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August 13, 2008

FATA: what went wrong?


August 13, 2008

Pervez Musharraf decided to become a close ally of the US in its war on terror. The people of Pakistan in general and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in particular rejected his policy. This is the reason that the government today is in trouble in the area. The number of the Taliban increased with this policy leading to the targeted killing of 300 notables in South and North Waziristan. It spread like a wild fire and now we seem to have lost the entire FATA to them.

The delayed reaction of the government and its “hit to withdraw policy” weakened the established writ of the state. The Taliban were quick in their reaction. The surrender of 275 soldiers in South Waziristan and the taking over of military installations greatly appealed to the youth in FATA.

In 2003-4 the Taliban were not in such a large number and did not require the presence of 90,000 troops. They could have easily been persuaded by the tribesmen for a peaceful solution had the right approach been followed by the government. This option was not considered and use of force was preferred instead.

FATA was a very peaceful area till the deployment of the troops in 2003. The crime rate was lower than in a tehsil in a settled district. Maintenance of law and order was the responsibility of the Political Agent. He was assisted by the civil armed forces. With the arrival of regular troops the established system of governance got paralysed, turning the area into an undeclared war zone.

The objectives set for the army, I believe, were two. One, to check the Taliban at the border, denying them entry into Pakistan, and the other was to guard against incursions from across the border. It failed in both. Its presence helped spread the Taliban to other parts in the NWFP. The Taliban are now a force to reckon with.

The Army could have achieved the objectives it had set had the tribesmen been taken into confidence for tackling the matter in accordance with

their customs and traditions. They have done so in the early sixty’s when President Ayub Khan decided not to allow Afghan nomads to cross the border into FATA on their way to India as our relation with Afghanistan at the time were at the lowest ebb. The decision of the president was implemented in letter and spirit by the tribesmen. Not a single soldier or policeman was deployed at the border.

Why couldn’t the same be done this time? Why was the established system of Political Agents weakened? These are some of the questions that every tribesman asks. This needs to be looked into if we are serious in finding a peaceful and lasting solution to the problem in FATA and NWFP.

Mistakes after mistakes were committed by the government in FATA after 9/11. Villages in the South Waziristan, North Waziristan and Mohmand Agencies were bombarded forcing people to run for their lives only on the pretext that the Taliban were attacking the soldiers from their areas. If that be the criterion then Rawalpindi should have been razed to the ground twice because two attempts were made there on the life of the president. Other cities, in Sindh, Punjab and the NWFP, from where militants of international fame were arrested and handed over to the US should have been bombarded. Why FATA alone? Are they no Pakistanis?

It seems that the policymakers in Islamabad did not take into account the sincerity and loyalty with which these tribesmen made sacrifices for the country. They had carved a place for themselves in the history of our eastern border (Kashmir) and guarded the west for 60 years even during the Soviet invasion across the border.

The people of FATA and southern Afghanistan had, over the centuries, interacted very closely in all the major events in the region. They fought together against the British and the Soviets and are now fighting against the American-led forces in Afghanistan. There arose no problem between them, or even with the government of Pakistan.

The problem started after the government took a U-turn in its policy towards the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was a turning point in the relations between the people and the government in Islamabad. The tribesmen did not agree with the government severing relations with their kinsmen across the Durand line. How could they do so in view of the long struggle that they had made together against foreign occupation? The Americans are no better. They are as foreign as the British or the Soviets before them.

The West may justify for years to come that the American intervention in Afghanistan had the UN approval. The Taliban are not going to accept this and will continue fighting till the ouster of the occupational forces from their country.

The writer is a former ambassador who hails from South Waziristan. Email: [email protected]

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