Counter-Terrorism: Tribal Transformation in Pakistan


March 27, 2006: American CIA and Army Special Forces operators have found northwestern Pakistan, "the tribal territories" to be pro-Taliban more because of local politics than because of religious or political fervor. It's difficult to get this point across to the folks back home, especially the media. What is going on in the tribal territories is part cultural revolution, and part ancient struggle (of the independent tribes versus far away governments). Until the last few years, you could always make a deal with the tribal chiefs. This could be expensive, in terms of cash or goods. But the chiefs and tribal elders could deliver. Well, except for a few stray hotheads. Most of the time, the exceptions would hardly be noted. Eliminating banditry and tribal feuds was non-negotiable. This violence was considered an essential part of tribal culture.

Basically, the government was bribing the chiefs and tribal elders, and in the last two decades, the bribes have gotten larger. Partly, this was the result of the 1980s fighting in Afghanistan (which brought a lot of new cash into the region), and partly because of the government campaign to drive the heroin business out of the region. That just drove the drug gangs across the border into Afghanistan, but the government "compensation" made a lot of tribal leaders rich. And therein was the problem. The tribal leaders were keeping a lot of the money for themselves. Moreover, the younger generations were getting exposed to mass media, especially videos and television. They may still be illiterate, but they can see and hear, and now they knew there's a whole other world out there, and that their tribal leaders are ripping them off. Thus, in the last decade, the discipline in the tribes has declined.

Meanwhile, the government decided to take the tribal chiefs down a peg by changing the voting system. In the past, the tribal councils (the chiefs and elders) selected those who would represent them in the national legislature. The government changed that, so that everyone could vote. The chiefs were not enthusiastic about this, but they could not generate enough popular enthusiasm to stop the new rules from going into effect. As a result, the chiefs found they were not as popular as they used to be. Many religious leaders, who had preached against greed and corruption of the chiefs, got enough votes to get into the legislature. Many of the clerics were pro-Taliban or Islamic radicals. Oops, maybe giving chiefs all the power wasn't such a bad idea after all.

All this has been further complicated by the fact that the two most pro-Taliban tribes, the Wazirs and Mehsuds, are traditional enemies. So you have to be careful what deals you cut with who, lest you find yourself in the middle of a new tribal feud. The one tribe that has, historically, stayed out of the fighting, the Dawars, are also fragmented into smaller clans and warlord groups, and decidedly more anti-government than they were in the past.

When the Taliban lost power in Afghanistan five years ago, the Afghan Taliban leaders took their money, guns, and some of their followers, and headed across the border to hook up with new tribal factions, especially the ones led by Islamic radicals. Many of the new tribal factions were led by younger men who believed that religion was the answer.

In the midst of all this violence and infighting, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have found refuge. Actually, many of the al Qaeda leaders fled to the rather more comfortable cities of Pakistan. There, many neighborhoods are controlled by armed refugees from the tribal territories. There, the police has captured a number of al Qaeda big shots, encouraging the most senior guys to stay up in the mountains.




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