Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt (3)

3. A Comprehensive Strategy

A. Facing Up To The Immensity Of The Challenge

The years since 9/11 have validated the fact that the pacification of Pakistan’s tribal belt represents a necessary (if insufficient) condition for eliminating al-Qaeda, enabling reconstruction in Afghanistan, and maintaining domestic stability in Pakistan. But the immense scale and complexity of this challenge is currently underappreciated in both Washington and Islamabad.

The Pakistani government lacks the political, military, or bureaucratic capacity to fix the tribal areas on its own. Islamabad’s civilian political leaders have little recent experience in dealing with a development and security initiative of this scale; at present, they appear far more concerned with skirmishing over power than developing an effective policy for the tribal areas. The pathological imbalance between civilian and military power at the national level continues to hinder stable, efficient governance, and, particularly over the past eighteen months, has prov ided a formula mainly for lurching from crisis to crisis.

Pakistan’s army has not come to terms with the need to fundamentally retool itself for a new counterinsurgency mission, one far different from its historical fixation on war with India. The FC and other policing forces throughout the tribal areas are ill prepared to pick up the army’s slack, at least in the immediate term. Local judicial and administrative institutions, such as the political agents in the FATA and the lower courts of the NWFP, are widely perceived as corrupt and inefficient, if not outright illegitimate. And Pakistan’s long history of involvement in Afghanistan offers no insulation from the flare of regional tensions.

Moreover, because of a yawning trust deficit between Pakistan and the United States, Washington cannot even be sure that Islamabad shares its interests, or at least its priorities, in the tribal areas. In particular, Pakistan appears far more concerned about immediate threats to internal security than to militancy in Afghanistan or terrorism in the United States and Western Europe. Most Pakistanis tend to believe that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was more a cause of regional instability than a response to it. Anti-Americanism is widespread and profound. In a national May/June 2008 poll, only 16.9 percent of Pakistanis had a very or somewhat favorable view of the United States, the lowest popularity rating of all the countries surveyed and less than half that of India.(21)

This lack of unambiguous Pakistani support for the U.S. agenda and the potential for popular Pakistani backlash against visible American intervention handcuff Washington’s policy options. Still, Pakistan remains a fragile, internally divided state more than a rogue or enemy. Washington should not yet give in to the frustrations of dealing with its conflicted ally and seek to go it alone; given the enormous repercussions of adopting a unilateral approach, patience and engagement remain far better tools with which to address the tribal areas.(22)

B. General Assumptions And Implications For U.S. Policy

Accordingly, the first and most important baseline assumption of this report is that Washington will need to partner with leaders in Islamabad (and other Pakistani institutions) in order to accomplish U.S. goals in the tribal areas, despite the fact that Pakistan may lack the capacity-and at times, even the political will-to implement policies that serve these goals. Through a combination of structured inducements and patient investment in closer working relationships, Washington should seek to win reciprocal Pakistani trust and confidence. Unilateral U.S. actions, whether military, political, or economic, are by no means proscribed, but their tactical benefits must be weighed against the potential costs they impose upon the broader goal of bilateral U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. Whenever possible, Washington should work with and through Islamabad.

Second, although the v arious terrorist, extremist, and militant groups operating in and near the tribal areas appear to have become far more interconnected (personally, ideologically, and operationally) since 2001, their distinctive motivations still offer cleavages to be exploited. Pakistani and U.S. counterinsurgency planners should identify and capitalize on the differences among international terrorists, foreign fighters, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and sectarian, tribal, and other violent groups. Even more important, extremist groups should be cut off from the general population as part of the Pakistani government’s bid to reassert its legitimate, popular authority by demonstrating a capacity for good governance.(23)

Third, tactical security gains in the tribal areas, such as the defeat of a specific militant group or the elimination of a terror cell, will prove ephemeral if not complemented by rapid political change and economic incentives. In large swaths of the Pakistani-Afghan border region, the political economy now centers on militancy, crime, and smuggling, meaning that local moderates and representative (or traditional) leaders have no way of competing for positions of authority without assistance from the Pakistani government or other outside actors. By implication, Pakistan and the United States should seek to empower more moderate allies in the tribal areas by addressing their immediate political grievances and/or development needs.

Fourth, political and economic change cannot take place in an environment of extreme insecurity. The unprecedented levels of violence in some parts of the tribal areas must be addressed by military means before it makes sense to apply other nonmilitary tools. Accordingly, the development of Pakistan’s capacity for counterterror and counterinsurgency missions is an essential priority that will require extensive, sustained financial and institutional investments by Washington and Islamabad.

Finally, transformative development programs that address the underlying causes of militancy, such as education and job creation, tend to be costly and take a long time. By implication, even the most successful U.S.-Pakistan partnership cannot fix the tribal areas overnight. This is truly a generational challenge-it must be recognized as such from the outset. Both American and Pakistani expectations should be appropriately calibrated, and institutional investments should be made to reflect the long-term commitment that will be required. Along the way, U.S. policymakers must also identify and track tangible measures of progress-even if incremental ones-so as to sustain political momentum despite the inevitable prospect of unanticipated challenges and unwelcome setbacks.


21. See http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/PakistanPollReportJune08.pdf, pp. 28-29.

22. The term “conflicted ally” is from Ashley J. Tellis, “Pakistan-Conflicted Ally in the War on Terror,” Policy Brief no. 56, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2007.

23 On the centrality of asserting government legitimacy and capacity in counterinsurgency, see The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 170-173, 235.


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