Playing Al-Anbar roulette in FATA

Courtesy Abdus Sattar Ghazali


The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was once part of the battleground on which the ‘Great Game’ of imperial domination between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia was played out in the 19th century. More than a century later, the tribal territory along Pakistan-Afghanistan border is again part of the war in the New Great Game. In this rerun of the first great game players once again position themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Today, the US has taken over the leading role from the British.

The Pak-Afghan border region was focus of international interest during the 1980s when the so-called (American-backed) Jihad was launched against the invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It is common knowledge now that during this period “religious fundamentalism” was used to attract Muslims across the globe to participate in the “holy war” against the “infidel” Soviet troops. This “Jihad” was backed and armed by CIA and mainly financed by Saudi Arabia at the behest of the United States. Thousands of madarsas were established as a process which has created the present crop of Taliban and the so-called Jihadis.

The region again became a flash point after the US invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. After the US-led coalition ousted the Taliban government from Kabul in November 2001, armed opposition groups are believed to have regrouped in the historic Taliban powerbase: Afghanistan’s predominantly ethnic Pashtun southern provinces and in Waziristan and Balochistan in Pakistan.

Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistan Army launched a very unpopular operation in 2003 against the militants and the Afghan Talibans who were taking refuge in the border area. Not surprisingly, US-backed military dictator, President General Parwez Musharraf, lost February 2008 elections mainly because of his FATA operation that was seen as the army killing of his own people at the behest of Washington.

Soon after election, the new façade of democratic setup began peace negotiations to resolve militancy in FATA where at least 1,400 soldiers have been killed since the beginning of military operations. However, the move was bitterly opposed by the United States and the US client government in Islamabad was forced to abandon the peace negotiations and launch fresh operations in which dozens of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees in their own country.

After seven years, coalition troops deployed in Afghanistan to take the “War on Terror” forward are losing war as the Taliban has gained habitation and name on the Afghan landscape.

Britain’s military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times newspaper recently that the war cannot be won. The British ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has been quoted as saying the war strategy was “doomed to fail”. Similar views were echoed by Mike Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit when the war began. He says: “Afghanistan of course is a terrible disaster for the United States and NATO. NATO seems to be dying in Afghanistan.” Scheuer is no longer with the agency. His harsh assessment comes in his new book, “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq.”

The Afghan capital, Kabul is virtually under siege and the Taliban have established pockets in Wardak (30 kilometers from Kabul) and Sarobi (50 km from Kabul) as well as in neighboring Kapisa and Parwan provinces. More ominously, the Taliban-led insurgency has spread to Pakistani territory where vast areas have been apparently brought under its control, especially in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

In short, the seven-year Afghan war is in a stalemate and time favors the Taliban. In this situation the strategy demands co-opting the Taliban and setting Pashtun mercenaries to fight the “war on terrorism” so that Western casualties are minimal and Western public opinion doesn’t inflame.

Reports emerged earlier this month that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently hosted high-level talks in Mecca between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The change of heart by London and Kabul towards Afghanistan’s former rulers comes amid massive pressure on Pakistan to ramp up military offensives against Taliban fighters, and at perhaps Pakistan’s most precarious moment in the seven-year “war on terrorism” Despite popular opposition, the Pakistan army is waging a major military offensive against Taliban militants in the border tribal agency of Bajaur and it has 80,000 troops stationed along its Afghan border in a bid to prevent Taliban incursions.

Borrowing a page from Al-Anbar experiment, the US has advised Pakistan to enlist tribal leaders in the border areas in the fight against the Taliban, as part of a broader effort to bolster Pakistani forces. The proposal is modeled in part on a similar effort by American forces in Anbar Province of Iraq where American commanders have worked with Sunni sheiks to turn locals against the militant group.

Many experts point out that the experiment as it played-out in Iraq had produced disastrous results in El Salvador where it further polarized the populace and turned people against US efforts.  Tellingly, the consequences of the Anbar model are emerging in the volatile Federally Administered Area where even national army is seen as an occupying army by many fiercely independent tribesmen.


0 replies