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to see what lay in store. Richards’s book is a history of the Anglo-Afghan wars, starting with the first Afghan war 1838-1842. These words quoted above were written 20 years ago when the seeds of today’s war in Afghanistan were planted and allured to the Mujahideen fighting the Russians and their puppet Afghan government. And although parallels should never be taken too far and today’s Afghanistan is different from the one described in Richards book, there are some important similarities that are still being overlooked by today’s foreign occupiers of the country. Or, if not overlooked, not being properly understood. And one of those similarities is the issue of the tribal border-lands along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
In the late 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, during the 2nd and 3rd Afghan war, the British, to their sorrow, realized the importance of the tribal lands along the border between British India and Afghanistan. A constant series of insurgencies, followed by punitive expeditions, failed to resolve the problems and to pacify the area for long. This never really changed until Pakistan and India became independent and Pakistan inherited the tribal lands and their restive population, including a push for ‘Pashtunistan’. And here lies one of the most pertinent questions for today’s war in Afghanistan; without a strategy that take in the situation in Pakistan in general and the FATA and the settled areas of NWFP in particular (including Swat and Buner), the situation in Afghanistan can never be resolved.
The Pakistani military offensive in South Waziristan last autumn is a case in point. With minor changes, the communiqués coming out from the Army HQ in Rawalpindi, could have been copied from the British. They talked of insurgent localities destroyed and militants being killed. But no really important leader were caught and, with few exceptions, the insurgents avoided ‘setpiece-battles’ using ‘hit-and-run’ tactics to combat the military. Instead they melted away to fight another day and raised the number of terror-attacks against Pakistani cities such as Peshawar, Lahore and far-away Karachi. Even the capital Islamabad was hit. The offensive was applauded by the allies in Afghanistan, but did little to dent the afghan Taliban’s use of the border lands to escape into FATA. Neither did the offensive succeed in seriously crush the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-e-Taliban) and their ability to seemingly strike at will. The British succeeded a few times in pacify some tribes for a period, but not without striking from both sides of the border, a tactic not employed this time around.
The intelligence on the whereabouts of the militants might have been good enough, but the means to the disposal of the Pakistani army was not. But more importantly, some of the more obvious reasons for the lingering resentment of the tribes straddling the border were seemingly overlooked, both by the army brass and their – nominally – superiors in the civil government in Islamabad. The lack of any kind of meaningful strategy to come to terms with the areas backwardness and lack of economic development goes a long way to explain the ease with which the Taliban – on both sides of the Durand line – can recruit people. The region lags behind the rest of the country – a country to which it don’t really belong looking at the way FATA is being ruled through the thoroughly detested Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a legal underpinning stemming from British times – in any measurable way; economic, social and educational (female literacy is for example only 3%, just to take one glaring example). As long as these issues are not dealt with, no long-term solution is possible, either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan.
This problem is exacerbated by Pakistan’s attempts to treat the Taliban of Afghanistan more leniently than the TTP (the arrest in Pakistan of Afghan Taliban military chief Abdul Ghani Baradar and two Taliban ‘shadow’ governors do not change this picture), which in Islamabad’s view constitute a real threat to Pakistan. But the complex ties between the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border; the intricate web of contacts and double loyalties between the ISI and various Taliban outfits and the pressure on Islamabad to take action against the enemies of NATO and the civil re-construction in Afghanistan, makes for a volatile mix that Islamabad has increasingly difficult to handle. At the end of the day, there are no political or military short-cuts that can bypass the Pashtun tribes across the Durand-line.