Monday, February 4, 2008

Are Pakistani Tribal Elders Losing Influence?

The Tribal Elders' Role
During the British rule of undivided India, the tribal elders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan made deals with the British government that were generally adhered to and kept the peace in the autonomous tribal region. This system continued after Pakistan's independence for several decades.
However, as the madrassahs proliferated in Pakistan's tribal areas since the early 1980s, there seems to be a new dynamic affecting the traditional role and influence of the FATA elders. The radical young graduates of these madrassahs are not willing to accept the traditional role of the elders and their decisions in all matters. There have been many instances of tensions reported between the local tribal elders and the Taleban on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border.In December 2007, AP reported that suspected Islamic militants fatally shot eight tribal leaders involved in efforts to broker a cease-fire between security forces and insurgents in Pakistan's volatile northwest. Last year, there were also several reports of clashes between the tribal elders and the Al-Qaeda operatives.

Most of these madrassahs are boarding schools that provide free food, clothing, housing and education to the mostly poor kids in FATA, the Frontier and Baluchistan provinces. So, the basic reason for these institutions to exist is really the overwhelming needs for education and social services that the Government of Pakistan is unable to fulfill. The reason these institutions proliferated since the 1980s has its roots in the massive US/Saudi backing of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion. The incentive for the US was to recruit and prepare fighters for "Jihad" in Afghanistan against the Russians. A key part of the education at these madrassahs included indoctrination and military training of the students which continues to this day. It is for this reason that the US now considers these institutions as purveyors of terrorist training. The changes in Pakistan's tribal areas set in motion during the 1980s to fight the Soviets are still affecting the entire South Asian region including Afghanistan, the Middle East and the world. Both Al-Qaeda and the Taleban movements have their roots in the Afghan war and the US support of it against the Soviet Union.

The Taleban & Al-Qaeda
The Taleban and Al-Qaeda have both become part of the tribal society in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are a second power center after the tribal elders. And, I believe, there is an ongoing power struggle between them. It is this power struggle that is largely responsible for the scuttling of several peace agreements that the Musharraf government made with the tribal elders in Waziristan region. It is this situation that makes it difficult for Pakistan to do what the US has done in Al-Anbar province in Iraq with the support of the tribal sheikhs there.

Ideas for Solution
The real solution has to be political and diplomatic in the long term. It's absolutely essential that the fundamental issues of poverty that attract people to the madrassahs are addressed. This will require massive spending over a relatively short period of time. The US and Saudi Arabia are quite capable of such spending, as they have demonstrated during the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. In the meanwhile, both the Pakistani and the US governments must do everything possible to re-establish the role and influence of the tribal elders that want to make peace. At the same time, the war against the radicals challenging the authority of the elders must be conducted to avoid mass casualties of the ordinary folks in FATA. Indiscriminate bombing will not win any hearts and minds. It will only stoke the fires of revenge for a long time to come.

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