Sunday, March 2, 2008

Radicals Target Pakistan Peace Jirgas

Fundamental Change in Tribal Order
The latest of a series of suicide bombings in Pakistan's north west frontier tribal belt targeted a meeting of the elders in Dara Adam Khel town. There were reports of 40 dead and scores injured. Traditionally, tribal leaders were held in high respect and their decisions were generally accepted by the tribal population in all matters. This attack further reinforces the belief that there is a fundamental shift taking place in the social and political order that existed for centuries.

The Origins of Change
During and after the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, a large number new radical madrassahs have proliferated in Pakistan's tribal areas. Because of the power of these madrassahs, there seems to be a new dynamic affecting the traditional role and influence of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (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. In addition to the latest attack in Dara Adam Khel, 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/Taleban operatives.

Will Democracy in Pakistan Cure Terrorism?
There have often been theories and claims made that democracy and talks with the tribals will bring peace in Pakistan. The facts seem to contradict such theories. Not only has there been progress in Pakistan toward democracy but the Musharraf administration has made serious efforts to engage with the tribal elders repeatedly to make deals that included withdrawing the Pakistani military from their areas. The results of such efforts have been an intensification of attacks in the tribal areas like Dara Adam Khel as well as the settled areas of Pakistan such as Swat valley.
The data from India and China also debunks the assumption that democracy is the answer to terrorism. According to one study conducted between 1976 and 2004 as quoted in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria, there were over 400 terrorist incidents in democratic India and only 18 in authoritarian China. This could be because the terrorists find it easier to plot and carry out such attacks in open societies. In the last five years, Pakistan has been a semi-open society, something between authoritarian China and democratic India. Making it more democratic would not fundamentally alter the situation emanating from the north west frontier region. If anything, it could make it worse if the newly elected civilian coalition government completely abandons the use of force in favor of negotiations.

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 the two. 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 on modern education, job creation, food, housing etc. The US and Saudi Arabia are quite capable of such spending, as they have demonstrated by their support during the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. Both abandoned the tribal belt after the defeat of the Soviet Union and left it to the Taleban and Al-Qaeda. 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 who want to make peace. At the same time, the war against the radicals challenging the authority of the elders must be conducted with sensitivity 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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