Patrick Seale: Pakistan's Cruel Stalemate

Seale gives a brief history of the Taliban in the tribal areas. He notes that there is a stalemate between Pakistani forces and the Taliban and that a political solution is needed that leads to development in the poverty stricken areas of Pakistan that are most affected by the conflicts. Meanwhile the ongoing struggle is exceedingly costly for Pakistan both in money and lives lost and damage inflicted. This is from middleeastonline.

Pakistan's Cruel Stalemate

Patrick Seale.

Hardly a day passes without news of a new missile attack by American drones on the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan. As these attacks are carried out by the CIA, no official figures are available, but the local press recorded 69 such attacks in 2009. Across the border in Afghanistan, the United States mounted 219 drone attacks in 2009, according to official U.S. Air Force statistics.

The two theatres of war are intimately linked. The drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas are intended to deny the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary in Pakistan. This, too, is the aim of the Pakistan army’s repeated ground assaults against the tribal areas -- carried out under intense American pressure.

Are these attacks at all effective? They have caused great destruction and disruption to tribal life. But they have also aroused fierce anti-American feeling, because of the many civilian casualties, including women and small children.

The Taliban have responded with suicide bombings deep inside Pakistani cities. In 2009 there were no fewer than 87 suicide attacks causing many victims and much chaos. In the seven years from 2003 to 2009, the war against the Taliban has killed and wounded some 30,000 people in Pakistan -- including 8,000 members of the military. These figures are comparable to Pakistan’s losses in its wars against India. One way or another, Pakistan’s sufferings have been great.

Evidently, the Taliban and their allies would like to bring down the present Pakistani state. In response, the authorities have adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards the ‘Pakistan’ Taliban. On both sides, it is something like all-out war -- but with an outcome that remains unclear.

Much of the fighting is taking place in the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan -- in the Swat Valley and in North and South Waziristan. This is a thinly-populated area, with perhaps no more than five million inhabitants out of a population of 180 million in the country as a whole. It is an underdeveloped region which has suffered poverty and injustice, as well as an archaic and dysfunctional system of administration inherited from the British.

Following al-Qaida’s 9/11 terrorist attacks against America, the United States intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime. Groups of Taliban then took shelter in Pakistan, establishing their first base in Waziristan, where they called on Arab and other fighters to join them. From there, they regularly crossed back into Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces.

With their foreign allies, the Taliban created a space for themselves. They paid for tribal hospitality with the available Arab money. They put in place a parallel administration and a system of justice, swifter in its dealings and less corrupt then the old system which had only benefited the rich.

The Pakistan government tried to tame these groups with economic blockade. It tried to negotiate with them or buy them. Then, under U.S. pressure, it started war against them in the spring of 2004. To cut them off from Afghanistan, it has sought to build dozens of military posts along the impossibly porous Afghan-Pakistan border.

But the Taliban only grew stronger. Young members of the movement, often linked to purely criminal gangs, formed a Pakistan Taliban insurgent group known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban.

In July 2007, the Pakistan army stormed an insurgent stronghold, the Red Mosque in Islamabad, but this aroused furious protests across the country. Presenting the attack on the mosque as a massacre of women and children, the Taliban launched a ‘defensive war’ against the state. They targeted army and police posts with suicide bombings; they kidnapped officials and locally-recruited soldiers, and decapitated spies and some tribal chiefs. By attacking Shi‘ites and Sikhs, they also managed to inflame sectarian tensions.

In 2009, the Pakistan army launched a series of major assaults against the tribal areas, displacing some three million people and destroying much of what was left of tribal structures. Old camps which had housed Afghan refugees were reopened to house these new refugees from the tribal areas.

What is the outcome of all this violence? In much of Pakistan life goes on as normal. The population seems highly resilient. The Pakistan army is a powerful institution well able to keep the insurgents in check. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not in danger of falling into the hands of terrorists. However, the war is a running and costly sore which must be destabilizing in the longer term.

General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, thinks he can win the war. But few observers believe there is a military solution to the insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas -- any more than there is one in Afghanistan itself.

Politically active young men in these areas need jobs and education. They bitterly resent being uprooted and forcibly urbanized. They have lacked development funds or investment in their areas. They want normal treatment, like people everywhere. They do not want to be bombed and killed.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East.

Copyright © 2010 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global.


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