The FATA, Drones, and American Strategy in the Long War

I was privileged enough to attend a very interesting talk given a week ago by Naveed Ahmad Shinwari, Chief Executive of Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme, about the recent publication of the results of polling the population in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of Pakistan. The FATA spans a lengthy section of the mountainous border with Afghanistan, and is home to semi-autonomous Pashtun populations that are closely connected to their cousins across the border. It is administered separately from the rest of Pakistan, and has no official part in the central governance of that country except for 12 representatives in the Pakistani parliament, who have no influence over the administration of the FATA.  The President theoretically maintains sole sovereignty over FATA within Pakistani structures, but the only real establishment of central authority is the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) agency, which are a holdover from the days of the British Raj.

Actual jurisdiction within the Tribal areas is still up to the Jirga, the tribal courts that function along customary lines, and are conducted via the FCR or via Olasi Jirga, the people’s Jirga. Judgements are still passed by convening the opinion of maliks, elder tribal delegates, and enjoy both popularity (overwhelming support for these courts was evident in polling) and a fair amount of transparency, being conducted in public and without any closed-door disputation. The people as such rarely pay taxes and receive no services from Islamabad.

Mr Shinwari commented that FATA Pashtun areas constitute an essentially closed and highly conservative society, but that change was not impossible. Rather, Pashtun’s like their jirgas and maliks, but they are not opposed to heightened interaction with Islamabad if it meant the provision of social services, and are prepared to accept certain levels of taxation in exchange. An opening of the restrictions is available via expanded cellular and internet access, which has led the formerly insular society having greater intercommunication and access to outside ideas. Likewise, Mr Shinwari and others have introduced agreements within the jirgas which upheld customary changes to legal procedures, such as restrictions to collective punishment (a legal custom wherein a criminal suspect’s family is liable for the crime by association) and 24 hour time demand for arraignments before legal authorities.

From a military point of view, however, the polling Mr Shinwari had undertaken between 2007 and 2011 highlighted a variety of concerns for these populations who are currently in the middle of a warzone. Since 2008 the Pakistani army has been operating against Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the FATA, and American Drone strikes, increasingly popular under the Obama administration and escalating in 2010-11, have begun to become a regular feature of life. The polling of more than 5 years and 4000 samples produced some interesting insights into the way the population regards their existent status in the Long War on Terror, and what the community actual feels in regards to both the actions of the Taliban and the United States.

In regard to ranking the largest concerns for the population, security is at the top, amidst other social ills as high unemployment and poor access to healthcare. The interesting point to make is that the primary security concern is the Pakistani Taliban, followed then by Drone attack. The FATA has never been known as a safe place, and has a reputation for being a land of eternal war. The Pashtun populace’s tribal affiliations and family connections are still central, and the society encourages men to travel armed, and, under much pressure, only recently agreed to ban open weapons in urban marketplaces. From the time of Alexander the Great until now, the Pashtun tribes have fought outside influences and have emerged as a deeply conservative society. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda, with their Sharia law, are new in comparison to the customary legal structures of the Pashtunwali, the law code governing inter-tribal and personal relationships since the Middle Ages (and one which, in some regards, makes Sharia seem progressive).

Despite support for the Pashtun Taliban of Afghanistan, many their cousins, in resistance to the Coalition Forces, the polls suggests the average Pashtun’s support for the Taliban in general is low and dropping. The resistance to the Taliban’s attacks on populated areas and any Al-Qaeda affiliation remains high, with the firm majority polled against suicide bombing and the use of foreign fighters. Only 5% of those polled said they saw the Taliban as any kind of protector, and may saw suicide bombers as “confused young men”.  Support for the Pakistani Army’s counterinsurgency campaign enjoys a majority of support, and the majority of Pashtun’s polled revealed they viewed their defence and security as the prerogative of the military as opposed, traditionally, to the tribes themselves (52.9% to 42.4%).

In regard to the United States taking military action in the FATA, or elsewhere in Pakistan, the overwhelming majority rejected it in any form, either in conjunction with Pakistani troops, or independently. Approval for drone attacks (if properly justified) dropped from 24.5% to 4.3% between 2010 and 2011, while outright approval (always justified) dropped from 4.4% to only 1.7%. Clearly this policy has never been popular amongst those in the line of fire, with the collateral damage from drone strikes stirring deep resentment.

But the question remains: if the Taliban are themselves increasingly unpopular, does it suit the United States to simply let the FATA alone? Leaving aside the very pertinent question of violating Pakistani sovereignty, this is the area the Taliban and mujahedeen have used to gather and organise attacks into Afghanistan, to say nothing of Al-Qaeda terrorists. It seems imperative to the school of kinetic counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to maintain the initiative, but how can one do so without occupation, which is costly, or targeted killings, which embitter the population against the United States?

One answer could be to halt the extent of drone attacks, which plays into Taliban propaganda, and let the Pakistani army continue their operations against the unpopular Taliban, perhaps with limited American assistance in technical matters and intelligence. If the population sees the national army as a protector, while also opening up to the idea of increased assistance from Islamabad, a classic model of state-building will seem to logically follow. Alongside this, Mr Shinwari’s organisation CAMP, Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme, along with other NGO’s, are doing their best to provide a non-military approach to engage coordination with these communities on their own terms, and allowed him to conduct this important polling. A peaceful and more economically revitalized (outside the poppy trade) FATA would be a place easier to treat with and would be easier to engage with against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The assumption here, however, is that the US maintains a commonality of interest and partnership with Pakistan and/or its army, which is in some doubt, and that the respect of Pakistani sovereignty in imposing violence within their borders will yield better results than proactively hunting threats to the West, which has also historically been in doubt. This is also to say nothing of the difficulty with reaching out to Pashtun society, which is extremely conservative, even in areas where cell phone service and internet is now available. Polling, as mentioned, revealed not only a fair amount of confusion and/or ambivalence to further reforms in the FCR, but also an overwhelming loyalty to the Jirgas over Pakistani law courts. More evocatively expressed, from polling came the revelation that the majority of Pashtuns polled in the FATA would not voluntarily leave the FATA if given the choice and opportunity to go to work elsewhere in Pakistan, or the rest of the world (which is comparatively abnormal in Pakistan and the region in general). While it would be an easy overgeneralization to say that the FATA is a timeless society and inevitably cannot be controlled within or without, it is hard to deny that the conservatism of the area, to say nothing of its dangers to militaries, NGO’s, and individuals alike, will continue to stymie efforts to rid it of Al Qaeda by either the sword or by the winning of heart and minds.

For the United States, even with the close of operations in Afghanistan, the FATA will likely remain a place of interest. It seems from the polling that the people of the FATA are not eager to see that interest manifest itself in their skies or on their lands. But studies like Mr Shinwari’s are important, because they demonstrate that the Taliban’s support among the Pashtun is temperamental and potentially waning as they run up against the popular Pakistani military effort and expanding social services, and that information gives America an important insight into how best to engage in this region and its people. It may be that nothing the United States can do within FATA can destroy Al-Qaeda in a few strategic blows from a Drone, but the tide of natural Pashtun conservatism may make it hard for Al Qaeda to find purchase. In order to fight a global long war, we must be willing to choose our moments and our deployments very selectively, all the while engaging our allies and making life difficult for our enemies by turning the resident populations against them.

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