Smoking al Qaida and the Taliban Out of Pakistan’s Tribal Region
Increasingly, the focus on the War on Terrorism is turning to Pakistan’s troubled tribal region. Both the current Bush administration and the incoming Obama transition team have singled out the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region as a high priority. This insightful article by Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s newly elected prime minister who previously served in that office from 1996 to 2001, and Carl Ciovacco provides policy makers struggling with this issue a template for successful action. – EDITOR, Armchair General magazine
As counterterrorism experts and statesmen around the world ponder the best strategy to defeat al Qaida and the Taliban, a nuanced approach at solving the ills of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) could provide the answer. By transforming the region from a lawless, drug supplying, smuggling epicenter bent on fighting the federal government and instigating international violence, to a rehabilitated province flourishing with schools, hospitals, and a legitimate agrarian source of income, al Qaida and the Taliban would find themselves without a home. This rehabilitation would usher in conditions inhospitable to drug and arms smugglers and terrorists. What bunker-busters and guns have failed to do to al Qaida and the Taliban hiding in the remote mountainous lattice, tribal area rehabilitation could accomplish. The success story of the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) tribal area of Bangladesh could serve as a template to heal Pakistan’s tribal region and effectively smoke the terrorists out of their safe-haven.
The similarities between the CHT tribal region in Bangladesh and the FATA in Pakistan are striking. Both tribal areas are remote, autonomy-seeking, mountainous enclaves on the borders of their respective countries, and marginalized by the ruling majority party. They are extremely poor and only account for a small portion of their country’s total land mass and population. Opium, weapons and drug smuggling, and armed conflict between the tribes and their government thrived in the CHT as it does today in the FATA. How then has the Chittagong become a law-abiding area that now produces corn for its country instead of opium while the FATA remains a thorn in the side of Pakistan, its neighbors, and the rest of the world? The answer to this question may supply a remedy to al Qaida and the Taliban’s increased control and influence over the region and its opium trade. If Pakistan can make the FATA look more like the Chittagong, al Qaida and the Taliban will lose not only their base of operations but also the drug money that is helping fund their global terrorist network.
Currently in the FATA, al Qaida and the Taliban have teamed with the tribal leaders against the federal government. The tribes have vehemently rejected the federal government’s plan to eradicate opium. Al Qaida and the Taliban have offered their services to fight alongside the tribes against government troops, namely the paramilitary Frontier Corps, in return for a portion of the opium proceeds. Drug sales and local support, coupled with the safety of the mountains, have aided al Qaida and the Taliban’s recent resurgence. Furthermore, the tribal leaders’ latest accord with the Pakistani government for more autonomy in exchange for the pledged safety of federal troops, has led to a flawed solution that fails to address opium, al Qaida, and the Taliban. Effectively signing away the federal government’s ability to reign in the terrorists, this agreement has thwarted Pakistan’s capacity to prevent future terrorist attacks.
For Pakistan to address the lawlessness, drugs, and growing terrorist safe-haven status of the FATA, it must become serious about effecting change. Once it decides this, the path that it could follow is that which Bangladesh tread in 1997 with the CHT.
Template for success
After winning the 1996 Bangladeshi general elections, we executed a carefully orchestrated rehabilitation strategy in our troubled tribal region. Understanding that the root problem had to be solved politically, not militarily, and that it could not be mediated by outside forces was central to the rehabilitation. The implementation of this strategy had three basic tenets: 1) a peace summit for the tribal, central government, and neighboring countries’ leaders focused on highlighting competing concerns and identifying a common ground, 2) a comprehensive weapons turn-in program, and 3) replacement of opium fields with corn fields to make the tribes’ livelihood more legitimate and provide severely needed food. In the end, the peace accord returned the more than one million Chittagong inhabitants back into the fold of Bangladesh, precipitated the return of 64,000 Chittagong refugees from India, produced a greatly needed food source in corn, and secured peace in the region that previously had seen over 20,000 deaths between 1976 and 1997.
The peace summit consisted of public negotiations in Parliament and secret, high-level meetings with the leaders of tribes and neighboring countries. While the Parliamentary Special Committee led by Abul Hasnat Abdullah made some in-roads, the benefits of bilateral meetings with the tribal leader Shantu Larma, the leaders of the Indian West Bengal State, and the Indian Prime Minister were much more fruitful. The crux of the summit was based on tribal acknowledgment of central government sovereignty in exchange for rehabilitation of the CHT. The accord outlined rehabilitation of the tribal inhabitants by building schools, hospitals, and roads. Incredibly important was having the federal troops work on these projects so that their image would change in the eyes of the tribes.
Unconditional surrender of the tribes’ weapons ensured that elevated tensions in the CHT could not be sparked by a few divisive hot-heads. Although emotionally difficult for the tribes to turn in their weapons as they had fought with them for many years, once this roadblock was lifted, the rest of the process fell into place. At the turn-in points, we had journalists, diplomats, leaders from all political parties, and civil society to provide for the widest distribution of news about this momentous occasion.
The last tenet of the plan involved the destruction of all poppy fields in the region. Unlike the recent unsuccessful eradication attempts in Pakistan by government troops that have led to more harm than good, we implemented a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the opium farmers. All opium farmers received grants from the government for their lost opium crop and an agricultural loan to make the transition to a different crop. Under a program called Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF), they received food ration cards for six months until they could harvest their new corn crop. Each month they received 30 kilos of food – 15 kilos of rice and 15 kilos of wheat. This type of humane treatment allowed our Border Rifles Regiment to clear the poppy fields without fear of attack.
Pakistan’s next steps
Pakistan should attempt to operationalize portions of our tribal rehabilitation strategy in its FATA. It must begin by organizing a peace summit that assembles tribal members, provincial leaders, and the federal government. As a new government has assumed the reins in Pakistan, this would be an opportune time for such a summit. Furthermore, after the recent attacks in Mumbai by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, now is the time for Pakistan to move forward on a counterterrorism plan nestled in the rehabilitation of its tribal region. Behind-the-scenes meetings must occur between the federal government, tribal leaders, provincial leaders of the Northwest Frontier Province, and its neighboring countries of Afghanistan, India, and China. The FATA should be demilitarized once the federal government provides an earnest assurance that rehabilitation and infrastructure development will occur. Lastly, a plan to burn the poppy fields must be complemented by payments and food to local farmers and training for an alternative crop.
In the short run, and acknowledging that the scale of opium production is much larger in the FATA than it was in the CHT, it is conceivable that a small portion of the poppy fields could be legitimized by selling the opium for medical purposes. This route should only be a temporary fix designed to provide a soft-landing as the FATA moves away from illicit drug sales. By legitimizing agriculture in Pakistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban will be cut out of the process by nullifying the need for the tribal leaders to ally with them for protection. A rehabilitated region with a sound local-federal working relationship would also prevent the terrorists from exploiting this divide.
Critics could argue that this rehabilitation process would take years to accomplish. However, as demonstrated by Chittagong’s six month peace process, change takes only as long as desired. It would be careless naïveté to think that this process would be free of growing pains, but without change, the current trajectory of the FATA points to increased tension with the Federal Government and increased entrenchment of the strengthening al Qaida-Taliban terror network in Pakistan. With the command post of the global jihadist movement enjoying a safe-haven within its sovereign borders, it is incumbent upon Pakistan to fix the FATA. As civilians flee the region in droves and NATO forces begin to exit neighboring Afghanistan, the status quo cannot remain. For the sake of the country and the rest of the world, Pakistan must look seriously at what we in Bangladesh accomplished in the CHT. If Pakistan does not act, al Qaida and the Taliban will continue to prosper in this netherworld that currently lies politically and militarily out of reach.
Sheikh Hasina, newly elected Prime Minister of Bangladesh, also served from 1996 to 2001. She has been the President of the Awami League, a major political party in Bangladesh, since 1981. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the secular leader and founding father of Bangladesh.
Carl Ciovacco graduated from West Point and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a Masters in Public Policy. He has specialized in International Security Policy and his graduate thesis was on al Qaida’s media strategy. Mr. Ciovacco served as an Army officer in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. His article, “Al Qaida’s Media Strategy” was published in the January 2009 issue of Armchair General magazine.