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HOTBED OF TERROR: The threat that is Pakistan’s tribal region

By Daniel Markey


Today, few places on earth are as important to US national security as the tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The region serves as a safe haven for a core group of nationally and internationally networked terrorists, a training and recruiting ground for Afghan Taliban, and, increasingly, a hotbed of indigenous militancy that threatens the stability of Pakistan’s own state and society. Should another 9/11-type attack take place in the United States, it will likely have its origins in this region. As long as Pakistan’s tribal areas are in turmoil, the mission of building a new, democratic, and stable Afghanistan cannot succeed.


Nearly seven years after 9/11, neither the United States nor Pakistan has fully come to terms with the enormity of the challenge in the tribal belt. Washington has failed to convince Pakistanis that the United States has positive intentions in the region and is committed to staying the course long enough to implement lasting, constructive change. Pakistan, for its part, has demonstrated a disturbing lack of capacity and, all too often, an apparent lack of will to tackle head-on the security, political, or developmental deficits that have produced an explosion of terrorism and extremism within its borders and beyond.


Accepting the army’s poor capacity to manage a lengthy occupation of the Waziristans, and sensitive to the prospect of further alienating tribal populations, Musharraf’s regime undertook a series of controversial settlements with militants and local leaders. These included, notably, the South Waziristan accords of April 2004 and February 2005, as well as the North Waziristan accord of September 2006. On paper, these accords obligated locals to cease their anti-state activities. Early on, however, it became clear that the settlements suffered from weak enforcement, permitting the continued sanctuary of foreign terrorists and cross-border infiltration of militants into Afghanistan. The United States alleged cross-border infiltration increased 300% after the 2006 North Waziristan agreement went into effect.


The politically tumultuous events of 2007 also brought the Pakistani army into action in settled parts of the country. In July, army commandos stormed the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad to crush an anti-state uprising, sparking terrorist attacks against government facilities as well as innocent civilians. Over 700 Pakistanis have died in suicide bombings in the year since July 2007. The army also undertook major combat operations post-3 November [when Musharraf declared a state of emergency] to break TNSM’s [Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi] hold over the Swat Valley.


The Pakistani army was not built to conduct counterinsurgency or counterterror missions. Post-9/11 operations against Pakistani nationals whether in the FATA, NWFP, or elsewhere have been broadly unpopular and characterised as “Washington’s war”. By the end of 2007, rising domestic antipathy toward Musharraf’s military-led government precipitated a drop in the normally high esteem accorded to army officers and enlisted men. By many anecdotal accounts, morale in the ranks has plummeted, with predictably disastrous implications for combat effectiveness.


In addition to police, paramilitary, and army forces, Pakistan’s intelligence services are widely reported to play an active part in the tribal areas. In the 1980s, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) worked in the tribal areas as the primary conduit of assistance from the United States and Saudi Arabia to the Afghan mujahideen. ISI support for different jihadi groups, including the Taliban, continued throughout the 1990s.


The post-9/11 relationship between ISI and different militant operations is the subject of intense debate. Since most ISI officers are seconded from the regular Pakistani army, its characterisation as a “rogue” intelligence agency is ill founded. But ISI remains the Pakistani government’s primary covert arm, and Pakistan’s longstanding interest in projecting influence into Afghanistan and India may still colour ISI interactions with a variety of militant organisations.


From 2006 to 2007, the Musharraf government began to implement a “comprehensive approach” in the FATA that envisioned the use of limited security operations in combination with political overtures and development assistance.


But extreme political turbulence through most of 2007 and into 2008 has distracted Islamabad’s attention from the tribal areas. An unanticipated upsurge of popular anti-regime protests was first energised by a grassroots campaign against President Musharraf’s attempted removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in spring 2007. In a whirlwind that grabbed global headlines throughout the summer and fall, exiled Opposition politicians Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned to campaign for national elections.


As of summer 2008, the political dynamic in Islamabad remains extremely fluid. Musharraf is a severely diminished force. Pakistan’s largest political parties consider him radioactive, and he no longer wields the full power of the army. Musharraf’s successor as Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, has studiously steered clear of political intrigue. Initial cooperation between Zardari and Sharif has since foundered on their disagreement over how best to manage a still-simmering judicial crisis as well as their mutual recognition of their political rivalry.


Uncertainty in Islamabad has so far yielded a fragmented approach to the tribal areas. Pakistan’s new civilian leaders have not taken an especially firm hand with the army, exercising only loose command or oversight. By some accounts, ISI has assumed the lead on negotiations with tribal groups, most notably the Mehsuds of South Waziristan.


Since 1947, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have nearly always been rocky. Efforts to improve relations between the governments of Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf have tended to be more symbolic than tangible. The United States and Turkey have each hosted Pakistani-Afghan summits in a bid to soothe contentious interactions at the senior-most levels. In August 2007, Karzai and Musharraf met at a joint “peace jirga” in Kabul and pledged to convene smaller working groups in the future.


Within Pakistan’s tribal areas are at least four overlapping but analytically discernible security threats: global terrorists; Afghan Taliban; Pakistani Taliban; and a plethora of tribal militias, extremist networks, and sectarian groups.


The July 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” and subsequent statements by top officials reflect a consensus view that Al Qaeda’s leadership remains ensconced in the Pakistani-Afghan border region, from where it continues to plan, fund, and inspire attacks. Al Qaeda leadership is accompanied by between 150 and 500 hard-core fighters. In addition, other foreign terrorist organisations affiliated with Al Qaeda and previously based in Afghanistan, especially Uzbeks, now operate from the FATA. Estimates of Uzbek fighters in Waziristan run between one thousand and two thousand.


The Afghan Taliban, forced from power in 2002, has managed to regroup and direct operations from Pakistan’s side of the border. The former leadership — including Mullah Omar — is said to be based in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. A major Taliban-affiliated network, now led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, is based in North Waziristan, from where it has successfully launched attacks on US, Afghan, and NATO forces in Afghanistan.


The links between the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda are ideological, personal, and operational, but to some degree the groups diverge in prioritisation of goals and ethnic composition. The Afghan Taliban are a Pashtun movement primarily concerned with the reconquest and domination of Afghanistan and only secondarily with the Arab-led Al Qaeda’s grander schemes of global jihad. However, over the past six years it appears that the Taliban have become more decentralised operationally, more sophisticated tactically, and more influenced ideologically by foreign Arab fighters.


Estimates of total Afghan Taliban strength run to 10,000, with 20% to 30% full-time fighters and 1% to 3% foreign (non-Pashtun). In Pakistan, Taliban recruits are drawn from Afghan refugee camps and the network of extremist madrasas in the tribal areas. Taliban foot soldiers tend to be uneducated, poor Pashtuns with few other employment prospects.


The Pakistani Taliban is a loosely defined mix of tribal militant groups, many of whom united under the banner of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007. The TTP includes representatives from throughout the FATA and NWFP. It is nominally directed by the now infamous Baitullah Mehsud, alleged mastermind of the Benazir Bhutto assassination. Mehsud has sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but his public pronouncements have also assumed the rhetoric of an Al Qaeda-like global jihad, including threats against the White House, New York and London.


Taliban might be cleaved from the Afghan Taliban and/or Al Qaeda in a bid to satisfy localised demands.


Estimates of TTP strength run to over 20,000 tribesmen, and Mehsud is said to command at least 5,000 fighters. He is likely responsible for a rash of suicide bombings throughout Pakistan over the past year. A small contingent of his forces also made headlines when they managed to take hostage over 250 Pakistani soldiers in August 2007. By all appearances, the Pakistani Taliban now represents the greatest threat to security within Pakistan.


Significant militant groups other than the TTP include the TNSM in Bajaur Agency, Swat District, and neighbouring areas of the NWFP, founded by the pro-Taliban Sufi Mohammad and more recently commanded by his son-in-law, the popular and charismatic “Radio Mullah” Fazlullah. In South Waziristan, a tribal militia under the command of Maulvi Nazir apparently received Pakistani government support in factional fighting against Uzbek militants over the past year. And in Khyber Agency, another radio mullah, Mangal Bagh Afridi, leads Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), a militant group that has resisted association with the TTP, is active all the way to the outskirts of Peshawar, and desires Taliban-style government.


Besides the Afghan Taliban, militants in Balochistan include those with more localised grievances against Islamabad that are related, in part, to the inequitable distribution of provincial and national resources. In recent years, the violence of the Baloch insurgency has imposed significant costs on the Pakistani army and security forces, distracted the political leadership in Islamabad, and contributed to national instability.


In addition, nationwide Islamist political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman’s faction, or the JUI-F) also appear to have connections to Al Qaeda and other militant operations in the tribal areas. These ties are based on personal relationships, ideological affinity, or tactical unity of interest. Historically, the large network of JUI-F-organised Deobandi madrasas churned out thousands of indoctrinated foot soldiers, sent to fight first for the Afghan mujahideen, and then the Taliban. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that Pakistani militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba have, in recent years, become more connected to global terror plots in addition to retaining their traditional focus on operations in Kashmir. These organisations were long nurtured by the Pakistani security apparatus, and their current relationship to the Pakistani establishment is difficult to discern with certainty. Regardless, while Pakistan’s terror problem may begin in the tribal areas, militant networks are now entrenched throughout the country.


Washington’s early post-9/11 involvement in Pakistan’s tribal areas tended to be indirect, focusing on a liaison relationship with (and financial assistance to) Pakistan’s government and security forces. This relationship was based on President Musharraf’s agreement to support US operations against Al Qaeda and the remnants of the Afghan Taliban regime in return for Washington’s pledge to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.


Judging from publicly available accounts, most recent US and NATO missions have been limited to Afghan soil, with three exceptions: US investigations to locate and arrest senior Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan; cases of hot pursuit in which US forces fired upon or briefly chased militants into Pakistan; and the use of US Predator drones to track and strike Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership based in the FATA.The Pakistani government lacks the political, military, or bureaucratic capacity to fix the tribal areas on its own. Islamabad’s civilian political leaders have little recent experience in dealing with a development and security initiative of this scale; at present, they appear far more concerned with skirmishing over power than developing an effective policy for the tribal areas.


Pakistan’s army has not come to terms with the need to fundamentally retool itself for a new counterinsurgency mission, one far different from its historical fixation on war with India. Moreover, because of a yawning trust deficit between Pakistan and the United States, Washington cannot even be sure that Islamabad shares its interests, or at least its priorities, in the tribal areas. In particular, Pakistan appears far more concerned about immediate threats to internal security than to militancy in Afghanistan or terrorism in the US and Western Europe. Most Pakistanis tend to believe that US intervention in Afghanistan was more a cause of regional instability than a response to it. Anti-Americanism is widespread and profound.


For the United States, Al Qaeda is the single most urgent threat emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas because it is the only group with the demonstrated desire and capacity to strike the US homeland. Taliban leadership and foot soldiers engaged in organising and conducting attacks on US and ISAF/NATO forces in Afghanistan represent the second-most immediate threat. Pakistani militants (such as TTP and TNSM) are an immediate but primarily indirect threat, since they offer safe haven and support to other dangerous groups while simultaneously undermining the stability of the Pakistani state.In the near term, these threats must be managed with existing political and military forces. Six primary tactics are available to these forces: targeted counterterror strikes, military offensives, border control, law enforcement, negotiations, and strategic communications. Since 2002, serious problems in the implementation of all six tactics have permitted, even contributed to the breakdown of law and order in the tribal areas.


With a new, more representative civilian government in Islamabad, the national debate over these counterterror tactics is likely to become more prominent and politicised than it was under Musharraf’s military-led regime. A healthy debate might allow Pakistan to arrive at a more constructive national consensus on the need to combat militancy, but it simultaneously offers a chance for anti-US critics to play up the costs of partnership. The long-term costs of a bilateral rupture between Washington and Islamabad are likely to outweigh the potential gains from eliminating nearly any Al Qaeda leader.


Increasingly, another cost-benefit calculation must also be made, based on the fact that counterterrorism does not necessarily complement counterinsurgency. Counterterror operations that result in significant civilian casualties threaten to tip the scales of localised tribal sentiment against the Pakistani government. Militants have shown themselves to be quite shrewd in exploiting these attacks for propaganda purposes, uniting disparate groups under a common anti-Islamabad, anti-Western banner.


The choice to eliminate a terrorist or militant in Pakistan thus should involve more than a simple assessment of the direct threat he poses to the United States. In attempting to make the essential calculation about an attack’s political implications, accurate information is paramount to success. Better pre-targeting intelligence can limit collateral damage and help policymakers determine whether local dynamics will make any given strike counterproductive in the context of a broader counter insurgency mission [¼]


 Daniel Markey is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, US. From 2003 to 2007, he held the South Asia portfolio on the policy planning staff at the US Department of State.