Attrition: Tribal Tribulations

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September25, 2008:  The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, between the governments and Islamic radicals, has become so violent this year that Pakistan is now the center of the war against Islamic terrorism. So far this year, over 8,000 people have died in this part of the world due to Islamic violence. About half the deaths are in each country. It is really the same war, with the Taliban and al Qaeda active in both places. Al Qaeda has moved its money, and most of its leaders and technicians, to this part of the world, after being defeated in Iraq. Al Qaeda has declared Afghanistan and Pakistan their new main battleground. On a more pragmatic level, this is al Qaeda's last stand. There's nowhere else in the world, outside of the tribal areas of Pakistan, along the Afghan border, where al Qaeda could find refuge. Their allies, the Taliban, are a Frankenstein like monster, created by the ISI (the Pakistani CIA) fifteen years ago. Recruiting Afghan exiles, and students from religious schools (founded by Saudi religious charities during the 1980s), the ISI armed these Talibs (religious students) and sent the Taliban into Afghanistan to win the civil war there and bring order out of the chaos. That only worked for a few years. But the Taliban ideas caught on with some of the Pushtun tribes on both sides of the border. These tribes want to rule both countries, but because of their short lived Taliban success in the late 1990s, believe they have a shot at running Afghanistan again.

Pakistan is another matter. Al Qaeda would have its hands full if it tries to take over Pakistan. Aside from the fact that the vast majority of the population is not fundamentalist, those who are tend to the be the fiercely tribal types who don't want Arabs telling them what to do. While South Asians and Arabs have traded for thousands of years, they have never developed very warm relations. One reason the Taliban lost power so quickly in Afghanistan in 2001 was because the large al Qaeda presence there. The Arabs, who were the largest component of al Qaeda, exhibited open disdain for the Afghans (who, like most South Asians, are Indo-European).

Al Qaeda's biggest problem is that most of their support is among the Pushtun tribes, and these only comprise 15 percent of the Pakistani population. They are also the poorest and least educated minority. A unique feature of Pakistan is that it's 165 million people are all minorities, although the Punjabis (44 percent of the population) are the dominant one (not just in numbers, but in education and income as well). Closely allied with the Punjabis are the Sinds (14 percent), and together these two groups pretty much run the country. What these lowland people have not been able to run are the Pushtun and Baluch tribes up in the hills. This has been a problem for thousands of years. The hill tribesmen are fearless warriors, but the lowlanders are more numerous, disciplined and, in the end, more than a match militarily for the tribes. The hill people can threaten and raid, but they can't conquer.

Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the policy towards the tribes was largely one of live-and-let-live. That has fallen apart with the growth of Islamic radicalism (seen as a cure for the corruption and poverty of the nation). This religious fervor calls for more violence throughout the country, with the goal of establishing a religious dictatorship. The Islamic radicalism never caught on, in a big way, among the Punjabis and Sinds. There are plenty of Islamic radicals in the lowlands, but they are split into many factions, and some of the factions (especially Sunni and Shia) are at war with each other. The tribal radicals can make a lot of noise, carry out terrorist attacks and threaten all those who disagree with them (including many Pushtuns and Baluchis). But they can't take over the country. It's been tried before, and this time around the lowlanders have something their ancestors didn't, aircraft and helicopters that can go after the tribesmen in the mountain redoubts. That's already happening, and more and more of the tribal leaders are figuring out the implications. If the lowlanders get really mad, especially if the Taliban and al Qaeda try to set up their own little terrorist kingdom up in the hills, there will be lots of blood.

In Afghanistan, the Pushtuns make up 40 percent of a much smaller (25 million) population. But most of the Pushtun tribes want nothing to do with the Taliban. The Pakistanis, and the Americans, thought they could work out a deal with the Taliban. That ended on September 11, 2001 for the Americans, and over the last year for the Pakistanis. The recent bombing in the Pakistani capital, where nearly 400 people were killed or wounded by a Islamic terrorist suicide bombing, has finally pushed the Pakistanis to accept the same reality the Americans have been fighting. You can't cut a deal with the Islamic radicals. You can offer amnesty if they surrender (this worked in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere), but the hard core, and the leadership, will fight to the death. You have to work with them on those terms. That works.

 


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