Pashtuns in Pakistan: Why the War on Terror is Being Lost
Why would a journalist incite a terrorist to target the federal capital of his own country? In response to my curious look, the tribal journalist claimed that his stance is justified. “Militants have let loose a reign of terror in every part of our (Pashtun) land, and nobody in the corridors of power bothers to listen,” he lamented. “A few bomb blasts down the country, however, would make terrorism a national issue,” he opined. My journalist friend is no longer alive, but his telling remarks still resonate in my mind. Such reactionary tendencies have remained common among Pashtun nationalists, who believe that they are being used as cannon fodder in the US-led war on terror.
In 2001, when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, thousands of ragtag foreign militants crossed the Durand line—the 2,640 km long porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that divides ethnic Pashtuns—and melted into the seven districts of the Federally Administrated tribal Areas (FATA). Over the next couple of years, the newly settled militants networked with local groups of radical Pashtuns and together they controlled the semi-autonomous tribal badlands of FATA. Ever since then, the Pashtun nation—the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and even more living on the Pakistan side of the divide—has turned into a recruitment center for terrorists, attracting disoriented youth from all over Pakistan to train with local Jihadi commanders and move across the border to carry out attacks against the “infidel” allied forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban militants have gradually turned the tribal belt into a radical university.
As a prelude to a deadly terror order, militants first turned the social and political landscape of the mountainous tribal belt upside down. They killed over 8,000 anti-Taliban opinion leaders, known locally as elders, in different targeted incidents. By 2007, a militant culture was on the rise in FATA. The first pack of unemployed youth was trained enough to help transport terror to the rest of the adjacent settled districts in Pakhtunkhwa and to support Afghan Taliban across the border. Put simply, it took terrorists just over five years to resurge from the tribal backyard and take the whole of Pashtun belt—in Pakistan and Afghanistan—by tide, while the policymakers in Islamabad looked the other way.
Instead, the ruling elites in Pakistan looked upon this war as an illegitimate US child thrust upon them. The first military operation in FATA was carried out as early as 2002. Such actions, however, made little progress on the ground; though it brought foreign funds and assuaged U.S. pressure, at least for the time being. As a result, the impression that the real purpose behind the military operations in FATA was neither to protect them nor to defeat militancy, but for Pakistan policymakers to sell terror abroad, became widespread among ethnic Pashtuns.
The war on terror became a war of survival for Pakistan after June 2007, when a small-scale uprising in Lal Masjid, a religious seminary, brought the federal capital of Islamabad to a standstill. People in Pakistan, through live TV coverage, watched violent, religious extremists damage public property while demanding the implementation of Sharia with sticks and weapons in their hands. It was a wake-up call for everybody. Military commandos besieged the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), brought to an end the 18 month-long unruly students’ protest, and later bombed out the resisting armed students, killing over 100 of them inside the mosque. In response, radical elements belonging to other religious seminaries and Jihadi outfits ganged up against the state.
Al-Qaida-backed radicals inside the tribal belt were already waiting for this opportunity. Pakistan became a battleground after the power security establishment started nine military operations, one after another, all in Pashtun dominated areas. Thus, the state’s strategy to employ violence for the purpose of ending violence resulted in more violence. But the whole tragic episode made one thing clear: religious extremism was not the exclusive trait of Pashtun culture—as it was believed earlier in the rest of Pakistan. Instead, years of official tolerance towards Jihadi culture, which was flourishing in the shape of religious seminaries and jihadi outfits, caused widespread radicalization in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) Operation placated progressive Pashtuns, who had long demanded successive governments in Pakistan to come down hard on radical forces inside the country. Thirty years of war in Afghanistan and the CIA-ISI support for Mujahideens — holy warriors — led to the defeat of the ex-USSR, but it cost Pashtuns their territory and youth. Due to the proximity factor, the tribal Pashtun belt was used as launching pad to plan and organize attacks against the ex-USSR from 1979 till the end of the war in 1989. When al-Qaida operatives entered the tribal belt after 2001, Pashtun nationalists and tribal elders feared that the monster of war was revisiting them. Besides, the Taliban believed in the rigid interpretation of Islam, which is not in harmony with Pashtun culture. This led nationalist and progressive Pashtuns to stand up against Taliban and al-Qaida throughout the vast tribal belt. However, they suffered a lot before they achieved victory in early 2009, when the security forces defeated Taliban in the Swat Valley of Pakhtunkhwa.
Initially, the unchecked local cleric Maulana Fazlullah, part of the tribal network of al-Qaida-backed militants, successfully radicalized the entire scenic valley with the help of his FM radio network. However, after three years of intense fighting, a military operation brought an end to the radical fiefdom in October 2007. Ever since then, the fight against Taliban militants has been focused in the Pashtun belt, but also carried out throughout the country in general. In this fight, a total of 38,000 civilians and 3,000 security officials, of which roughly 70 percent were Pashtun, have lost their lives in the last decade. Ultimately, Pakistan has to raise the number of its troops along the western border with Afghanistan to 150,000. But the war on militancy is far from over.
Why did the policymakers initially exhibit patience with the cold-blooded death and destruction of its marginalized civilians, which left Pakistan teetering on the brink of anarchy? Different experts offer different interpretations, not to mention numerous conspiracy theories. A majority, however, agree that the India-centric approach had limited the powerful security establishment in Pakistan to focus on the eastern border only. On the western border, however, they believe that the commitment of purpose was obviously lacking in terms of coordination and timing. This version is considered more credible. In 2009, two Pakistani generals told the Associated Press (AP) that of the $6.6 billion in US military aid provided during the previous six years for counter-terrorism measures, only $500 million had been used for that purpose. The rest of the funds were used towards Pakistan's "defense against India." Supporting jihadi culture is also part of this mindset. The security establishment of Pakistan has used non-state, radical elements in the past as a tool to achieve its foreign policy objectives, most particularly in its fight with India. That is why such radical elements are always regarded as strategic assets of the military establishment in Pakistan.
Pashtun nationalists, however, rationalize it differently. They see a problem with the distribution of decision-making power at the federal level, which they think deprived them of their voice at the top. “The Punjab-dominated security establishment believes that Pashtuns are living on a geo-strategic fault line. Security-oriented approach of the sort has made the ruling elites oblivious to the worries and concerns of the tribesmen,” said Riffat Orakzai, a BBC correspondent in Peshawar. And this is the main reason for anger in the Pashtun belt.
Whichever cause analysts may cite for grievances of Pashtuns and the people of Pakhtunkhwa, the ultimate result of ignoring the marginalized Pashtuns has been widespread confusion and a growing perception-gap. As one observer said, “What the center wants from periphery is the opposite of what the periphery expects from the center.” Simply put, policymakers in Islamabad have usually remained complacent with the prevailing aura of confusion, but people in the troubled Pashtun belt see a pattern behind the chaotic situation. Though both the State of Pakistan and its people are more anti-Taliban today than they were four years ago, the security establishment still needs to address many issues of serious public concern.
For the last six years, over 300 US drone strikes have been carried out with government consent in FATA. Terms and conditions of the agreement, however, is a top national secret. Confusion gets thicker on this issue as every effort to look for clarity is torpedoed. Politicians are passing the buck to the security establishment and vice versa. Consequently, thousands of Pashtun tribesmen live under constant fear of death. “Our children cannot move out in the presence of 15 to 20 drones scanning us all the day long,” said Nasir Dawar, a displaced resident of North Waziristan. Yet, both the U.S. and Pakistan consider such strikes indispensible to eliminate the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership hiding in FATA. This stance prevents both allies from working on any other alternative to help avoid civilian causalities or at least compensate them in the best possible manner.
Based on the terror trajectory in the Pashtun belt, the Taliban phenomenon is constantly gaining strength. Indiscriminate measures such as drones and aerial bombing are considered enough for the allied forces, but this is not true in actuality. The Taliban militants are gaining strength day by day. This invincibility is not because the Taliban are strong. It is because the anti-terror efforts are sometimes compromised and in some places poorly coordinated. Both are reasons for the Taliban to roam around brazenly. More importantly, such weaknesses add to the already present perception-gap between the rulers and the ruled. Civilians (Pashtuns) in the troubled swaths think that the security establishment is not willing to defeat its enemy completely. The policymakers, on the other hand, have failed to keep civilians on the same page. Under these circumstances and when the majority of its people see themselves as losers, how can Pakistan win the war on terror?
This article was first published on Heinrich Boell Foundation Berlin.