The Pakistan Problem: Success in FATA Depends on Aid to Civilians
In August, the Pakistani army launched a full scale military offensive in the Bajaur agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Since then, fierce clashes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of militants and the destruction of key Taliban strongholds. This forceful demonstration of Pakistani resolve is a positive change from past efforts. However, military operations will fail if they undermine the single most important principle for victory: winning the support of the local population. And currently Pakistan is not aiding the war-ravaged Pashtun tribes of the FATA.
There is no doubt that significant force is required to eliminate the insurgent sanctuaries that infest Pakistan’s tribal areas. The fighting thus far has revealed an extraordinarily sophisticated militant infrastructure: Subterranean passages connect heavily fortified compounds, and jihadists utilize heavy weaponry that includes anti-tank missiles.
But the eradication of some Taliban bases will be a Pyrrhic victory if the Pashtun populace perceives the assault to be against them, rather than against the extremists. An estimated 7 million Pashtuns live in the FATA, in addition to 28 million in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and 15 million in neighboring Afghanistan. The tribesmen viscerally distrust federal intervention — and not without cause. Unlike the four provinces of Pakistan, the FATA is administered by undemocratically appointed autocrats with colonial-era powers; development indicators in the region rank among the world’s worst.
Prolonged fighting has shattered Pashtun homes and livelihoods. Up to 300,000 people have fled the FATA in order to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Refugees are scattered across NWFP and eastern Afghanistan, desperately seeking shelter in improvised camps with no electricity or running water. Women find it difficult to maintain veiled segregation, a deep affront to conservative tribal sensibilities.
It will not take much more for the government to lose any lingering support for the counterinsurgency operations altogether. Troublingly, nearly four months into the military assault, government representatives admit that plans for basic health and educational services — let alone large scale reconstruction and economic development — have yet to get off the ground.
To prevail against the jihadists, Pakistan will have to integrate humanitarian assistance and long-term development into the counterinsurgency strategy.
The immediate, short-term priority needs to be ensuring that the refugees’ most elementary needs — shelter, food, water, clothing and electricity — are attended to, particularly as winter descends. According to the United Nations, relief agencies have barely obtained half the funds needed to help the displaced persons. The United States and other donors should prioritize the fulfillment of funding shortfalls.
In the long term, reconstruction and economic development in the FATA has to be pursued with the same vigor as military incursions. The FATA Civil Secretariat, the principal Pakistani agency responsible for development in the tribal areas, has a multi-year plan that provides a useful agenda for action. The job programs envisioned in USAID’s $750 million aid package for the FATA are also invaluable.
However, existing programs have to adjust to the grim reality that many refugees may not be able to return to their homes anytime soon. Fighting in the FATA is far from over and reconstruction and development in several areas will be delayed — in some cases for years to come. The Pakistani government and international partners should think about feasible medium-term plans to integrate the refugees in the settled areas of NWFP.
Realizing these goals will be difficult given the challenging security conditions on the ground. Aware of the impact of humanitarian assistance in swaying Pashtun hearts and minds, the insurgents are steadily escalating attacks on aid workers. Therefore, increased security for aid personnel is critical. As part of this effort, the Pakistani military will have to participate in the actual provision of assistance in the most insecure areas.
There is time yet to prevent the Pashtuns from becoming permanently estranged from the rest of Pakistan. The raising of anti-Taliban tribal militias in recent weeks shows growing awareness among many Pashtuns of the threat posed to them by the insurgents. But if the government continues to communicate primarily in the language of guns and bombs, then the struggle against extremism may soon be perceived as a war against the Pashtun people. And neither Islamabad nor Washington can afford for this to happen.
Ahmed Humayun is Senior Analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by World Politics Review on December 8, 2008: