Tribes versus Terrorists

by Ashley Bommer

Ashley Bommer is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and is writing a novel that takes place in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

ISLAMABAD - Sitting next to a four-foot-tall water pipe, I asked the tribal leader in front of me: What does victory mean to you? He sputtered smoke, raised his bushy white eyebrows, and said, "Victory. How can you have victory here?"

The United States went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. But seven years later, what has the US achieved? It has spent over $170 billion in Afghanistan, and yet Al Qaeda and the Taliban are growing stronger. We know that the road to the heart of Al Qaeda now leads to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. Last month, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, referring to Al Qaeda leadership said, "That's where they live. That's where they are. That's where it will come from. And right now [the threat] resides in Pakistan."

Yet the US has no presence in the FATA. It has little contact or communication with its people and leaders. It provides little support, healthcare, or aid to the population there. America sends in missiles and air strikes that infuriate the people rather than aid and emissaries to engage them. It is no surprise that the US has not won their support.

But there is a way to do so. People who have influence in the "unsettled" tribal areas live nearby, in settled areas. These tribesmen move to the settled areas for economic and security reasons, and they are the lifelines of their home villages. The US must establish dialogue with and services for these influential people in order to build a bridge to the tribesmen in the unsettled FATA areas. These leaders already know the tribal chiefs, spiritual leaders, and tribal customs and codes. They also know who the enemy is and can play a role in isolating militants from local people.

A friend from the region described the FATA as "a forgotten age" where only the "law of the jungle" prevails. These unsettled areas have become infiltrated by a multinational anti-state terror network (Al Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network, and roughly 14 definable anti-state elements operating in the FATA alone), which the US government calls "anti-coalition militias" and are far more sinister and interconnected than the West imagines. With five years of Iraqi experience - and powerful communication and financial support behind them - this network is growing rapidly.

The FATA tribesmen are completely aware of this situation. When asked, "If Osama bin Laden was in the house next door, would you notify the authorities?," the answer from the tribesmen I met was a resounding "no." As Frederick Mackeson, a British colonial officer, observed of the tribesmen in 1850, "their fidelity is measured by the length of the purse of their seducer, and they transfer their obedience according to the liberality of the donation."

While the enemy weaves in and out of the tribal areas, living and interacting with the people, the US fights the war against Al Qaeda superficially through military air strikes and covert special operations. Homes are destroyed and people die. And, because the US has no presence on the ground in any capacity, Americans are seen as the aggressors, and the militants are seen as the protectors. There are a few exceptions; in Bajaur, for example, some tribesmen regard the militants as the enemy and are fighting back - for now.

According to the Pakistani Center for Research and Security studies, 90% of the FATA's inhabitants live below the poverty line, earning less than two dollars a day. To a newborn, life will be a struggle for survival in a war zone. It is not just America's presence that is lacking. The Pakistani government provides little to no services in this area. And the international community is absent as well.

The links between the settled and unsettled areas started over a century ago. Facing tribal unrest and incessant fighting, the British proposed to settle the tribes from Waziristan (present-day North Waziristan and South Waziristan) in British territory. The Secretary of State wrote to Queen Victoria, "The pacification of border tribes by preserving in the exercise of humanizing influences is more likely to be permanent than their subjection by military force….[and would] afford a reasonable prospect of rendering the people on the frontier line between our territories and Afghanistan peaceful and friendly neighbors."

The British moved some members of the tribes from the unsettled areas of the frontier to the settled (colonial) areas. Prior to this policy, the British had spent 15 years and countless funds repressing and punishing the tribes, without result. The essence of British policy continues today in the FATA.

There are effective local organizations, such as the Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP), with which the US could cooperate immediately in the settled areas to get started. These organizations work with the people to assess their needs and then build the institutions to deliver care. SRSP has the capacity; they just need direction and financial support in order to expand. Once dialogue and cooperation are established with the tribesmen in the settled areas, inroads can be laid into the tribal unsettled areas.

Yes, the British were ultimately defeated. But they left a unique roadway to the FATA through the adjoining settled areas. It is time to get back in the driver's seat.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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