AWASH with guns, opium, bands of armed Islamic militants, mediaeval laws, smugglers, rugged tribesmen and breathtaking mountains, Pakistan’s remote Afghan border is one of the wildest places on earth.
But as the hunt intensifies for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters, pressure is growing to tame the semi-autonomous region and impose 21st-century courts on a people who have defied conquest and state authority for centuries.
A raid last month by thousands of Pakistani troops on hundreds of suspected al-Qaeda and other militants in the South Waziristan tribal district, in which at least 120 people died, has thrust the issue of reforming the area into a national debate.
“What this whole effort has lacked is a political plan as to what this region’s future status will be,” said Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani author.
Nearly the size of Belgium, the barren 27,200sq km Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a haven for al-Qaeda and fundamentalist Taliban accused of attacks on US troops across the Afghan border, US officials say.
Hundreds of Arab, Afghan, Uzbek, Chechen and other foreign militants, drawn there since the 1980s when the US government funded bands of Islamic fighters to drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan, are believed to have escaped the recent fighting.
With tens of thousands of troops now in the region, Pakistan’s authorities have given tribal elders until April 20 to expel the militants or risk more bloodshed.
“Pakistan has had to pay a high price for tolerating the strange exclusiveness of the area. This is unacceptable,” said the News daily in an editorial.
“FATA needs to be brought within the national fold to avoid another bloody operation of the kind that was witnessed,” the English-language newspaper said.
President Pervez Musharraf says improving living conditions for the area’s six million poor, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, and folding the devout Muslim enclave into the mainstream remain a priority.
But in a television interview on March 31, he stopped short of forecasting an end to its curious self-rule, saying now was not the time. But he said development would press ahead, led by army engineers and backed by about US$54mil (RM205mil) from Washington.
About 50,000 troops deployed there since 2002 – the biggest incursion in the belt since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947 – have opened 550 schools, set up health clinics, planted trees and built 1,300km of road.
“When we sent the army inside in all tribal agencies, the objective was not to hunt al-Qaeda, it was to integrate them into Pakistan,” said Musharraf.
That has helped the government break down some tribal resistance.
“There was opposition in the past because they thought roads bring government,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pashtun tribesman and newspaper editor in the northwest.
“But now, whenever a dignitary goes there, whether it’s an army general or a governor or a minister, invariably they make a demand for girls’ schools, roads, everything,” he said.
But establishing full control is risky for Musharraf, who blames two attempts on his life in December on militants hiding in the area and faces vehement accusations by hardline Islamists of pandering to the United States in the tribal territories.
Dismantling the tribes’ jealously guarded system of law by jirga, or council of elders, could also awaken Pashtun separatism at a time when Musharraf needs tribal help as US and Pakistani forces close in on al-Qaeda fighters on both sides of the border.
State control would effectively end a Pashtunwali feudal code that, tribes say, has worked for centuries but, critics say, is vulnerable to abuse and exploited by smugglers and militants.
Although it jails thieves and administers conventional justice, it appals rights groups by condoning the murder of women who marry outside the tribe and fuelling traditions of blood revenge.
“To deny people civil and political rights by saying this is the tribal way of life is convenient, but it doesn’t pay in the long run,” said Samina Ahmed, Pakistan director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
It also could breed more militancy, says the former chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, Afrasiab Khattack.
“If the situation continues, the area will be further alienated and the social and political vacuum can be exploited by extremists.”
But tribal belief in the jirgas runs deep. “Most people feel the jirga is better than Pakistani law,” said Yusufzai.
Ultimately Pakistan may do what Washington did in Afghanistan: call an international aid donors’ conference, hoping the lure of cash can overcome a long history of suspicion among Pashtun tribesmen toward Pakistan’s majority ethnic Punjabis.
“We will get much bigger sums of money and then integration should take place at the right time,” says Musharraf.
But even with more money and better roads, ending the area’s history of militancy could take years. Many of the foreign fighters have married into tribes, melted into communities and are revered as “holy warriors” by local tribesmen.
“There’s a history of people encouraged to launch attacks across the border,” Yusufzai said.
“It will take time to change that habit.” – Reuters
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