Mehmood Khan Achakzai, chief of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, wants the state to withdraw security forces from the tribal areas, give immunity to the foreigners hiding there and start “serious” negotiations with the Taliban. He also wants the United States involved in these talks and thinks that Washington should be asked to put a moratorium on drone strikes until the conclusion of this process.
Now, Achakzai is a wise man and a seasoned politician. In this particular case, however, he seems to have allowed himself into a flight of fantasy instead of keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
Look at the implications and assumptions here.
Withdrawing troops from the tribal areas implies, or can be perceived to, that the trouble there is owed to military presence, not the Taliban. It assumes that by conceding the Taliban demand that the military be withdrawn from a territory that belongs to the state, the Taliban, by becoming more amenable to talks will start talking peace and, so it seems, will allow the state to extend its writ to Fata. It further assumes that the Taliban are attacking the state because of the military presence in the area and not because the military had to be sent in to check the accumulation in the area of undesirable elements, domestic and foreign.
None of these assumptions is correct. In fact, by withdrawing, all the agencies in Fata will become like North Waziristan and all the gains will be lost. It is true that the Taliban will be more amenable to talking, but that will not be because they would have been weakened but because they will have the confidence to talk from a position of strength provided to them by the state. The state will have effectively ceded its writ to them.
When the state cut the ill-advised Shakai Agreement in April 2004 with Nek Mohammad, a former petty car thief, Nek told the media that by coming to his lair, the army had surrendered to him, not the other way round.
Regarding giving immunity to foreigners, Achakzai needs to remember that the state, on multiple occasions, while cutting deals with the local tribes, made this concession: the foreigners, who are settled here and have contracted marriages, can live in the area but they must remain peaceful and must not indulge in unlawful activities. It was as effective as the Maginot Line before the Panzers. Nothing has changed. The foreigners, also allied with Al-Qaeda, make up effective fighting cadres for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Why would they remain peaceful and settle down to tending sheep, if not taking their kids out to have ice cream and watching Fast and Furious in some multiplex in North Waziristan?
How will the immunity for peaceful existence, presumably Achakzai’s formula, be enforced in Fata, especially if the state has withdrawn from the area and by doing so accepted the TTP’s suzerainty over Fata? And what guarantees will Achakzai extract from the TTP regarding those tribal lashkars which have stayed faithful to the state and have fought alongside the army? Going by previous experience, all local deals ended up strengthening the Taliban, who avenged themselves by merrily killing and beheading those who had sided with the state.
In fact, not only did the army lose much goodwill because of such deals, it also left pro-state elements at the mercy of these groups, making it extremely difficult subsequently for any tribe to openly side with the state.
As for Washington putting a moratorium on drone strikes in order for Achakzai’s brilliant formula to succeed, I suspect there won’t be many buyers in that town. Getting Washington to do so also assumes, again with the naivete of a winsome damsel, that no elements in Fata cross over into Afghanistan to attack Nato-Isaf troops there, just like no elements cross west to east to attack Pakistani troops.
I have a suggestion for Achakzai. If he can work out an enduring peace deal with the Ghabizais in his area, a much less complicated affair than the cross he wants to bear, I will have more faith in his ability to find solutions to wicked problems.
Now that I mention the Ghabizais, here is a bird’s eye view of what that is.
In the Gulistan area of Balochistan, along the road to Chaman, home to Achakzai, a feud erupted in 1990. It has so far consumed over 200 people, locals say. This is how it began.
Mohammad Khan Ghabizai murdered a man, Aslam, from the Achakzai tribe. Jirgas were held and an agreement was reached. Locals told me that Mohammad Khan, despite the agreement, continued to act arrogantly. This led to some Achakzai tribesmen ambushing and killing Mohammad Khan, along with his two sons, at Syed Hameed Cross on the road to Chaman. Our Achakzai had nothing to do with these killings but the Ghabizais held him responsible for the killings. Thus began a cycle with many a battle fought, Ghabizais led by Ahmad Khan and now Shakoor Khan, both sons of Mohammad Khan.
Typical tribal feud that and yet, 23 years down the line it remains alive, simmering and occasionally flaring up. As I said, if Achakzai can make peace in Gulistan, as a test case of sorts, I will be a little more confident of his scheme apropos of the TTP.
As I have argued several times in this space, talking is the only way to ultimately settle things. But talking requires an enabling environment which, in a conflict, depends on using force in ways that lead to utility of force. Achakzai’s formula is based on assumptions that are either untested or have been tried, tested and found wanting.
Another point which I have attempted to make before, and often, relates to the overall strategy to deal with these groups. Physical dominance of the area is important. This is what the army has done in large parts of Fata through counterterrorism military operations. But it’s not enough and it doesn’t address the other flank, neutralising urban terrorism, the advantage these groups have and which they will utilise. We have been like a boxer fighting with one strong arm. Before we get to talking, let’s first develop a viable CT strategy. There are aspects of that which need a separate discussion.
The eeriness of our situation reminds me of Pinter’s The Caretaker. The drop falls into the bucket; it has been falling for years now, followed by a pause. Nothing seems to come out of it. We don’t even know what it signifies.
Corollary: pie-in-the-sky schemes are not going to work.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2013.
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