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Pakistan: Countering Militancy in FATA
Pakistan: Countering Militancy in FATA
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
Report 178 / Asia

Pakistan: Countering Militancy in FATA

The military operation in South Waziristan is unlikely to succeed in curbing the spread of religious militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), unless the Pakistan government implements political reforms in that part of the country.

Executive Summary

The military operation in South Waziristan is unlikely to succeed in curbing the spread of religious militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), unless the Pakistan government implements political reforms in that part of the country. Pakistani Taliban groups have gained significant power in the tribal agencies, seven administrative districts bordering on Afghanistan. While state institutions in FATA are increasingly dysfunctional, the militants have dismantled or assumed control of an already fragile tribal structure. This encroaching Talibanisation is not the product of tribal traditions or resistance. It is the result of short-sighted military policies and a colonial-era body of law that isolates the region from the rest of the country, giving it an ambiguous constitutional status and denying political freedoms and economic opportunity to the population. While the militants’ hold over FATA can be broken, the longer the state delays implementing political, administrative, judicial and economic reforms, the more difficult it will be to stabilise the region.

Badly planned and poorly coordinated military operations, followed by appeasement deals, have accommodated militant recruitment and actions, enabling Pakistani Taliban groups to expand their control over the region. Many militants, including commanders fleeing military operations in Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)’s Malakand division, have also relocated to FATA. Instead of a sustained attempt to dismantle and destroy the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) network – led by Baitullah Mehsud until his death on 5 August 2009 in a U.S. drone attack and now by his deputy Hakimullah Mehsud – the military continues to rely on a two-pronged approach of sporadic strikes and negotiations with militant groups. Given that such operations are, by the military’s own admission, restricted, militant networks are ultimately able to absorb the blows even as indiscriminate damage alienates the local population caught in the crossfire.

The current military operation may well be a more extensive attempt to root out the Baitullah Mehsud network in South Waziristan but it remains an incomplete effort and could even prove counterproductive because of parallel efforts to reach or consolidate peace deals with rival TTP groups. It has yet to show that it will be directed at the Afghanistan Taliban or al-Qaeda strongholds. It has also already spurred a new round of internally displaced persons (IDPs) with little to show that the country has planned for that eventuality.

More than a million FATA residents already have been displaced by the conflict, mostly from Bajaur agency in the north and Waziristan in the south. Ongoing military operations in Khyber agency have forced as many as 100,000 to flee to safer locations in NWFP. While the military restricts domestic and international humanitarian access to FATA’s conflict zones, neither the Pakistan government nor the international community has addressed the full costs of the conflict to civilians. Mala­kand’s IDPs have justifiably received considerable domestic and international attention, but the needs of FATA’s IDPs are yet to be addressed.

Militant violence and military operations have also undermined any prospect of economic development in the tribal agencies. FATA was severely underdeveloped even before the rise of militancy due to government neglect, legal barriers and structural impediments to investment and private enterprise. With no economic regulation or proper courts, a black economy has flourished, notably a pervasive arms and drugs trade. Violence is now contributing to poverty, with the lack of jobs making FATA’s residents vulnerable to militant recruitment.

The military’s resort to indiscriminate force, economic blockades and appeasement deals is only helping the Taliban cause. The Pakistan government could win hearts and minds and curb extremism through broad institutional, political and economic changes to FATA’s governance. The government should dismantle the existing undemocratic system of patronage driven by political agents – FATA’s senior-most civilian bureaucrats – as well as tribal maliks (elders) who are increasingly dependent on militants for protection. It must enact and the international community, particularly the U.S., should support a reform agenda that would encourage political diversity and competition, enhance economic opportunity, and extend constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights and the protection of the courts. Earlier attempts to counter extremism in the tribal areas had failed because they prioritised short-term gain over fundamental changes to the political and administrative set-up.

On 14 August 2009 President Asif Ali Zardari announced a reform package lifting restrictions on political party activity; curtailing the bureaucracy’s arbitrary powers of arrest and detention; excluding women and minors from collective responsibility under the law; establishing an appellate tribunal; and envisaging audits of funds received and disbursed by the auditor general. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government has described this reform package as the first step towards mainstreaming FATA, and much remains to be done. It must now swiftly implement these measures and, more importantly, take steps to fully incorporate the tribal areas into the federal constitutional framework, with provincial representation, legal protections under the Criminal Procedure Code and the national and provincial courts.

Donors, particularly the U.S., have allocated significant money for FATA’s development, but most is channelled through unaccountable local institutions and offices. This severely limits aid effectiveness and may even impede rather than encourage democratisation. The international community should recognise that the opponents of reform are not the people of FATA but the military and civil bureaucracies and the local elite, all of whom would lose significant powers if the government were to extend full constitutional and political rights to FATA.

Islamabad/Brussels, 21 October 2009

Students chant slogans under the shade of national flag, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, according to Pakistani officials, during a march in Lahore, Pakistan 28 February 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Q&A / Asia

Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation

Reciprocal airstrikes by India and Pakistan have been accompanied by shelling, troop reinforcements and small arms fire. In this Q&A calling for restraint between the nuclear-armed neighbours, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller notes that the airspace violations alone were the worst for 50 years.

What happened exactly?

On Tuesday, 26 February, India claimed that its air force had targeted “the biggest training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed … in Balakot”. The strikes – the most significant airspace violations in nearly 50 years – followed a deadly 14 February suicide car bombing in Pulwama in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which had been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group. India said it launched a “preventive strike” based on intelligence that Jaish intended to attack again. At a press conference, Foreign Secretary VK Gokhale said Pakistan “failed to take any concrete action against terrorists” and that the strike on the training facility had “killed a large number”. In its official statement on the airstrike in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Indian government said, “The existence of such massive training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadists could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities”.

Pakistan refutes Indian officials’ claims that more than 300 Jaish militants were killed in the attack. It acknowledges however that eight Indian Air Force jets had violated the Line of Control, which divides Pakistan’s Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Indian-controlled J&K. The Pakistan military’s spokesperson said that its Air Force’s “timely and effective response” had forced the Indian planes to retreat, dropping their bombs in an uninhabited area near Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, causing no casualty or damage.

On 27 February, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said its Air Force had conducted six strikes on “non-military targets” in India to demonstrate the country’s “right, will and capability for self-defence”. Pakistan downed an Indian jet that entered its airspace in pursuit of the Pakistani aircraft, leading to the pilot’s capture. India claimed to have downed one of the intruding Pakistani jets.

Resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

Although it is clear that cross-Line of Control attacks and aerial skirmishes between the two sides occurred, it is difficult to verify both countries’ claims and counter-claims of targets and impact. Pakistani officials have provided evidence, also circulated on social media, of the downed Indian jet and the captured pilot, but claims of six successful strikes conducted in Indian-controlled Kashmir are more difficult to verify. Despite ample evidence of its cross-Line of Control attacks, Indian claims of killing hundreds in the airstrike on a Jaish training base and downing a Pakistani jet lack credence since New Delhi did not provide any evidence.

Why did it happen?

India’s and Pakistan’s latest skirmishes are as much aimed at assuaging domestic constituency concerns as they are at convincing each other of their capacity to strike and seriousness of intent. Still, resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

In the Indian context, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government felt compelled to react in light of the countrywide outrage in the wake of the 14 February Jaish suicide car bombing. With elections months away, Modi, responding to domestic opinion – particularly that of his hardline BJP constituency – vowed to avenge the dead in Pulwama, including at least 40 Indian paramilitary police officers. “We will give a befitting reply; our neighbour will not be allowed to destabilise us,” he said, giving his security forces “permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response”. That response came in the shape of the 26 February airstrikes across the Line of Control.

Within Pakistan, given a long history of distrust toward, and war with India, the powerful military establishment had to demonstrate to constituencies at home that India’s hostile designs would be forcefully thwarted. On 22 February, days before the Indian Air Force strikes, the military’s spokesperson warned that, if India were to attack, Pakistan would never “fall short of capacity” and would “dominate the escalation ladder”. The day of the 26 February Indian attack, reiterating these warnings, the spokesperson referred to a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, saying to India, “I hope you know what the NCA means and what it constitutes”. 

What could happen next and why does it matter?

Both sides have left themselves room to climb down. Pakistani and Indian officials insist that their governments have no intention to escalate hostilities further. On 27 February, Pakistan’s military spokesperson said the Pakistan Air Force could have targeted a major Indian military installation in the strike area but chose to attack “in open space”, causing no casualties, so as to avoid escalation. The same day, speaking at a Russia-India-China foreign ministers meeting in Beijing, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said the 26 February strike, meant to pre-empt another terror attack, “wasn’t a military operation, no military installation was targeted”. India, she said, “doesn’t wish to see further escalation of the situation”.

For his part, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for restraint and diplomatic engagement and at the same time vividly highlighted the risks inherent in the current situation. The same day as his country’s planes launched strikes across the Line of Control, Khan elliptically referenced the nuclear capabilities in a television interview and said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?” He also offered to release the captured Indian pilot and to cooperate with India in investigating the Pulwama attack.

New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

Despite Khan’s acknowledgement of escalation risks, and Indian and Pakistani claims of responsibility and restraint, their armies are continuing to clash with artillery shelling and small arms fire along the Line of Control. Meanwhile, tensions are also high within J&K due to an Indian crackdown on Kashmiri dissidents, which could provoke more alienated youth to join militants. This apparently was the case of the 14 February suicide bomber, who came from a village close to the site of the Pulwama attack.

What should be done?

The international community, including China, the EU and European governments, have called on India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and prevent further escalation. In Washington, expressing U.S. concern about the tit-for-tat attacks, a White House official said, “The potential risks associated with further military action by either side are unacceptably high for both countries, their neighbours, and the international community”.

If the two sides are to step down from the brink, their leaders, civil and military, should resist the temptation to pander to domestic constituencies and tone down hostile rhetoric.

There is little foreseeable prospect, no matter how desirable, of the top Indian and Pakistani leaderships re-establishing direct communication channels and bilateral dialogue. These have been frozen since the 2016 terror attacks in Indian Punjab and Indian-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi attributed to Pakistan-based militants. Nevertheless, New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

In the short and medium terms, New Delhi should rethink its approach toward and within J&K, ending the heavy-handed militarised response that has contributed to growing local alienation and disaffection. Pakistan should rethink its longstanding policy of supporting anti-India jihadist proxies, such as Jaish, that – as this latest round of escalation shows – are far more of a threat to national security than an asset.

This article was corrected on 2 March 2019 to place Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as first reported by Pakistan.