Understanding Pakistan's tribal areas: By Frankie Martin and Hailey Woldt


The vows of the new Pakistani coalition government to begin a dialogue with militants has turned many heads. To Washington's dismay, the new government led by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari seems to have a different perspective on fighting terrorism. Here's why we should pay attention.
Today we find ourselves in a disastrous cultural and military muddle in Waziristan, the volatile tribal area of Northwest Pakistan. American demands of the Pakistani military to use greater force on the area have so far gone nowhere, despite President Pervez Musharraf's compliance. Suicide bombings are out of control and the violence has spilled out of the tribal areas to cities like Lahore and Islamabad.
The dismal results have been interpreted as a reflection of the softness of the action, but really it is the approach itself that is to blame.
We are told by policymakers in Washington that we must choose between surrender and victory in the tribal areas. With surrender, the Taliban would reign over a new caliphate, and with victory, the whole country becomes a mass of rubble with Osama bin Laden buried somewhere within.
Yet this is a false dichotomy created by an inability to learn from past experience or conduct a simple cultural analysis.
The tribal areas in Pakistan, which are populated by ethnic Pashtuns, have been greatly misunderstood by the West and even by many urban Pakistanis for years. Few understand that the Taliban is a very recent group in the history of that area, and that it is seen as an overpowering, unwelcome entity in local traditional culture.
Historically the religious leaders have been kept in check by tribal chiefs and government officials, but after 9/11 this already decaying system was dealt a final devastating blow by Musharraf and the United States in the form of constant bombardments. As a consequence, the old civil service government presence in Waziristan is absent – having been dismantled by Musharraf in favour of the army – and the traditional tribal leadership sidelined.
Taliban mullahs have charged into the vacuum, using their fire and brimstone speeches to arouse the passions of a people that has lost all faith that the Pakistani government will ever understand their concerns.
The United States has also helped stoke tribal flames by backing governments run by non-Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribesmen feel under siege on multiple fronts – attacked, they think, simply because of their ethnicity. Because they are Muslim, they also feel Islam is under attack and seek to defend it.
Problems have been exacerbated by our confusing labelling of the enemy. Today the line between Pashtun tribesmen and Taliban and Al-Qaeda remains dangerously ill-defined.
The United States and its allies are in deep trouble. With every day that passes without understanding the position of the tribesmen and what they are fighting for, the goal of capturing bin Laden and securing the border with Afghanistan becomes more elusive.
This doesn't mean "appeasing" those who would seek to do America harm but rather "administering" more effectively. This means combining the threat of force with efforts to gain the respect of the tribes, reaching out to them and working within their cultural and religious framework. The situation could also improve immensely if large sums of American aid were devoted to education and development instead of failed military expenditures which have cost the United States more than $10 billion since 9/11.
History shows that officiating the tribal areas has proved impossible – whether for the British or Pakistanis – when these methods are not pursued. This approach must also be applied to other tribal societies where the United States is engaged, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia.
If a new course is not plotted, the United States will continue its global march towards disaster. Bombing Muslim tribesmen incessantly without understanding who we are actually attacking and why is not "realism", it is bad policy.
This simplistic "steamrolling" of its enemies has devastated the global reputation of the United States and, if continued, will persist in destroying our very future. As young Americans concerned about the future we cannot allow these failed policies to continue to blight the coming century.


* Frankie Martin is a graduate of American University and research assistant at the university's School of International Service. Hailey Woldt is a senior at Georgetown University. Both did field work for the book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization by Akbar Ahmed (Brookings, 2007). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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