Rebellion, Development and Security in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

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Rebellion, Development and Security in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Conventional wisdom suggests that international development helps defeat militancy, create stability, and promote U.S. security. Stability through development has emerged as a principle of U.S. policy in the fight against militancy in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The United States pledged $750 million of development aid to Pakistan between 2007 and 2011, and various U.S. and UK agencies continue to support the implementation of development projects in the region with the objective of helping the Pakistani state establish its presence and improve economic activity in the area, both of which would enhance its capability to defeat al-Qa`ida and the Pakistani Taliban.

The idea of development as a cure to militancy contends that providing economic opportunities and delivering services to civilians dis-incentivizes rebellion by increasing its opportunity cost, while simultaneously allowing the Pakistani government to co-opt tribes and segments of certain warring factions. This article argues that such a straightforward relationship between development and stability does not exist in Pakistan. A look at the Pakistani Taliban’s recruitment drivers reveals that not all militants are motivated solely by financial incentives. Moreover, development and security have a paradoxical relationship, as development efforts are often thwarted by the very insecurity they are meant to remedy. Between 2006 and 2012, for example, attacks on schools caused the partial or complete destruction of 460 educational facilities in FATA. Thus, while development will be crucial in bringing stability to the tribal areas in the long-term, it remains fundamentally dependent first on the provision of security.

How the Pakistani Taliban Recruit

The major assumption undergirding the case for development is that those who rebel or support militancy are overwhelmingly poor or that the financial benefits provided by insurgents outweigh what the Pakistani government offers, which in most cases is very little. Both assumptions, however, are misleading and have not only been challenged by economic modeling, but also rejected by evidence from Pakistan and cross-national analysis. While no large-scale studies exist on the Pakistani Taliban’s recruitment, available information from the tribal agencies and adjoining areas reveals that their tactics are variegated—sometimes even within the same locale—and financial incentives are one of several inducements used to conscript fighters.

First, Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency is a complex conflict featuring not just anti-state conflict, but inter-tribal warfare as well. For example, Waziri and Mehsud tribal groups have a long history of mutual distrust, battles and assassinations. Taliban factions that recruit heavily from these tribes inherit this rivalry and animosity. As a result, the Taliban recruit often based on tribal identity. Mehsud representation in Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for example, is quite significant, and as a counter the Pakistani government has been trying to build bridges with Waziri tribesmen to squeeze the Mehsuds. In some cases, this was attempted through economic blockades and road construction in Waziri areas so that the Waziri tribe could bypass Mehsud areas, lessening their dependence on the latter. The Pakistan Army has also armed militants of the small Bhittani tribe, who are despised by the Mehsuds, in areas leading to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP) to discourage Mehsud incursions. Thus, this aspect of Pakistan’s counterterrorism model inadvertently empowers tribal identity and helps the targeted group in its recruitment drive.

Second, rebels attract potential recruits through access to social networks and provision of social prestige. Recruiters have been reported to invite young men for informal conversations and offer them company. The interaction is used to glorify war and martyrdom, while gradually giving the individual a sense of belonging to a peer group and ultimately convincing them to volunteer for jihad. In Swat, militants recruited young men by offering them the opportunity to ride in pickup trucks and hold weapons. These acts conferred social prestige and authority upon them, while political backing from the TTP offered clout. Finally, in recent months the TTP has attempted to use Facebook as “a recruitment center” for media work as well, organizing a virtual community of radicals.

Revenge and reaction is a third driver of recruitment. Contrary to general assumptions about the Taliban’s worldview, they smartly employ the elements of classic Pashtunwali code that suit their recruitment objectives. On both sides of the Durand Line, for example, the Taliban have exploited the notion of badal (revenge) to recruit new fighters after civilian deaths caused by military strikes and drones. Taliban militants reportedly regularly visit refugee camps and recruit those wanting to avenge the death of family members killed by the Pakistani military or frustrated by the government’s lack of basic human facilities in these camps.

Fourth, forced conscription is also a recruitment tactic. For example, when militants gained control of a portion of Tank District in 2007, they forced schoolchildren to join their ranks, and they also abducted 30 children for suicide bombing missions. Similarly, in Swat militants kidnapped boys from schools, and coerced some to join from madrasas they visited or with which they were affiliated. Many may have also joined in compliance with the TTP’s mandate that locals either provide monetary support or volunteer a male member of the household to the movement.

Finally, the Taliban also provide financial incentives to recruits in direct and indirect ways. Interviews with law enforcement and government officials in FATA and KP suggest that the TTP makes regular payments ranging from $250 to $500 to their core membership; in Swat, some families volunteered their children for compensation of approximately $93 a month.

The same officials explained how the TTP’s indirect provision of financial benefits comes from partnering with local criminal networks and profit sharing. In practice, this amounts to sheltering criminal activities in return for a financial cut for this service. For example, in Khyber and Orakzai agencies there is a clearly defined commission system in place for the drug trade and kidnapping-for-ransom activities to reward local commanders and other fighters. This new reality of the militant-criminal syndicate was captured quite accurately by the New York Times’ Declan Walsh, who reported that “the business is run like a mobster racket. Pakistani and foreign militant commanders, based in Waziristan, give the orders, but it is a combination of hired criminals and ‘Punjabi Taliban’ who snatch the hostages from their homes, vehicles and workplaces.” The work is distributed to various groups as per their expertise, knowledge of the area, and capacity to move victims to the tribal areas without detection.

These opportunities attract many young men to the Taliban’s cause, while allowing them to maintain some independence from any strict religious discipline that the Taliban may impose on their fighters. This approach has helped the TTP expand from FATA to parts of KP and even in far off Karachi.

Moreover, this collaboration between organized crime and militant groups is a potent factor behind increased violence in Pakistan in recent months, although the TTP had officially sanctioned kidnapping as a legitimate weapon for their cause as early as March 2008. Annual crime trends in Afghanistan indicate that this financing tool is becoming popular among the Afghan Taliban as well, and the TTP may have learned about its utility from them.

The Development-Security Paradox

The development “cure” is further weakened by the paradoxical relationship that exists between development and security. Development projects are intended to create stability, but in practice they often do not reach areas that need them most in Pakistan.

The primary challenge development efforts face in places such as FATA is the safety of development workers. Heavy militant activity and instability in FATA disrupts and impedes development efforts. USAID’s Livelihood Development Program for the southern agencies of FATA, which seeks to provide economic and social stabilization to counter extremism and terrorist groups, is an apt example. As an audit revealed, in 2009 and 2010 the program was largely unable to implement projects and achieve its key targets as a result of increased militant attacks in the region and security threats to project staff, including kidnappings, harassment, and the assassination of two key personnel.

These challenges also resulted in relaxing program targets, not an uncommon practice when security is a problem. This too is problematic because even if a project meets its targets, the artificially low indicators may result in making little to no progress in achieving the desired end-state outcome of stability. Furthermore, insecurity has also made it difficult to monitor development programs in FATA, and as a result performance and impact are difficult to scientifically measure, which casts doubt as to whether program objectives were ever even achieved.

Moreover, security threats pose an even more fundamental challenge to development in FATA: the inability to access information for needs-assessment, planning, and implementation. Judith Kent, an official of the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), pointed this out, explaining that difficulty accessing these areas makes it tough to reach the people of the region and understand the dynamics of conflict. This can exacerbate the situation if money is then channeled to the wrong people, which is often the result of poor understanding of the local areas. Without access it is also difficult to estimate how much reconstruction and development is necessary and the scale of investment needed to assist the local economy. This lack of information only increases the likelihood of flawed policy planning and an improper investment of resources.

In short, the journey to stability through the path of development is fraught with challenges and not nearly as straightforward as conventional wisdom suggests.


While development is key to creating stability when an environment is conducive for reconstruction and sociopolitical reform, it is not an effective first response to the insurgency in Pakistan. This article’s argument is perhaps best summarized by the words of Judith Kent, who in reference to development projects in FATA said, “While development is of course good, and something which we all want, we should nevertheless be careful about making assumptions that development is the answer to the insurgency.” As stated previously, the TTP does not recruit solely on the basis of financial incentives, and development projects are unable to reach the very non-permissive environments they seek to stabilize due to instability.

The objective is not to understate the value of development or overplay security considerations. Development and service delivery are indeed necessary in providing stability, establishing the authority of the local government, including FATA in the national mainstream through constitutional measures, and extending the writ of the state, but this can only be achieved once an area has been cleared of militants or when the military at least has dominant control over it. For example, the Pakistani Army has established control in certain parts of FATA, which made the recent election campaign possible in that area. Nevertheless, given the geographic considerations, significant development work cannot proceed without security of the main communication routes throughout FATA.

Ultimately, better law enforcement will not only increase security and improve governance, but also create more space for development projects to be implemented and help stir economic growth. A secure environment can allow development organizations to conduct needs-assessments and channel scarce resources toward initiatives that are most desired. Moreover, access to local information can also help explain how to build support for basic public goods such as education, which itself is a crucial driver of development and establishing peace, or polio vaccinations, and also help create local ownership of programs—crucial to sustainable development. If insecurity reigns, however, development projects are doomed to being misguided, ineffective, and unsustainable.

Shehzad H. Qazi is a Research Associate at ISPU; Hassan Abbas is an ISPU Fellow as well as Professor and Director of the South and Central Asia Program at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs in Washington, D.C. He is also a senior adviser at Asia Society. His forthcoming book to be published by Yale University Press deliberates on the future of the Taliban.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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