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A weak Pakistan is a threat to neighbours
Beena Sarwaar
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September 30, 2008

"People are confused about this war," said Daud, negotiating the office vehicle he was driving through downtown Karachi's chaotic traffic.

"Every time America bombs a village, people are killed or injured. Those who survive are filled with revenge."

The concrete jungle of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and business nerve centre, is a world away from Daud's mountainous native area Darra Adamkhel in Orakzai Agency, one of the seven tribal agencies that form Pakistan's FederallyAdministered Tribal Areas (FATA) sandwiched between its North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan.

Darra Adamkhel, famous for its weapons-manufacturing workshops and bazaar, juts east into the NWFP, between the NWFP capital Peshawar 50 km to Darra's north and Kohat to the south. Although the weapons market is the largest in Pakistan, there are few employment opportunities in the area, driving men like Daud to find work in the cities.

Karachi, a melting pot of some 16 million, attracts the largest number of such migrants. Many of them, declares Daud, are Taliban [Images] sympathisers. This is hardly surprising given the existence of radically conservative Islamic centers like the Banuri Town Madrassah in the city, at odds with its live-on-lease modern lifestyle encouraged by the previous government's 'bankers' economy', shopping plazas and parties.

Daud does not have time for any of these. He worries about his family back home, whom he sends money regularly to. The Pakistan government has given a two-week ultimatum to Darra Adamkhel to stop providing refuge to the Taliban, or face military action.

"There are no Taliban in our area," says Daud. "But Taliban injured by bombing in other areas came there. People provided medicines and bandages. America and Pakistan say they have to leave or we will face the same fate. Now people are worried. Some said we will go with them and live on the hillsides. But our village will still be attacked if they do that because the hills are all around. One doctor, very religious, was helping them. He has disappeared along with the Taliban who had come to him."

It's a tough call for people like Daud, who have ethnic and tribal affiliations with the Pushtun Taliban. The tribal code of honour ('Pakhtunwali') forbids abandoning someone who has approached you for refuge. But the Pakistan government's aggressive military action, and more recently, US military raids, is increasingly making this difficult.

Additionally, sympathies for the Taliban's ostensibly Islamic agenda may also be changing. People are uneasy with actions like mutilating bodies and killing women - over the past five years, the mutilated bodies of more than 150 pro-government maliks (tribal elders) have been dumped at various hamlets.

The Taliban have also crossed the line, the time-honoured code according to which it is alright to punish the women of your own family but not those of others.

On September 7, 2007, the beheaded bodies of two women were found in Bannu, NWFP, a day after they were kidnapped. A note warned of the same fate for any other women indulging in 'immoral activities'.

There is also little support for the Taliban attacks on girls' schools and teachers. Daud studied till Class VIII. Both his daughters and his son attend school. Taliban threats have led to many girls' schools being shut down in the tribal areas, including 180 community schools in Waziristan set up with Norwegian help. In May, fourteen explosions demolished the Darra Adamkhel Degree College in Kohat, NWFP.

Several schoolteachers have been murdered, like Khatoon Bibi in September last year. She used to come from a settled area to work in Mohmand Agency, where four masked men on motorcycles shot her dead with AK-47 assault rifles as she waited at a bus stop to return home. Hundreds of non-local teachers subsequently braved militant threats and demonstrated at the Mohmand Agency headquarters, protesting the murder and demanding security in order to do their jobs. The administration's lack of response led to over a hundred girls' schools being shut down there.

The Americans began to pound hamlets in FATA starting in July, as part of what was subsequently revealed as the first of a three-phased plan. The US incursions have generated great resentment in Pakistan, particularly the ground attack of September 3 barely two days after Pakistan's first democratically elected president in over a decade took oath.

The Pakistan Army's [Images] warnings of retaliation carry little weight given its dependence on US military aid, while the political government has been more circumspect and realistic. Obviously, tensions between Washington and Islamabad [Images] will only benefit the jihadi elements. Caught in the crossfire are the FATA locals, some 300,000 of whom are estimated to have fled Bajaur since August.

In a relatively new development, locals in some areas have begun refusing to harbour Taliban and even aggressively chasing them away. Without local support, the Taliban cannot operate here. The most recent such incident took place on September 25, when a militia comprising hundreds of armed volunteers, Mullagori tribesmen in Jamrud, Khyber Agency, set Taliban hideouts on fire after chasing out some 80-odd militants from the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Haji Abdul Manan, who headed the Jirga (tribal council) that agreed on this attack, told daily The News that they had purged the area of militants.

"Had we not evicted them� the military would have launched an operation which would have taken the lives of hundreds of innocent people, as is the case in other areas".

During the fighting, the tribesmen suffered huge financial losses, he said, but would continue to support the government against the militants. The Jirga has warned locals against sheltering Taliban or face punishment -- a one million rupee fine, expulsion from the agency and demolition of the violator's home.

On September 18, locals in Dir, NWFP, killed two out of three militants who entered from neighbouring Swat valley, once a prime tourist destination. "The most intriguing aspect� is that locals, not security forces, pursued the militants," said the Washington-based think-tank Stratfor, noting that similar incidents have taken place in Waziristan, Bajaur, and Khyber agencies and in Swat, NWFP ('Pakistan: Cultivating Locals in the Jihadist Struggle', September 19, 2008).

"Pakistan has worked to cultivate local support by recruiting from among militants and tribal elements," said Stratfor, warning that the strategy could backfire after the objectives are met if these groups later seek territorial and political concessions in return for their help.

Meanwhile, there is clearly a divergence of policy between Washington and Islamabad, with Pakistan propping up pro-Islamabad Taliban and fighting those who are against the Pakistani state, while America does not distinguish between these two types and seeks to weaken the overall movement.

Worryingly, the Pakistan Army "has still not made the necessary strategic U-turn, giving up on the Afghan Taliban leadership who live in Balochistan". The ISI still attempts to separate the favoured Afghan Taliban from the disfavoured Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda [Images]. But the truth is that all operate under a common strategy and guidelines set by Al Qaeda," warned well- known journalist Ahmed Rashid, writing for Yale Global Online on September 19, a day before the Marriott bombing.

"The aim for Al Qaeda is to use the coming months to take serious territory in the NWFP where it can re-establish safe bases and training camps it once had in Afghanistan."

The recent meeting in New York of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and US President George W Bush [Images] as world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly provided a good opportunity for Washington and Islamabad to come to an agreement on strategy.

The US military high command has already acknowledged the need for this. General David Petraeus, who will head US forces in the region next month, told reporters at the US embassy in Paris on September 25 that Pakistani and US-led troops will have to work together.

"There has to be coordination, cooperation and very constructive dialogue as that effort goes forward," he said, pointing to the Marriott Hotel bombing which showed "tragically and horrifically" how "these same extremist elements again represent a true existential threat to Pakistan itself."

In New York, Zardari openly said Pakistan is in "a state of war". He has received no assurances from Washington about US military incursions into Pakistan, but America must realise that its best hope for combating the Taliban menace is actually to support democracy in Pakistan, however imperfect, and not undermine it by threatening its sovereignty.

A weak, fragmented Pakistan will pose a threat to all its neighbours. This is another reason to support democracy in Pakistan, which will be strengthened if there is lasting peace with India with both countries eschewing covert operations of any kind, anywhere, against each other.

The UN sidelines also brought hope towards this end as Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] agreed to resume cross-border trade at four points, including, significantly, two points on the Line of Control [Images] that divides Pakistani and Indian-administered areas of Kashmir.

Simultaneously, Pakistan must undertake a major review of its intelligence agencies and then rein in. The bomb attack on Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20 underlined the urgency of a holistic plan for dealing with terrorism. This includes 'home-grown' terrorism stemming from the 'jihadi' groups that Pakistan has long cultivated in the hopes of bleeding India in Kashmir.

Three decades after America, with Pakistan's help, turned a national war of independence in Afghanistan into a religious 'jihad', the successors of the 'mujahideen' have splintered into several outfits contributing to local, non-local and international conflicts.

The convergence of these elements should come as no surprise, given their common origin and ideology.

We know what the problems are. It's time to start working on the solutions, together.

The writer is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi.

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