Pakistan's Tribal Deals Aren't Working


Dec 28, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on December 28, 2006.

In an effort to deal with the growing terrorist and insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan, government officials have negotiated peace deals with local tribal leaders who have agreed to crack down on militants. But this strategy, which has been supported by some in the United States and Europe, is likely to fail.

The strategy has already proved ineffective in halting cross-border activity from Pakistan into Afghanistan. And it is likely to strengthen groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda by allowing them to regroup.

The crux of the problem is straightforward. Afghan insurgent and terrorist groups enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan that starts from snow-capped Chitral in the north, continues southwest along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and extends to dusty Quetta. The tribal areas pose a particular problem because of the weakness of Pakistan's government there, allowing militants to use the areas as a base to rest and train in safety and then infiltrate into Afghanistan.

Pakistan's government has negotiated peace deals with pro-Taliban militants in such tribal areas as South and North Waziristan, calling on tribesmen to expel foreign militants and end cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. In return, the Pakistani military promised to end major operations in the areas and pulled most of its soldiers back to military camps.

The logic of the deals seems intuitive. In areas where tribes exert political, military and economic power, the most effective long-term solution is to create incentives for tribal leaders to police their areas. After all, these tribal areas have been ruled indigenously for hundreds of years. And tribes often regard outside forces, including the Pakistani military, as unwelcome foreigners.

But there are several problems with this strategy.

First, the tribal deals have failed to curb cross-border activity and undermine the power of the Taliban and other militant groups. NATO officials I have spoken with say insurgents are crossing the border in greater numbers. A former foreign minister, Najmuddin Shaikh, recently acknowledged in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper: "There is no doubt that the Waziristan agreement has led to increased Taliban influence."

Second, the strategy rests on a false assumption that tribes actually control these areas. Insurgents and terrorists like the Taliban have increasingly exerted control in some areas.

Third, there is no enforcement mechanism if the tribal deals fail to stop militant forces from crossing the border.

The Pakistani military has conducted combat operations against foreign fighters — especially Central Asians and Arabs — in the tribal areas. But it has refused to arrest or kill middle- and high-level Taliban officials, and has expressed a deep unwillingness to enter the tribal areas again.

If tribes fail to expel Taliban militants and end cross-border attacks, Pakistani forces must do it. American and NATO officials need to provide a mixture of pressure and incentives to make this happen.

The United States has some leverage because it provides Pakistan with more than $1 billion in aid each year. This assistance could be conditioned on specific progress in undermining the sanctuary, such as arresting or killing middle and high-level Taliban officials. In return, Washington could provide a number of incentives, such as reconstruction assistance to the tribal areas.

Worries that a crackdown in the tribal areas might provoke civil war are overstated. The Pakistani military has conducted a number of large sweeps in North and South Waziristan against foreign fighters, but has not come close to triggering a civil war. Fighting against the Taliban and other insurgents would be contained to specific areas.

Concerns that a Pakistani offensive would push radical Islamist organizations into power are also exaggerated. Pakistan is not a democracy; in a crisis, the military would most likely become involved.

Most important, the cost of not solving the problem of the insurgent sanctuary in tribal areas is significant. It is likely to doom the Afghan government over the long run and threaten stability in Pakistan. And NATO forces are getting killed as resurgent Taliban forces destabilize Afghanistan's south and east.

History provides a searing lesson. Of 91 insurgencies since 1945, insurgent groups that have gained external sanctuary have won more than half the time.

Back in 1994, the Taliban began to mount a successful insurgency from Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To prevent history from repeating itself, this sanctuary needs to be shut down.

Seth G. Jones, who recently traveled to Afghanistan, is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a research organization. He is also an adjunct professor in security studies at Georgetown University.

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