This past week, tensions within Pakistan escalated after Taliban militants consolidated power in Buner, just 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Although these elements began to withdraw from the area last Friday, the developments raised fears within the country and the international community about the increasing influence of the Taliban in Pakistan and the government’s ability to counter it. Now, as the military initiates its offensive, [Dawn reported that paramilitary troops have taken full control of the Lower Dir district near Swat Valley] many are left wondering what will happen next. Below, CHUP discusses the conflict with Khalid Aziz, the director for institution strengthening with the FATA Secretariat. As someone who is not only from the tribal areas but also has dedicated his career to the region, his insight is extremely valuable:
Q: What do you think has been the biggest mistake the Pakistani military has made when dealing with the tribal areas?
First, it was the inability to address the grievances of the people. There’s always upset people in any society and if they have grievances, they act as a tool for the militants who come and organize communities around discontent. I think allowing simmering grievances to remain in an area has been a mistake, which is not the military’s fault but the state’s fault. As far as the military is concerned, I think the biggest problem is that we don’t have a counterinsurgency strategy - which is a holistic approach to the problem, not a military one. We have been too reliant on the use of force and that has led to a lot of collateral deaths, which has again aggravated and increased the grievances.
Because the military operates in an honor society, people who have had their kin killed, then come out and taken revenge for those deaths. It has led to an increase in suicide bombers, which was an unknown phenomenon amongst the Pashtuns, but now it has become part of the protest, part of the model. The third failure is not strengthening the state, because when you negotiate with the militants you tend to reduce the effectiveness of the state and the people’s respect for it. One has to be very careful – if any peace agreements are going to be done, the government has to do it from a position of strength and not of weakness.
Q: Given the negative news of late, people have felt pessimistic about the current security situation in Pakistan. Do you feel the mistakes the military and government have made can be rectified for the future?
I think what happened in Pakistan on the 15th of March when the whole nation stood as one for the reinstatement of the chief justice should act as an example. My own feeling is that the situation is not hopeless but we are a divided house. We all have to act together – the politicians the military and the civil society – and once we build up this momentum, we’d be in a much better place. And that would be the best response to the militants, and it would also strengthen the state forces who are fighting them, give them the moral edge, and give more legitimacy to deal with the insurgency. We should invest more time and effort in trying to mobilize our society against the insurgency.
Q: If it has been long known that we have needed to fight these militants using a proper counterinsurgency strategy, what are the obstacles that have prevented us from enacting it sooner?
By not having a COIN [Counterinsurgency] strategy we have created a confused response by the state security apparatus. Let me explain this by an example. Four days ago a police party was leading a convoy of Frontier Constabulary soldiers which is a paramilitary force into Buner. In a situation where there are militants opposing such a movement, which was the case in this example, precautions through the use of advance reconnaissance or the use of helicopters is normally undertaken. This was not done. The police party was attacked by militants and the policemen were killed. The movement of troops was stopped. Failure such as this could be prevented if there had been a detailed COIN strategy that outlined standard operating procedures in such cases. As in other cases, we lack the political will to do the right thing and thus we are adrift and losing ground to the militants.
Q: In Iraq, the U.S. would distinguish among insurgents by referring to some as “reconcilable” militants versus those who are “irreconcilable.” In the case of Pakistan, is it important to make that similar distinction – and, more specifically in the case of the Sufi Muhammad and the TNSM, should we continue to negotiate with them?
Negotiations can only succeed if the state is in the more dominant position. In Swat, we negotiated from a position of weakness and therefore I feel that the agreement will turn out to be an embarrassment. Militancy has to be tackled through a multidimensional approach which is absent.
Q: What is your opinion on the increased U.S. drone strikes in the region?
The drones are the spearhead of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the region. If Pakistan fails to prevent the planning of a threat against the US forces in Afghanistan or terrorist operations worldwide, then US drone strikes become inevitable. If Pakistan wants these strikes to end, then it must remove the cause. Secondly, there is a need to create a due process of law for the use of drone strikes inside FATA by embedding it inside the FCR [Frontier Crimes Regulation] and allowing the political agents to call jirgas with the tribes before any action is taken against proscribed persons through drones, [i.e. informing the jirgas of who the strikes intend to target beforehand, so that they will not give the militants safe haven]. This is likely to reduce reactions against such methods of counterterrorism. [Khalid Aziz has also advocated that if drones are used, they should be under the Pakistani flag, not the U.S.]
Q: Moving to the more human aspect of the conflict – there are currently 80,000 Internally Displaced Persons living in camps in Pakistan, and more than 700,000 throughout the country – what services are being provided to these people? Can the government do more?
Various Pakistani agencies, international organizations and NGOs are busy in providing different services in the field of health, education, water supply and drainage etc to the IDPs. However, there is a shortage of funds. Funds are available only till May. If more money is not made available soon the crisis of the IDPs will deepen, causing more grievances.
Q: Last but not least, do you see the glass as half empty or half full?